Paris, Texas (1984)
Written by L. M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard
Directed by Wim Wenders
By the time 1984 rolled around, New German Cinema as a formal movement was over. The directors (still with us) were still making movies, and many still are. Rainer Werner Fassbinder died from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982, the same year this new wave of cinema is said to have ended. Germany was just five years away from reunifying its West & East fragments. The country’s fate was now tied even more closely with the rest of the continent and America. Wim Wenders’ work has always held a fascination with that link between nations, and Paris, Texas, eschews Germany to focus entirely on America. Wenders recontextualizes the Western genre, placing it in modern-day Texas and exploring the return of a “stranger” from out of the wilderness. The story is steeped in the mystery of a blazing romance that burned up everyone involved.
In West Texas, a haggard figure stumbles across the desert in a fugue state. This is Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), and he loses consciousness after walking into a bar. A doctor examines the mute man and discovers a phone number that he calls. On the other end is Walt (Dean Stockwell), Travis’s brother, who hasn’t seen him in four years. We quickly learn that Travis and his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) went missing, and their toddler son, Hunter, was put in the custody of Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément). They gently approach Travis’s reunion with his son, with the boy’s emotions centered on the whole thing. Home movies reawaken something in Travis, and he sets his mind to finding Jane and, without permission from his brother and sister-in-law, takes Hunter with him. Following the location of bank deposits put into an account for the boy monthly, the pair end up in Houston. Travis will be reunited with Jane, but there isn’t a happy ending in their future. Travis needs to reckon with his past and set things right, and part of that means he ends up alone.
Wim Wenders has always had a soft spot for mythic American iconography. He played around with it in early pictures like Alice in the Cities and The American Friend, but it is Paris, Texas, where he makes his most definitive statement on the landscape. Travis emerges from the sort of world we would expect to see in a John Ford film. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, he is a man with a dark past, and by the end of the film, he’s done the right thing but acknowledges he can’t be in that world anymore. The cinematography here is probably the best in a Wenders picture, rivaled only by Wings of Desire. Director Steve McQueen has remarked on the look of cinematographer Robby Muller as “a visual language to capture what appear to be men falling to their deaths in slow motion.” That is about as perfect a statement as you can make.
Composer Ry Cooder provides classic American guitar music that adds to the lonely sense of yearning in Travis. Cooder, in turn, has stated that Wenders was very intent on capturing the ambient noise of the Texas desert, which aided him in thinking about the tone the music should set. There are no bombastic themes here. Just simple strums of the guitar. It tells us these are not the glory days, the big party; they were long ago and aren’t coming back. That’s a good thing because the film is about the aftermath of burning so brightly. Eventually, you burn out.
When Travis is reunited with Jane, they are separated physically and never touch. Within the story, this helps build tension, but thematically, it underlines the idea of the union being broken. Their relationship is not something they genuinely want back. They miss the passion but are also older now; they understand that you can’t live that way. You taste it, and then you have to move on. They didn’t, and that destroyed everything they had. Travis couldn’t reckon with how much she loved Hunter more than him. But the bigger problem is that Travis couldn’t see Jane as someone separate from their relationship. When she went from wife & lover to mother, he psychologically could not process that idea. Seeing her love flow into another being broke him, but over time, he understood she never did anything wrong. It was him.
Harry Dean Stanton is the perfect actor for this role, and it is the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen from him. His naturally haggard hound dog face is the perfect canvas from which Travis emerges. More than that, he feels both of the Old West and something new, a more profound, sensitive poetic masculinity that has been pushed into the background. He’s very much a man in all the cultural signifiers of that concept, but there’s a lot more happening. Travis has self-actualized by the end of the picture; he has a greater understanding of himself and, in turn, the people around him. While he deeply loves Jane, he also grasps they cannot be together. It isn’t good for either one of them and especially Hunter.
The standout performance for me is Nastassja Kinski as Jane. She doesn’t show up until the second half of the picture, but you can’t look away from the screen when she does. Beyond the surface level of traditional beauty, she is a profound actor because of how she reacts. Starting with Mad Men, I began to find a growing appreciation for actors who didn’t simply deliver their lines with authenticity but who could be in a scene where another character was spotlighted and still take part in that arc through their reactions. I love seeing actors in the scene entirely rather than just physically present. Kinski does this spectacularly.
The film’s big finale involves a monologue from Stanton’s character, telling a “fairy tale” that is their past relationship. Instead of the camera staying on the speaker, Wenders focuses entirely on her. This shot lasts for around five minutes, a long time in cinema. Kinski is absorbing his words, a couple of lines here and there, but it’s about her understanding that Travis finally gets why they couldn’t stay together. The writing of Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, the cinematography of Robby Muller, the performances of Stanton & Kinski, the music of Ry Cooder, and the directorial choices of Wenders all come together to make what I consider one of the best scenes in the entirety of film. Two people who fell out of love, coming to terms with the pain it caused them to break apart, how they understand now that it’s better that way, but that there was something big that needed to be fixed. Paris, Texas, is a film that reminds me why I love movies with so much passion.
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