This piece was written as a part of Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-thon, a blogathon involving several film crit blogs and the 1984 films they love. Here, Clint waxes philosophical about 1984’s Palme d’Or winner, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. (Check out the other entries from this and other great film blogs at Forgotten Films, or follow the hashtag #84athon on Twitter.)
The American Southwest has long been a rich tapestry for storytelling – regardless of the time period, the openness and adventure of the Old West still manages to seep through into the atmosphere of stories in that setting. Something about those wide-open plains, vast deserts and awe-inspiring rock formations instills a primal sense of wonder in us, a frontier that still feels unexplored. Paris, Texas was an instant critical darling when it was released in 1984, unanimously winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason: from its first shot, that Old West sensibility is burned onto the screen thanks to the gorgeous desert photography of cinematographer Robert Muller, and continues throughout a contemplative, deeply affecting story of lost families and the pain of reconciliation.
It would be a great injustice to talk about Paris, Texas without discussing its highly influential and memorable look and sound. Robert Muller’s evocative, sprawling Southwest cinematography has been an inspiration for many films that followed, and is still name-dropped today as a masterclass in filming the American wilderness. (Even this week’s new release, Frank, features a scene in which Domhnall Gleeson’s character quips on their road trip to South by Southwest that their surroundings “look like Paris, Texas”.) In addition to the alien landscape in which we first see Travis, the loneliness and openness of the road is evidenced by long, unadulterated stretches of highway with never a soul in sight. Each new location balances the dry grit of the rusty Southwestern setting with dashes of color that further isolate Travis from his surroundings. Ry Cooder’s plaintive, slide-guitar-fuelled soundtrack contributes to this loneliness, accenting the burning sunsets and dotted streetlamps with an audible representation of Travis’ yearning for home.
In many ways, Paris, Texas plays out like a mystery story in which, for the first half, the mystery is the detective himself. Harry Dean Stanton’s lost, craggy-faced mute wanderer Travis starts out the film as a lost soul, as evidenced by his opening trek across the vast South Texas landscape. Just like his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell, given the thankless job of playing the straight man in this trenchant melodrama), we feel the need to figure Travis out – where has he been? Why won’t he talk? Why is he afraid of planes? As Travis becomes more and more acclimated to the land of the living, we revel in every small victory he experiences, each new connection he makes with his estranged son (Hunter Carson, who turns in a great performance for a child actor), and every new clue he learns of the location of his estranged wife, Jane (a haunting, tragic performance by Natassja Kinski, whose brilliance is saved for a pair of crackerjack scenes late in the film). By the halfway point of the movie, Travis leaves Walt behind and goes on an investigation of his own to find Jane, with Hunter as his eager Watson.
Part of Paris, Texas’s great appeal is that Travis and the other main characters often feel like the only people inhabiting this world, the enormity of the Southwest amplifying their feelings of isolation and loss. This is reflected (quite literally) in the film’s incredible use of mirrors and windows as a motif for Travis’ ability to connect to himself and others. Early in the film, we see him reflected in a hotel mirror, foreshadowing the incredible scenes later on in which he must talk to Jane through a one-way mirror in a strip club booth. Other shots separate him from eavesdropped conversations using curtains, banisters, and more, manifesting the barriers that keep from connecting to others. As much as the film is ostensibly about Travis’ quest to get his family back, it also demonstrates his and others’ need for introspection; while Stanton spends a lot of time in front of mirrors, he gets to peer in on Kinski’s world anonymously in the booth, Kinski being forced to look at her reflection as she talks to him.
Paris, Texas is also deeply concerned with the nature of family, and the deeply human flaws that sometimes prevent us from keeping these relationships. One of the minor, implicit tragedies of the film is that, as Travis grows closer to his biological son, Hunter in turn slips away from Walt and Anne, who have been raising him since Travis disappeared and consider him their real child. By the time Travis and Hunter become real pals and run off on an adventure to get their family back together, what they have really done is destroyed one family in the hopes of rebuilding another. It’s a testament to Shepard’s lyrical, restrained screenplay and the performances of Carson, Stockwell and Aurore Clement that this tragedy does not become the focus of the film – merely the collateral damage of Travis’ quixotic journey.
Travis’ undercurrent of longing, despite being the focus of the film, is hardly alien to the other characters of the film. Each of them chases after their own “Paris, Texas” – that place they can call home, where they feel they belong and can be with the people they love. The characters even subconsciously recognize their Paris, Texas is simply an illusion; Travis, like his father before him, lingers on the “Paris” before undercutting it with the “Texas.” Kinski’s illusory fantasy sex rooms allow her to disappear into roles without having to truly face herself. Walt and Anne live the dream of suburban bliss, but are haunted by the truth of Hunter’s parentage and the fact he could be taken away at any moment. In the middle of all of this is Hunter, whose love of Star Wars and science fiction innocently bleeds through into his perception of the world (“From California to Houston, at lightspeed”). Each of these characters is fully drawn, compelling, and fascinating, a testament to the film’s universally-laudable performances and Wenders’ command of storytelling.
In the end, Paris, Texas is a deeply human film, a tale of loss, isolation and the lingering pain of the past. Travis’ quest is, in many ways, ours; essentially alone in a huge world that seems to barely regard us, constantly searching for that deeply permanent, unchanging sense of happiness and belonging. Shepard’s screenplay and Wenders’ incredible direction opens up this journey to us in a deeply satisfying way, even when the standard Hollywood ending eludes our heroes. While Travis is able to reunite Hunter with his mother (in one of the most cathartic on-screen embraces in film), he knows he cannot join them. It is all he can do to watch from the empty parking lot, and drive on to keep looking for his Paris….Texas.