Harry Dean Stanton and Silence
By Steve Portigal at 8:03 am, Friday May 17 2013

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At SXSW this year we saw Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a moody and elliptical portrait of the actor. Despite the filmmaker being a long-time friend of his, Stanton is evasive and mercurial, seeming more earnest when performing music for the camera than in answering questions about his parents or his relationships with women. On more than one occasion, the subject doesn’t respond and just stares off or at the camera or the interviewer. And the interviewer stays quiet for a surprisingly long time.

There was a Q&A after the screening, so I asked the filmmaker about what she thought about the power of silence (for in addition using silence in the interview, they also chose to leave those silences in the final film). She told us “I just wanted to see what would happen, and to see the boundaries of being uncomfortable.”

I found this fascinating; in Interviewing Users I describe a scene from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man where the director uses silence to gives space for an astonishing and revelatory moment to occur. In this case, “nothing” happened. Of course, as the director reminded me, the “nothing” that happened with Harry Dean Stanton was still something; it revealed a lot about the subject and changed our own experience in hearing his story.

It’s further illustration of the power of silence, even when it doesn’t pay off in the obvious manner and bring something out, it’s still bringing something else out!

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