“Amid the confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and system to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever…he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.” –Nathaniel Hawthorn, “Wakefield”
Yes, there really is a Paris, Texas. It’s not too far from Dallas. And now, thanks to the film of that name it’s also tucked away in the back of everyone’s imagination. The actual town may not be an outstanding piece of real estate, but as a state of mind it’s somewhere we’ve all been. As he did in another of his remarkable films—Alice in the Cities—German director Wim Wenders uses landscapes to gather together the threads (or fragments) of peoples’ lives. His characters are pilgrims without a Holy Land. Fortunately, though, however unlikely the way stations may be, the pilgrimage itself still heals. A heat-struck gas station in the Texas desert; the “glassteel” towers of Dallas; bizarrely wallpapered motel rooms on Interstates; drive-in banks; concrete freeways; L.A. suburbs; sleazy peep shows; a vacant lot—all these are stops Wenders’ main characters make on their back home from Very Very Far Away.
Travis (played by Harry Dean Stanton), after an absence of four years, literally walks back into the lives of his son, his brother, and his wife. We first meet him wandering out of the heart of the Texas desert, looking like someone who’d stepped out for a hamburger and wound up on Mars. Where many filmmakers these days revel in traumatizing moviegoers either through gratuitous violence or Real-Life Drama, Paris, Texas presents us with a story where the trauma has been played out before the film starts. This approach makes for an astonishingly gentle movie that haunts the viewer’s imagination more lastingly than on-screen hysterics ever could. “Gentle” is an adjective easily used when describing stories about horses and children; it’s almost miraculous to be able to use it to describe a film that pieces together a man’s shattered life.
At the movie’s beginning, the mere act of speaking is too much for Travis to handle and we, along with Travis’s brother Walt, are mystified by the silence. Near the end, speak becomes so eloquent that we (along with Travis himself) are lost in it. As Travis tells of the “blue fire” that consumed the trailer in which he lived with his wife and child, the very metaphor itself consumes the past. If all the wounds don’t heal, and at the end the pilgrim’s not quite home, it’s okay. Arthur’s knights never got the Grail either.
Backing up the superb acting and directing, there’s the luminous cinematography of Robby Muller, an excellent screenplay by Sam Shepard, and the spooky guitar work of Ry Cooder that speaks so marvellously when Travis can’t.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Based on David Thomson’s one-page film reviews in his thousand-page Have You Seen…? Anthology, we clearly have some differences of opinion. In the case of Paris, Texas, however, we seem to have come to similar conclusions. This is still a film I strongly recommend. Pretty hard to beat that opening act where a blighted, mute Harry Dean Stanton wanders out of the desert , to the strains of Ry Cooder’s achingly minimalist guitar, wearing a red baseball cap, ugly yellow tie, suit coat, and jeans. And there’s Robby Müller’s mythic, colour-saturated cinematography of endless highways, railroad tracks, traffic lights, neon motel signs, parched landscapes, and urban sprawl. Here’s what’s become of John Ford’s iconic western landscape at the end of the 20th century. It’s the landscape Tom Waits has claimed as his own over the course of a dozen albums. The final two monologues by Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, in a divided room in a surreal whorehouse straight out of the Twilight Zone, are unforgettable—an intense emotional payout to a fraught odyssey across the American Southwest.
That said, on watching Paris, Texas again some 25 years after I first wrote about it some of the wonder was gone. Through his sufferings, Travis has become a saint. He’s got the hypnotic power of one of God’s Holy Fools, of Saint Francis or one of the holy men who wandered across the 19th century Russian landscape. Travis’s sins have been burned away, to the point where he can reclaim his son from the loving couple who have raised him during the four years of his absence. I no longer believe him when he says he has to go away because his penance isn’t perfect. If we accept that Jane has, like the Virgin Mary, somehow kept her innocence despite being immersed in sleaze, we also know that Travis is the prodigal father come home to be reunited with his family. He doesn’t need to leave; he needs to bring out the fatted calf. The end of Wenders’ film now strikes me as a step too far. It’s as if he and playwright Sam Shepherd had John Wayne on their minds while their film had other plans.