Pity the poor filmmaker who decides to make a documentary about Harry Dean Stanton, the laconic-iconic character actor who, now in his mid-80s, has achieved a kind of ornery Zen grace. Some subjects resist knowing and Stanton is a particularly passive-aggressive example. Director Sophie Huber, an earnest Swede making her feature debut with “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” will ask how the actor’s Kentucky family responded to his fame, and he’ll say, “Oh, yeah, they was all impressed . . .” and then let the matter lie. “How would you describe yourself?” Huber asks. Stanton stares the camera down and mutters, “There’s nothing. There is no self.”
Potted Buddhism from a burnt-out ’60s survivor living up in the Hollywood Hills? Or the artful dodge of a wayward talent — one of the most strikingly minimalist actors in movies — who learned long ago that questions are more interesting than answers? Faced with a subject who’s not so much resistant as beyond her reach, Huber does the sensible thing: She goes to the clips, talks to Stanton’s creative accomplices, and just lets the man sing. It feels like a good third of “Partly Fiction” is taken up with black-and-white close-ups of the weathered Stanton working his way through chestnuts like “Blue Bayou,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” the latter intercut with his performance of the song in the 1967 Paul Newman classic, “Cool Hand Luke.”
It turns out Stanton can sing quite beautifully, in a quavery backwoods tenor that calls to mind the “old, weird America” of writer Greil Marcus. (Guitarist Jamie James accompanies the actor offscreen.) “Partly Fiction” also includes scenes from Stanton’s work over the years: bits of “Alien,” “The Missouri Breaks,” “Cisco Pike,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and “The Straight Story” cross the screen, all testifying to the actor’s eccentric but powerful presence.
Lynch himself turns up at Harry’s house in one sequence, enthusing over a cup of coffee in classic Agent Cooper style. (“It’s Yuban,” says Stanton.) Huber interviews director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard, the creative duo behind 1984’s “Paris, Texas,” one of Stanton’s very few lead roles and still a work of mysterious force. “Partly Fiction” also finds time for Kris Kristofferson, who sings “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” — from which the movie takes its title and which may (or may not) be based on Stanton — and who proves as elusive as his friend. “Did you party a lot together?,” Huber asks Kristofferson about the bad old days. “Probably.” Either he’s not telling or he doesn’t remember. Maybe both.
Eventually, “Partly Fiction” allows glimpses of a more complicated man than Stanton’s selfless self-image. A camera pan of the actor’s shelves reveals photos of actress Rebecca DeMornay, with whom he had a long relationship that ended when she ditched him for Tom Cruise on the set of “Risky Business.” There are oblique stories of sharing a house in the 1960s with fellow rakehell Jack Nicholson — a figure who’s notably absent here — and an interview with Stanton’s young assistant, Logan Sparks, who laughs at his boss’s studied passivity. “He says ‘do nothing’ all the time, which is [expletive]. If he hadn’t done anything, he’d still be in a rocking chair on a porch in Kentucky.”
Through luck or Huber’s eye for the odd detail, it adds up to an unexpectedly moving portrait of a maverick at twilight. At one point, we see Stanton driving in the dark, the lights of LA twinkling below as he talks of his father’s words of wisdom regarding cars and life: “Go straight ahead until you hit something.” “Partly Fiction” is smart enough to follow that advice.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.