BY JUSTIN KLINE – STAFF WRITER
The night of September 28 would have seemed surreal to any regular, passing attendant of the Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington. Opened 95 years ago, the cinematic and cultural hub of Lexington has built its present following on its repertory of niche films. It showcases foreign arthouse, classic films, and rowdy midnight screenings of cult favorites.
The usually unassuming establishment took on new glamour when the red carpet greeted patrons for the world premiere of Lucky, the first film showing in the seventh year of the Harry Dean Stanton Film Festival.
The brainchild of Lucy Jones, a member of the Lexington Film League, the Harry Dean Stanton Festival is a uniquely scrappy local arts endeavor. “When I was a kid, my favorite thing was to attend the James Dean festival in Fairmount, Indiana. Why not honor our local Dean?” Jones said. The two Deans form an apt comparison. The strengths of their performances both speak to them as stoic drifters alienated in their common honesty, with Harry Dean being the grizzled cult-figure side of that coin, as opposed to James Dean’s romantic idealism.
Starting in 2011 with “no connections, no money, no idea how to start or run a festival,” Jones said, the festival was bolstered by the good fortune of having a recently completed KET documentary about Harry Dean Stanton shown in its first year. It has now grown to local prominence, even so far as to feature visits from guests like Brad Dourif and the director of Lucky, John Carroll Lynch.
This year’s festival took on an elegiac role in honoring Harry Dean Stanton, as the prolific actor and iconic scene-stealer passed away on September 15 at the age of ninety-one.
More than a memorial service, this year’s Harry Dean Stanton Festival was an affirming celebration of the actor’s life, with coincidentally appropriate film selections. With Harry Dean’s recent resurgence in the popular conscience due to Lucky and his role in the third season of Twin Peaks, it was ideal timing. Two of his most iconic performances were shown in this year’s lineup, beginning with his starring role in the semi-autobiographical Lucky (written exclusively for him), and ending with his understated and heartbreaking appearance as an estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story.
The films were selected long before news of his passing, but Jones acknowledges the emotional arch of the festival. It opened with Lucky, a film about “a man, based entirely on Harry’s real self, who is facing his own mortality, and it closed on The Straight Story, which ends with a close-up of a teary-eyed Harry looking toward the heavens,” Jones said. This progression served as a profoundly moving epitaph for the actor, and symbolized the continuity of his surviving legacy.
According to Jones, “a harebrained idea plus an incredibly timed coincidence” has created a genuine community arts pursuit. The festival’s success provides a model sentiment for similar efforts.
With the confidence of incredible community support and gracious local business owners who sponsor the festival (lending the opportunity for its consistently low or free event cost), Jones is optimistic about its future. “We intend to allow the festival to grow at its own pace and follow it wherever it goes,” Jones said. “It’s exciting how passion is contagious.”