"How would you describe yourself?" asks David Lynch to Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton responds, "There is no self." This is just one of many poignant isms uttered by the great actor in Sophie Huber's documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Easily one of the most prolific character actors, it took many decades for Stanton to gain his due accolades--this documentary being apart of that process.
As Stanton's friends (though mostly acquaintances, since he seems to let very few people into his life) respond to his presence in a positive and reverent way, it is clear that Stanton is humbly unaware of his effect on people. As Huber's first film, she takes on a challenging and impenetrable subject. His replies to her gentle probing are cryptic, rarely revealing of any true insight into his character.
Indeed the brevity of the film, at one hour and sixteen minutes, speaks volumes on Stanton's parsimoniousness with words. It's almost as though he chose to make acting a career so as to never have to actually speak his own dialogue. However, those he has worked with in the industry have plenty to say about him, including playwright/screenwriter Sam Shepard, who wrote one of Stanton's most memorable roles as Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas. Shepard was, in fact, the one who suggested that Stanton play the lead to director Wim Wenders--in spite of Stanton always playing a supporting actor up until that point.
Among other co-stars enamored of Stanton's acting ability is Kris Kristofferson, who notes to Stanton, "I think your heart is really into music more than anything else." This observation is affirmed not only by Stanton's constant (often impromptu) singing throughout the documentary, but also in his relationships with people like Debbie Harry.
We learn briefly of Stanton's tumultuous childhood, living among parents who loathed each other and ultimately divorced. His small town existence in Kentucky led him to join the navy and eventually find his way toward the pull of Los Angeles. While we glean kernels of background information, the documentary leaves us with nothing truly concrete about Stanton's essence--save for the notion that he is an amalgam of every surly, sagacious character he's ever played.