Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Like a number of major films by European directors in the ’80s — particularly the works of Aki Kaurismaki and Percy Adlon — Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas reflects a fascination with America from the outside. This is not a fixation on U.S. music, film or popular culture, which would be reasonably common and fairly universal, but rather on the broader mythical notion of America itself: vastness, mystery, wide-open spaces, and most of all the conceit of the man without a past. As shot by Robby Müller across the Southwestern United States, the film bleeds with astonishing beauty and a remarkable spectrum of color, but its slight air of unreality lends it a uniqueness. It isn’t enough that it opens with a lonely man lumbering across a desert (and eating some ice then fainting), it has to be a filthy figure with the aura of acid casualty in the aftermath of some obvious kind of personal distress that he holds close to his chest, and the desert has to look as liberatingly huge as some impossible cloudscape dream. The broad strokes continue for the film’s duration, consistently announcing that this is a world that only can exist as digested and projected through cinema.
We come eventually to know much of the story of Travis and how he came to be stuck to the floor of a nowhere dive bar, then on a road trip to L.A. with his estranged brother during which he seems unable to speak, but the information is only offered to us incrementally — first through the remarks of others and then eventually from himself as delivered to the only person he feels truly needs to know, perversely indeed the one person who already does know. The film’s central theme is the rekindling of a man’s bond with his son, now seven years old and raised over the preceding four years by his uncle, a deep attachment that neither finds easy to break. When Travis begins to bond at last with the boy, Hunter, the years that have eroded their familiarity seem to disappear and a fissure begins to form in the household. When Travis learns of a lead on his wife (and Hunter’s mom)’s whereabouts, we return to the road once again with the pair on a mission to find her in Houston.
As effortlessly as Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard but even more timelessly, Paris, Texas winds through the highways, cheap motels, empty bars, gas stations and finally urban expressways of the U.S. and captures the flavor impeccably not so much of how these places feel but how one would imagine they do. Wenders and Müller concentrate particularly on the sky and its colors, creating at times an almost garish palette similar to Steven Spielberg’s Americana road-crime movie The Sugarland Express. Other films of this kind might attempt to get a handle on the thirst, grit and romance of travel and movement but this one is about the contradictory stillness and propulsion. Its atmospherics are so successful that in one scene after another you can sense the heat, the smell, the urgency and maybe most of all the strange thrill of escaping responsibility. All the more ironic thusly that the movie is ultimately a story about the irretrievable misery of betraying a loved one, and that its most awe-inspiring, breathtaking moments all revolve around nothing more than two people in a room. And even at its most energetic it’s all suffused with tragic, unspoken loss.
Like its two lead characters, Paris, Texas picks up and abruptly changes course several times. Sam Shepherd and Kit Carson’s script could easy settle into the early scenes focusing on Travis’ gradual retreat from the shell he formed around himself to offset emotional trauma of his creation, or it might well have remained just a chronicle of a father and son learning to be a father and son again, and the fallout thereby caused in their surrogate family. Instead it’s a story in four distinct parts, each rich and telling in their fashion; two of the four occur on Wenders’ open road, the second a relative reprieve in L.A., but the final episode is what makes the film so unforgettable for everyone who’s seen it. It wouldn’t have its emotionally overwhelming, momentous quality of release and gut-splitting confessional if the movie’s first two hours weren’t such an absorbing slow burn of gradual, careful, defensive opening up between father and son… or, perhaps, father and the world.
What happens here is that the stage changes; Hunter’s mother and Travis’ wife, Jane, is discovered working as a stripper in a peep show in Houston. Travis goes in alone and, after one false start, asks her to join him in his booth and — separated from her by a two-way mirror — begins to spill everything, starting with “I knew these people…” and all but paralyzing us for nearly a half hour as we sit transfixed and learn everything that’s happened, everything that tore these two people apart. The outpouring comes fairly quickly once he starts talking, but like the rest of the film it depends on a cumulative impact that leaves you genuinely shaken. The intimacy of the setting and the nakedness of the dialogue, and most of all the unerring grace of the two performers, are all so personal, genuine and felt it’s a difficult thing to watch and hear, or it would be if it were not so beautiful. Wenders and Müller alternate between keeping the camera steady on Travis’ side and allowing it to turn slightly on Jane’s, as though disoriented. After seeing Nastassja Kinski’s Jane only in a heartbreakingly tranquil set of film strips earlier in the story, when we at last meet her with newfound weariness and sacrificial grace in these final moments, it’s haunting to watch her defenses slip away.
For me, however, there may be nothing more deeply affecting in this film than what comes even after a long scene of that magnitude, among the most pin-drop beautiful sequences in film history. Travis is aware his fate is long since decided — he decided it with his own impulsive actions long ago and he cannot redeem them — but he’s installed Hunter in a hotel room and asks Jane to meet him there. It would be simple enough to describe what happens then, but if you’ve seen the film nothing I say can do it justice, and if you haven’t then it would be cruel indeed to deny you a moment alone with this ending. Let it be enough to say that if you are able to speak to your mother still, you’ll want to prepare yourself to do so immediately afterward; if you are not, you will miss her enough to weep. Travis’ one and only purpose in Paris, Texas is to allow this moment to occur, and by tracking him from a man alone to a man alone again we are permitted a glimpse of the unimaginable forces of kindness and love that can surround us even after they seem impossible to see or appreciate.