Friday, July 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Harry Dean Stanton - The Cowboy and the Frenchman (David Lynch, 1988) and Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wishing a very Happy 91st Birthday to a living legend today. Still keeping himself busy, even now, the great Harry Dean Stanton has been in far too many movies to even begin getting into here. I mean he has 199 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, for Christ's sake. So today, we're gonna look at 2 films he's been in, which, aside from their similar titles, share some occasional overlaps and make for, in my opinion, quite an interesting double feature.

Lynch's first foray into TV (that I'm aware of, anyway), The Cowboy and The Frenchman was his contribution to a French produced series of short films called "The French as Seen By..." (other directors included Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard) and, by this point in his career, was the most overtly comedic and wonderfully wacky thing he'd done. It marks the first appearance of a couple of folks he'd work with again later (HDS and Michael Horse) and, if you were to marathon his film and TV stuff chronologically, would work well as a breezy, fun and refreshing palette cleanser between the dark, emotional rollercoaster ride of Blue Velvet and the otherworldly musical phantasmagoria that is Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted.

As far as plot goes, the above is pretty much sufficient. Having said that, here's a load more (possible spoiler alert): Said "something unusual" turns out to be the titular Frenchman, sporting beret and moustache and carrying a unique looking case, which turns out to be full of things stereo-typically associated with the French, each one causing Slim (HDS, of course) to utter, "What the hell?", until they stumble across a plate of French fries. This dish, apparently uniting the two cultures, causes Slim, Pete and Dusty (played by Jack Nance and Tracey Walter, respectively) to warm to their visitor. A little while later, a Native American named Broken Feather (Micheal Horse, of course) appears, also wary of the Frenchman, but again, his suspicions ease when he finds out he's cool with the ranch folk. Budweiser and beer nuts are ordered for, which arrive a bit later, along with some lovely ladies sporting striking hairdos.

Said beer and also wine (if I recall, Americans drinking the latter, the Frenchman, the former) are consumed, more lovely ladies appear (this time brunettes as opposed to blondes; also I think these are meant to be French and the earlier blondes were American), I think a story or two may be relayed (hard to say exactly all that transpires, the way it's constructed, making it operate somewhat in that abstract realm Lynch is so often fond of), music is played (including "Home on the Range", beautifully sung by HDS, who, as many of you will know, is a great singer and musician too), tributes exchanged and, then, presumably, all retire for the night.

Next day, with breakfast cooking in the background, the company are recovering, and, if memory serves, I think some of their clothing has swapped around, continuing the pattern of cultural back and forth occurring the day before (e.g. speech idioms). The film ends with Slim finding a snail in his clothing, which gets flung, landing next to a cowboy boot.

Just realised I summarised the entire story (well, most of it) on autopilot. Oops. To be honest, I think even if you've read all this and haven't seen the film, there's still no way I can really spoil it. I mean so much of the joy of watching The Cowboy and the Frenchman is from all of the moment to moment details (be it character, editing, performance, production design, etc) and the overriding sense of humour and warmth it exudes.

I think reading between the lines, it's easy to see what Lynch was angling at here and it's exactly the kind of affectionate, silly, surreal love letter to France you'd imagine he'd make. While more of a film for Lynch fans, this is so short and such great fun that I hope others would get something out of the small investment of time it requires too.

Made a few years before and, of course, much better known, Paris, Texas was a film I meant to get around to watching for years and only finally caught up with in 2016. Needless to say, I kicked myself for not having watched it earlier, especially being a big fan of HDS' acting and Wim Wenders' sublime 1987 film Wings of Desire.

Apparently HDS's favourite of his own films (I can certainly see why), it tells the story of Travis Henderson, who comes out of the desert, is later found by his brother (Dean Stockwell). Turns out, long story short, that the former had been gone for four years, had been assumed dead and that the latter and wife are now taking care of Travis's son (Hunter Carson son of co-writer L. M. Kit Carson (who also wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Karen Black, who sadly didn't go on to do much more, aside from Tobe Hooper's remake of Invaders From Mars and a few other things; he's great here, especially in all his scenes with HDS). For a good while when on the road home, Travis is completely mute, apparently having withdrawn from and left "the land of the living", as his brother calls it at one point, due to, presumably, some past trauma or the like. And before I get carried away again synopsising, I'll leave it there. Unlike Lynch's short, this is one where you really should go on the journey yourself, so to speak.

As I said, I can understand why HDS would call this his own favourite. He always puts himself, body and soul, into his performances, but this one in particular. It's often subtle, alternatively funny and sad, and resonates deeply and truly due to the great man's lived experience and wisdom, clear depth of humanity and intuitive sense of its complex nature.

Beautifully shot by Robby Müller (who would also work with HDS this same year on one of my all time favourites, Repo Man; the film I first became aware of HDS with, I'll be watching it tonight and having a few beers to further tip my hat to the man. And Müller's photography in both often has a similar look; particularly love how he shoots the city at night), possessing an appropriately spare but beautiful and haunting score by Ry Cooder (apparently based around Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground") and with HDS's standout performance ably supported by his fellow cast, this gets my vote as one of the most beautifully observed and thoughtful films ever made. I'd say what I think it's all about (family, love, freedom being three things that spring to mind. So more much as well though) but again, it's probably for the best for one to experience this alone (or with a close friend, family member or lover who won't natter and will be appreciative of the meditative pace) and without too much preconception. Like many things, I imagine what you bring to it will largely determine what you get out of it.

There's much more to say about this film of course and maybe, sometime into the future, I'll go into it in more depth but today that's not my intention. That was merely to tip my hat/give some appreciation to the birthday boy. Looking forward to seeing Lucky, starring him by the way. Apparently David Lynch is in it too. Here's the trailer. It looks as beautiful, warm and witty as we'd hope for a project carried by a soul who is very much all of those things himself. As I said earlier though, tonight I'll be re-watching Repo Man and raising a cold one or two to the man who, in my humble opinion, is America's greatest living actor. Cheers to you, Harry Dean Stanton, and thanks for everything you've given us and continue to do.

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