“Hello dear.” Harry Dean Stanton answered the phone in his familiar drawl. Raspy is the word people tend to use to describe his voice, and it has no doubt been eroded by decades of smoking. I heard he requests flights routed with two stopovers between LA and New York to puff away. He’ll be 88 in July.
“I can’t help feeling a bit like Nastassja Kinski having you on the other end of the line,” I told him. In Paris, Texas, Kinski and Stanton share a phone conversation through one-way glass at a peepshow. (Even thirty years ago, in what was probably his finest role, he already sounded weathered.) He laughed gently and added, “What are you wearing?” I told him it’s not a pink sweater à la Kinski, but something my mother knit. When I put it on that morning, I wasn’t anticipating that sweater to foreshadow anything to do with a film about cattle.
Harry and I were talking because he narrated the documentary Fishtail, premiering tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is ostensibly about a ranch in Montana, but it’s really about a mother. Its climax is a cow giving birth—the forty-minute live birth artfully condensed into around fifteen for the film. It’s a scene you lovingly endure, not unlike the Stanton-Kinski phone scene. But while Kinski reunites with her estranged son in Paris, Texas, in Fishtail, the sow watches ranchers eartag her newborn from the other side of a metal fence.
Stanton’s voice anchors the film with spoken word and music. Director Andrew Renzi went over to his house with a single microphone. “It was a freeform music-prose-poetry session,” he explained. “We had the TV on in the background, and during commercial breaks we would work on voiceover.” Renzi and co-writer Tylee Abbott, also the rancher in the film, chose passages for Harry to read from Montana-native Rick Bass’s writings, overflowing with a sublime rapture for the landscape, which the doc luxuriously paints with 16mm film: It may not be your church—this last one percent of the West—but it is mine.
The music, however, was from Stanton’s childhood, folk songs his mother taught him—“she was quite the singer”—growing up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. This isn’t the first time Stanton’s musical roots have carpeted a film. He sings and plays guitar in Cool Hand Luke, lending a diegetic score for many of its scenes. He was only 21 then. There’s a scene Paul Newman plays guitar on a bunk bed, a single tear rolling down his face. It’s a song Harry learned from his mother. “I do think I taught that one to Paul,” he noted, and then he started singing it for me, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes/as long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus.”
Stanton’s voice connects Fishtail to a lineage of other Americana films. The documentary is a love letter to Montana, the big sky state. Its slow pace affords it to linger on lush wide shots of the landscape: prairies, mountains, and expansive blue skies. From the bleak rock chimneys of the American Southwest in Paris, Texas to the dystopian parking lots of LA in Repo Man, Stanton’s appeared in many films where the landscape becomes its own character. “I didn’t plan it,” he said. “Nobody’s in charge. It all just happened.”
It may have just happened, but over the years Stanton’s body of work has been part of an an ongoing American narrative. But there’s also a thread of tragic motherhood in Stanton’s films. For those who want to read into it, the sow in Fishtail is another mother in a long line that includes Molly Ringwald’s absent mom (Pretty in Pink), Laura Dern’s psychotic lipstick-covered mom (Wild At Heart), and Kinski, a mother who abandons her son with her sister and works at a peep show (Paris, Texas). In Fishtail, the mother cow is fiercely protective of her calf as it takes its first wobbly first steps. She stares the camera down. But this is a working farm, and after watching the miracle of a small cow emerging from the body of a larger cow, the ranchers have to separate the newborn from its mother and submit the new stock to their order.
It’s not bleak or sentimental; it’s just life. Calving season is another cycle that gives these ranchers and their way of life meaning. And Stanton’s voice helps enforce the paradox of this callous sensitivity. There’s an impossible intimacy to the film that also borders two extremes. We always seem at once close and far away. The shots stay wide, some out of necessity. Abbott explains they had to give the sow space and film the birth from behind a bale of hay “otherwise the cow just wouldn’t calf.” But others were shot at that distance as a choice, scenes like the ranchers at dusk jumping between bales of hay with their kids. Thanks to the lavaliere microphones the subjects were wearing, we still get to hear every breath and every word as if we are right there with them as they go about their day-to-day.
Roger Ebert once wrote that no film with Mr. Stanton in it could be bad. Fishtail, with its intimate portrait of Montana ranchers’ way of life, is no exception.
Fishtail premieres tonight at 9:45pm at Bow Tie Cinemas (260 W 23rd Street New York) and is scheduled several more times during the Tribeca Film Festival. It is being co-presented by the American Natural History Museum.