RIDM Dispatch #2
Reported by Adam Nayman
The revelation that Harry Dean Stanton almost played Frank Booth in Blue Velvet is not the only surprise in Sophie Huber’s profile of the ubiquitous American character actor, but it may be the juiciest. Unlike Dennis Hopper, Stanton is not a performer known for playing psychopaths—he might have turned David Lynch’s gas-huffing villain into a more relatable American eccentric. After all, his only advice for aspiring actors is “play yourself.”
Alternately in dusky, bar-lit colour and gleaming black-and-white and liberally dotted with movie clips which, taken together, comprise something like a history of American popular cinema since 1960 (everything from The Missouri Breaks to Alien to Repo Man) Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is a solid if slightly over-determined profile documentary. While Huber’s instinct to simply listen attentively while her subject explains how he’s not trying to build any sort of myth around his life and work, the camera keeps framing him like a religious icon. Famous in journalistic circles for his terse interviews—a recent Q & A with the Onion A.V. Club was filled with one-word answers—Stanton doesn’t offer up much about his childhood or personal relationships, but he does sing a number of country-and-western standards in a surprisingly tender voice. His investment in these dusty melodies is such that it feels at times like he’s unburdening his spirit through the words of others.
The cameos in Partly Fiction by Stanton’s old running mates (Debbie Harry, Kris Kristofferson) are like drop-ins from a bygone era: Huber’s movie is filled almost exclusively with old souls. By contrast, Dominic Gagnon’s Hoax_canular is, as Old Dirty Bastard said about Wu-Tang, for the children—a group portrait of hundreds of social-media exhibitionists as young men and women. Compiled out of YouTube uploads streamed in the weeks and days before December 21, 2012, the day, you will recall, that the world was supposed to end according to Mayan prophecy, Hoax_canular is a choral work in which the different voices on display in each clip—from loud, profane rants to strangled confessions to deadpan scolding—come together to form something truly cacophonous.
RIDM’s note describes the film as a “profound reflection on how young people are appropriating the angst being stoked by the media,” and we see glimpses of homemade zombie movies and apocalypse thrillers incorporating footage from Hollywood disaster pictures. Less directly, the sheer number of instances in which kids seem to be offering their last will and testament in extreme-close-up suggests an entire generation that has internalized The Blair Witch Project. Pop culture references abound—everything from Justin Bieber to P-90 X—but Hoax_canular also has moments that resonate on a much more visceral level. In the most indelible segment, a girl who’s fired up her webcam to gloat in the minutes after midnight that the world is still turning as usual is brought up short by a pair of freaky coincidences—a power outage and a minor earthquake that combine to briefly but powerfully undermine her skepticism.
Gagnon’s placement of this episode after nearly 90 minutes of borderline-mockery of his subjects—which they have, of course, brought on themselves by unleashing their video selfies in the Wild Wild West of the Worldwide Web—yields a moment of intermingled humility and humanity. Hoax_canular is a very funny movie, but in this scene the laughs stick in the throat—for the girl onscreen and the audience alike.