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Let's Get Harry: Repo Man and Paris, Texas

  Harry Dean Stanton had been acting in films and television since the nineteen-fifties when in the seventies he began to gather a cult following from his knack for appearing in movies that garnered that precise form of adulation. You could argue his ability to recognise the scripts that were going to go down in that kind of history was thanks to how canny he was at perceiving the correct roles for him to shine in, sometimes one-scene wonders, but there was a point in his career, after showing up in works as diverse as In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Kelly's Heroes and The Godfather Part II that he turned into a totem for movie buffs seeking something of a particular quality, and those roles began to grow in stature, even if he was appearing in some road movie that not many of the mainstream filmgoers were going to bother with. For the initiated, knowing he was in the cast was enough to mark it interesting.

All that said, it took until the nineteen-eighties before Stanton began to get something close to a lead role, and that happened pretty much once or twice before he was relegated to supporting parts once again. It was not until Lucky in 2017, released the year of his death at 91, that he won another lead, but back in the mid-eighties when he was in his fifties, he was top-billed in a couple of the most acclaimed efforts from respected, if maverick directors, whose reputation would appear to have suited him and his hard to pin down style perfectly. The first of these was Repo Man from 1984, yet despite apparently slotting into writer and director Alex Cox's offbeat world as a duck would take to water, it was well-known latterly that the two men did not necessarily see eye to eye during the shoot. In fact, the way Cox told it, Stanton could be surprisingly difficult to persuade to do things the director's way.

All that said, once Repo Man had become one of the most lauded pictures of the actor's career, he thawed towards it and recognised its better qualities, though arguably he was not strictly the leading man. That responsibility went to Emilio Estevez as Otto Maddox, the young punk who as we meet him has just walked out of a supermarket job after telling his boss "Fuck off!", but this means he no longer has a source of income. That is until Stanton's vehicle repossession man Bud happens across him as he walks along the road, spinning some yarn about his wife having a baby and him needing someone to drive her car out of the bad area it has been left in. Most people would justifiably think twice about believing Bud, but Otto is more naïve than that, and does as is asked, wondering why that middle-aged Latino couple were chasing him down the street as he pulled away from the kerb. He soon finds out.

Initially, he is sickened that he has been part of this operation, but when he sees the money he has earned he warms to the idea, and soon has joined the business's gallery of eccentrics and misfits, King among them Bud who drives Otto around and lectures him on a life that is "always intense". These scenes were where the most quotable lines of the movie appeared, among them "Normal fuckin' people - I hate 'em!", which acted as a clarion call to the fans , the dispossessed who realised here was a movie speaking to them with anger and humour in a way that punk rock had to Cox in the previous decade. For them, Stanton and his whole devil may care attitude was even cooler than Estevez's brattiness - it was certainly the coolest film the Brat Pack star was ever associated with, which makes it a pity he never really embraced it, not in the way Stanton did, albeit some time after the fact when he could see how good he had been in it.

Repo Man had a great ensemble, with an array of cult actors - backing Stanton and Estevez - or at least "that guy" performers of whom Stanton was practically a patron saint, along with the likes of Dick Miller or Charles Napier, those distinctive looking chaps and chapesses whose mere presence in a scene or two immediately perked up the whole experience. It was Tracey Walter who got the famed monologue about thinking of a plate 'o shrimp and then hearing a reference to it just after, but he also held forth on John Wayne's possible homosexuality and, more importantly, the presence of weirdness in the mainstream, and how it had grown to be accepted. This was science fiction, as a car hiding an alien corpse was sought by criminals and government agents alike, and when Bud finally encountered it after a different meeting on the wrong end of a gun, Cox's dialogue for him was priceless: "I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees!" indeed.

The other great Stanton movie was from 1984 as well, and it was the one he considered his favourite. Legend has it that he was enjoying a night of drinking with writer and actor Sam Shepard, and they got around to the subject of what Stanton would truly have liked to star in: Paris, Texas was the result of that conversation. Obviously there was a lot more to it than that, but director Wim Wenders was the man at the helm guiding what was effectively one of the road movies he had made his name with, works such as the not dissimilar Alice in the Cities, which also concerned itself with a paternal relationship between a man and a child, though the child in this case was a boy, Hunter (Hunter Carson, son of the writer L.M. Kit Carson and cult actress Karen Black). He was playing Stanton's young son, who he has never gotten to know thanks to a breakdown four years ago: indeed, at the start of the film everyone thinks his Travis character is dead.

Travis struck a chord with successful Celtic musicians, for Texas, the pop rock band fronted by Sharleen Spiteri, and Travis, the nineties indie hitmakers, both took their names from this film, and even bigger, U2 were apparently so affected by watching it that they were inspired to make their mega-selling album The Joshua Tree. There was something about the glamour of being so lost and damaged in a dramatic, beautiful, desolate land that appealed to the Scots and Irish, as it presented the idea of the United States they saw in their dreams, whether they had visited or not, and Stanton encapsulated that in his sensitive reading of the protagonist, justifying this chance to be the focus of the story for a change rather than in its orbit but not the main engine of its plot. Watching Paris, Texas you could simultaneously understand why he never had much of a career as a leading man, yet also feel sorry this had been the case.

Stanton could carry a near-two-and-a-half-hour movie with authority, despite Travis being a lost soul who even at the close of the narrative had not found his place in this world, but could reassure himself that he had helped others get together even if he was to be no part of an ordinary life, theirs or his. He had one of the great entrance scenes in eighties cinema, maybe ever, walking out of the desert, looking simultaneously bewildered and purposeful; assisting immensely was Robby Muller's cinematography, he had a reputation as one of the best in the indie business by this stage, and carried out those duties on Repo Man as well, his relationship with Stanton evidently built on a newfound respect that he repaid with some of the starkest, most luminous visuals of his era. For almost a full half hour Travis speaks not a word, his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell, touchingly down to earth) having found him after all this time against the odds.

Finding out what has actually happened to Travis proves a lot trickier, more so than coaxing him back to Walt's Los Angeles home where he and his wife (Aurore Clement) have been bringing up Hunter. What is clear is he needs a goal in life to bring him out of his murky headspace, and Paris, Texas was a rare eighties film set in America to take the subject of mental illness and not make a Fatal Attraction or Friday the 13th sequel out of it as the troubled man at its heart was treated sensitively, all the keener when we begin to piece together what has pushed him over the edge of sanity. It is, as in the best romantic concoctions of Hollywood, a woman, his far younger ex-wife Jane, played by Nastassja Kinski at the height of her beauty - Travis simply could not hold onto her, he was too fragile, and the tale of how he makes amends was one of the most captivating and subtle stories of heartbreak of its decade. Stanton was the key to that with possibly his finest performance, you could not imagine anyone else so perfect in the role, in a nutshell that was the story of his career.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018