Edinburgh Film Festival: 'This Is Martin Bonner' and 'Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction'
In marked contrast to his scrappy debut "Luke and Brie Are on a First Date," Hartigan's filmmaking is in the same still, soft register as his leading men; he's abetted by cinematographer Sean McElwee, who brings a bleak elegance to the formless Reno cementscapes, and the wonderful composer Keegan DeWitt, whose great skill lies in pairing somber notes with playful ones. Indeed, there's an unshakeable melancholy to "This Is Martin Bonner" that proves sneakily uplifting once you let it sit with you awhile. The film begins its slow-burning theatrical rollout in the US tomorrow. I hope audiences find it. (Look out for my interview with Hartigan in the coming week.)
I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint any direct similarities between "This Is Martin Bonner" and Sophie Huber's lovely documentary "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction" (B+), beside their shared interest in older men gently fighting for their place in the world. Still, I don't think it's merely because I saw the films in close proximity to each other that I'd be tempted to place them on a double bill: affectionate but not fawning, Huber's unfussy portrait of the 86-year-old actor and singer left me with much the same sense of sorrowful optimism.
At one point in this stylishly composed talking-heads exercise -- shot, often in crisp monochrome, by Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey -- Stanton's current personal assistant refers to him as "the Forrest Gump of cinema." Not, he hastens to add, because of any intellectual deficiencies on the part of the actor, who often speaks in a kind of artless poetic register, but because he seems to have stumbled, without much awareness or calculation, into one cinematic landmark after another over the course of his 200-film career. From vivid supporting characterizations in film ranging from "Cool Hand Luke" to "Alien," to his belated leading-man debut (aged 57) in Wim Wenders's "Paris, Texas" (the same year he earned further cult cred in "Repo Man"), even to an appearance in last year's monolithic blockbuster "The Avengers," he's a kind of scruffy spirit animal for American film, at once indispensable and unacknowledged.
This belated celebration doesn't play any formal or structural tricks: a succession of colleagues and admirers, ranging from David Lynch to Debbie Harry to Kris Kristofferson, turn up to pay their respects in a chatty, anecdote-strewn manner, while Stanton himself reflects on his career with a mixture of detached bemusement and salty wit -- and the occasional sweetly-sung country tune. It's a casual, conversational affair that seems in keeping with Stanton's own unmannered acting style -- generously reflected in well-chosen clips from some of his key films. (The churlish would accuse Huber of being over-reliant on these, but no director who includes significant stretches of "Paris, Texas" in her film is going to hear any complaint from me.)
Beyond the hilariously related revelation that Stanton was once dumped by Rebecca DeMornay in favor of Tom Cruise, the film isn't much interested in extensive, demystifying biographical detail on a subject who professes to having been a lifelong loner: "I don't give much away," he amiably warns Huber at one point, and he largely sticks to that promise, albeit in an engagingly humble fashion. "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction" is the rare star portrait that enhances its subject's mystique rather than dismantling it; the man behind the myth is apparent, with the myth itself yet to receive its due after seven decades at work, the film's happy to examine both.