Paris, Texas, is a film that just happens. And most of the things that happen throughout its duration are unexpected. The same could be said about its title; before anyone can finish uttering it, one may presume it referring to the French capital. But no. As it turns out, Paris is also a place in the United States, a country its German-born director loved, and still loves, differently from an American-born director (possibly). This is why he could truly film it, and truly appreciate it in a way that not many American directors – especially in 1984 – could.
Yes, Paris, Texas, is a film that happens. It begins with the shot of a man walking through a desert. The inevitable questions: “who is he?” “where is he from?” “where is he going?” pop in one’s head. The truth: we will never truly know who and why this man walked tirelessly, aimlessly, and endlessly for so long. What we find out is that this man, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, perfectly cast), will gradually return to his life. As he does, we find out he once led a seemingly normal life, with a wife and a kid. Then something happened, and he left.
His brother, Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell, who co-wrote the film, and who is also perfectly cast), receives a phone call from the middle of nowhere. Travis, whom he presumed dead, is alive, and he must pick him up. Meanwhile, Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement), living in Los Angeles, raised Travis’ child as their own, after Travis’ wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski, here iconic), left him with them, believing herself unable to care for him any longer. Travis is the embodiment of a desparate man. He is alienated: he is neither insane nor putting on an act. The source of his pain will be revealed to us in one of the most real moments in cinema at the time of Paris, Texas’ release.
Despite the deeply harrowing nature of Paris, Texas, the film is full of delight. A sense of humour that is unexpected; a sense of wonder that flows naturally out of the film’s mysterious and unpredictable (yet simple and real) storyline; and of course the vastness, nay, infinity of the traditional American landscape: that landscape where everything may appear to be possible, where running away could take weeks or months – for Travis, walking away meant years! Wenders, who not only filmed but wrote about this landscape, truly felt this delight. But he was also able to capture the meaningfulness of the things encountered along the way through said landscape: one of these, the gigantic advertising billboards on the side of the world – indexical, iconic, and symbolic, but also a statement of its own magnitude – is particularly significant, given that Walt actually makes them. When he reveals this information to Travis, the latter says that he has seen them and some of them are pretty nice. Walt replies, “I haven’t made all of them,” as if he were talking to a child. But the concept of advertising billboards is so crazy, so
Wenders, who not only filmed but wrote about this landscape, truly felt this delight. But he was also able to capture the meaningfulness of the things encountered along the way through said landscape: one of these, the gigantic advertising billboards on the side of the road – indexical, iconic, and symbolic, but statements of their own magnitude – is particularly significant, given that Walt has a job in which he makes them for a living. (When he reveals this information to Travis, the latter says that he has seen them and some of them are pretty nice. Walt replies, “I haven’t made all of them,” as if he were talking to a child. But the concept of advertising billboards is so crazy, so otherwordly, that we somehow can’t help but feel for Travis’ childlike ignorance.)
In the end, L.M. Kit Carson and Stockwell, through their screenplay, gradually allow a theme to surface: that of masculinity. Indeed, it should not be surprising, given that the male protagonist (our hero, for his entrance in the movie, is not unlike that of John Wayne in The Searchers or Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars) has appeared vulnerable all along. However, the source of his vulnerability is something that has been felt by every man ever. In his final monologue, the film will not only reveal something about the leading character but also, somewhat unprecedentedly, expose a male psychology that too was taken for granted by a mainstream brand of male-driven cinema (the term male gaze comes to mind), that notoriously kept it concealed.
Though the film tends to be subtle and quiet, carefully timed and even precise, it may be categorized as an adventure movie. Further, the stories encountered along the way, have a weight that subplots rarely carry. Think of the shifty German doctor who examines Travis and calls for his brother to pick him up, later expecting a reward. What is he doing there? Where is he from? More importantly: what impact will Travis’ return have on the Anne and Walt, who have been raising his child as their own, which in turn has apparently saved their childless marriage.
Truly, Paris, Texas is a wonder. Handled confidently by a filmmaker, Wim Wenders, at a peak of his career (he would follow Paris, Texas with another masterpiece shot in his own hometown, Wings of Desire, in which he would return to some themes dealt here), this truly is a work that can be watched over and over. One of the reasons for that: everything that happens in the film, in the moment you watch it, feels temporary, no matter how many times you witness it. Very few films can do that. And yet, here, it does. And after all, isn’t this one of the reasons why cinema is so wonderful. – ★★★★★
PARIS, TEXAS | 1984, West Germany / France / UK | Drama | Directed by – Wim Wenders / Written by – L. M. Kit Carson, Sam Shepard / Produced by – Anatole Dauman, Don Guest / Music by – Ry Cooder / Cinematography – Robby Muller / Edited by – Peter Przygodda / Starring – Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clemént, Hunter Carson | Running time: 147 mins.