Director: Wim Wenders
It was Harry Dean Stanton’s face. That’s what struck you immediately. It was rugged and blank as the landscape that surrounded it. He was a nowhere man who comes out of nowhere, the American desert, desolate and isolated, wearing a worn baseball cap and a pin stripped suit that is dusty and ravaged by the sun. Who is he? Where did he come from?
This is the iconic image that opens Wim Wender’s devastatingly gorgeous film, Paris, Texas. The mystery slowly unravels from these opening frames centers around that nowhere man. It is a movie about a deep sadness that reveals its tragedy a bit at a time; just as Travis, the main character played by Harry Dean Stanton, learns of his past life, so do we. We begin at nothing, like Travis, and in this way the film feels more intimate; we sense an emotional wreckage somewhere behind him, but we are not yet privy to it. Wenders is careful not to trump up the ensuing scenes with needless drama. Nothing feels manufactured. Paris, Texas is a quiet, slow-moving film that focuses on the characters, the landscape, a certain corner of America.
Paris, Texas opens just south of the Mexican border, then moves to Los Angeles, then back to Texas, to Huston specifically. The result is a trajectory that details places that have emerged from deserts, some like the border-land that the film opens in, to the built-up, urbanized deserts of Los Angeles and Huston. Wim Wenders has made “road movies” before; Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1976) Kings of the Road (1976) (known collectively as “The Road Movie Trilogy”), but Paris, Texas is really only a partial road movie, the journey of the main characters is not really the driving force, so to speak, behind the story (there is some similarity here to Alice in the Cities, a film in which a man helps a little girl find her grandmother as they travel Germany together). Wenders is more concerned with the aftermath of a tragedy; the journey is important in that it provides momentum, it provides movement. Indeed, most of the action does take place going from on city to another, on the highway. But these places are merely signposts, reminders of Travis’ downfall and rebirth. Even the Paris, Texas of the title is not actually referring to the city; Paris is actually a vacant lot, only seen in a photograph, its existence almost ghost-like.
The screenplay, by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard (Buried Child, True West), focuses on themes he has been illuminating his entire writing career: alienation, anger, the ties of family; his are characters that are marginalized by society or circumstance.
At the start of the film Travis wanders out of the desert and collapses at a gas station. His brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell) is summoned to a hospital where he finds Travis a shell of his former self, essentially a mute. After some difficulty, Walt eventually takes Travis back to LA where Walt lives with his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) and Travis’ son, Hunter (Kit Carson). Hunter and Travis are essentially strangers to one another. We learn about them and their past as they do; Travis and his wife Jane (Natassja Kinski) were once happily married, but their marriage was destroyed by Travis’ drinking. Travis essentially disappears from their lives, and when Jane can no longer take care of Hunter, she leaves him with Walt and Anne. Wenders reveals quiet moments between Hunter and Travis; sitting at the dinner table with his brother and his wife; watching an old Super-8 home movie of better times when Travis and Jane Hunter were happy and a family. It is in in these small, tender vignettes that we see the memories of his former life begin to flood back to Travis.
Eventually Travis makes the decision to reunite Hunter with his mother, and they begin the journey to Huston, wherein the “road movie” aspect of the film emerges. During the trip, Travis and Hunter learn more about one another as they pass through wide-open desert landscapes. There are many long takes of conversations, simple master shots and two shots that showcase Wenders love of composition, of the frame. Like American director Jim Jarmusch, and their idol, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu, theirs is a cinema of quiet observation, of the “common man” and how they interact with the environment around them.
Soon, the pair arrives in Huston to find Jane employed as a sex worker. Jane is not a prostitute per se; she only talks to men through a phone in an adjoining booth which is separated by a large piece of glass. So begins the final act of the film; these last scenes are some of the most engrossing of them film, and also somewhat of a turning point in the structure of Paris, Texas. Upon first viewing, there seemed to be a decided distinction between where Wenders ends and Shepard begins. By that I mean that for most of movie, like many Wenders films, the dialogue is minimal or non-existent, any exposition is done through a purely visual/musical aesthetic. But in the last 45 minutes, half-hour of the film, especially in the scene with Travis and Jane talking to one another through the phone in Jane’s booth, it becomes more like a Shepard play; staccato-like dialogue, simple staging between few characters. The change seems jarring, but upon repeated viewings it makes sense. It feels like the entire movie is leading up to this conversation; Travis has remained quiet, sometimes completely mute, and then, finally, they both to get to tell their own stories. In Travis’ monologue he reveals his side of the story in third-person, seemingly detached from the events that transpired previously, but it all makes sense, given the painful memories, when we finally discover how Travis ended up alone, wandering the desert. It is heartbreaking and intimate, as he clutches the phone, bathed in the green light of the booth, he reveals to his estranged wife the depths of his sorrow, of his regret. Jane’s monologue is just as revealing, and finally the film comes into full view, the circumstance of the dissolution of their relationship fully realized in their own words.
These scenes are as minimal and bare as the rest of the movie; in the end Travis and Jane find their voice, a voice which had previously been swallowed up by the vastness of their surroundings, the vastness of their grief. Of course, much of this is owed to the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Natassja Kinski, indeed the entire cast. Harry Dean Stanton is the type of character actor that is hard to forget. Even when his roles are small, like the down-on-luck-father in Pretty in Pink, or the hapless boyfriend in Wild at Heart, the mark he makes is undeniable. In Paris, Texas he commands the film; he gives a pure performance. Shepard’s broken character of Travis is made even more real because Stanton already looks like an everyman, there is nothing to say that he is a movie star, and consequently we, as an audience, fall into this movie due in a large part to Harry Dean Stanton’s stalwart performance.
Longtime collaborator, cinematographer Robby Müller (the cinematographer on many of Jarmusch’s most notable films) pulls Wenders’ vision into clear, stark view; there are long takes of vast, open landscapes, and more intimate moments, which again rely more on careful compositions and master shots.
Ry Cooder’s score is just as iconic as the images that Wenders and Müller forge; the strains of a slide guitar emerging from the background in the opening shots of the film are as stark and minimal as the rest of the film and provides the perfect backdrop to a movie about the American southwest; it is as mythical as the landscape.
And it is that mythos of the American southwest, of the American west in gerneal, that Paris, Texas evokes so well. It is an America not only of myth, of the cinema—shot through Wenders outsider perspective—but also an America of bracing reality, the reality that is ingrained in most of Sam Shepard’s written work. And because of this, it is a credit to both Wenders and Shepard that they have made a film that is so unified, that evokes so many similar feelings, so many shared experiences, and yet is so intimate and specific. There are no gimmicks here, no high-end visual effects; it is the kind of story—like the gas stations and motels in the film—that seems to be slowly vanishing, falling indelibly into the past.
Last month Criterion released Paris, Texas with a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer which was supervised and approved by director Wim Wenders, along with audio commentary and a 1990 documentry on Wenders and his films.