| The first thing we see in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is the landscape of southwest Texas near the border of Mexico: expansive, imposing, beautiful, and terrible, it is a desert of enormous, carved canyons and towering rocks, mostly desolate and foreboding, but also strangely enchanting. Into the frame wanders a small figure, strangely garbed in a double-breasted suit and a red baseball cap. The dirtiness of the suit and his scraggly beard suggest he has been out in the wilderness for some time, but the blank expression on his face tells us nothing. Who is he? Where has he been? Where is he going? These are questions that the film will eventually answer (more or less), but the pleasure of watching the story unfold is less in solving the mystery of the man’s identity than it is in witnessing the complexities, both beautiful and tragic, of his various relationships.|
The man’s name is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and we soon learn that he has a brother named Walt (Dean Stockwell) who lives in Los Angeles with his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) and Walt’s tow-headed seven-year-old son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis has been missing for four years, and no one knows where he has been or what he has been doing, which is why Walt and Anne adopted his son (“We didn’t know what else to do,” Walt tells him). Walt travels to Texas to retrieve his brother, and on the long car ride home Travis’s catatonia slowly dissolves and he begins talking again, although not to answer the pressing questions that we share with Walt. Rather, he talks about a photograph of an empty lot he bought at some point in Paris, Texas, where their parents met, which only fuels the mystery surrounding him. There is mention of Travis’s wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), whose memory is clearly addled with pain and regret.
The narrative in Paris, Texas moves slowly but surely, tracing Travis’s emergence from the wilderness, reintegration into society via Walt and Anne, and his eventual journey to find Jane, on which he embarks with Hunter by his side. Thus, we see the various fractures and connections of family, as Travis is saved by Walt but must eventually leave him in order to make amends for past wrongs. He reconnects with Hunter, a son he barely knows, but his primary goal is to reunite him with his mother, wherever she is. In this sense, Travis is an intriguing reformulation of the classic Western hero, an essential loner who is crucial to saving a community of which he can never be a part (not surprisingly, some critics have seen shades of John Wayne’s character from The Searchers in Travis). Harry Dean Stanton’s performance is a tricky endeavor, as he must always keep the character slightly distanced, but never so much that we lose sense of his fundamental desire to somehow reconnect the fragments of his former life.
The dichotomy of separation and connection is best expressed in the immensely moving scene in which Travis finally locates Jane in a peep show parlor and pours out his heart to her. It is a scene of great emotional resonance, and we feel them coming together even though they are separated by a pane of one-way-mirror glass, which means that he can see her, but she cannot see him. He is only a floating voice in her side of the room, although he faces away from the mirror so that she, too, is hidden from his sight. When they finally make the decision to see each other by turning on the light in his room so she can also see through the glass, Wenders frames them as conjoined images--a perfectly realized visualization of their reunion that is nevertheless incomplete because they remain physically separated.
Wenders’s cinema is often described as being obsessed with time and place, which is very much true of Paris, Texas and its depiction of the vast desert southwest, the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles, and the soaring glass towers of downtown Houston, but it is also defined largely by the gentle humanism with which he views his characters. They are often oblique and sometimes inscrutable, but they are fascinating enigmas who draw us in and make us understand emotionally even when we don’t rationally. One of the most powerful undercurrents in Paris, Texas is the conflict between characters who love each other, but nevertheless have competing interests and desires, which is why the sequence in which Anne cries bitterly after hearing from Hunter once he has left with Travis is so heart-rending: To be with one means leaving someone else, to reunite one family means to destroy another.
In collaborating with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, a prolific and unique American voice who specializes in wandering and searching characters, and blues musician Ry Cooder, whose soulful, improvised steel guitar licks so perfectly reflect the images on screen, Wenders is able to seamlessly transplant the deep introspection and anti-narrative tendencies that drove his German films in the 1970s to the United States without looking like a European trying to “do American.” Because Wenders’s earlier films were so strongly influenced by American culture and its obsession with highways and journeys (three of his ’70s films were dubbed “the road trilogy” and he named his production company Road Movies), it was only natural that he would eventually make one set in the American West, that great expanse of open possibility. It is not surprising, then, that Paris, Texas (which won the Palm d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival) is one of his best films, a stirring portrait of people striving against their disconnect that resists simple answers even as it rewards our emotional investment.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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