The Essential Series: Paris, Texas (1984)

The idea of starting from scratch, particularly following a traumatic event, has been the basis for a lot of the films I’ve selected for my Essential Series column. This month’s film, Wim Wenders' quasi-existential American road movie, Paris, Texas, embodies this sense of starting back from square one. This idea of having to navigate through the world from the start is a scary thought. It’s the sort of experience that I argue that I share, albeit in a different way. The sense of disorientation that Tatsuya Nakadai in Harakiri or Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue felt can be empathized not through the distinct loss of family, but rather in the sense of routine that comes from being accustomed to ritual. Whether it be leaving a job without the security of what’s next or graduating from college without a concrete plan, it’s hard not to feel confused as to where to head to next. With Paris, Texas, that trance-like confusion is perfectly illustrated within the picture’s first 30 minutes. It’s what happens afterward, both in film and in life, where we look at what we have and work with the hand we’re dealt.

Paris, Texas (1984) 

Directed by Wim Wenders

The barren landscapes of the Southwest occupy the opening frames of Paris, Texas. Under cinematographer Robby Müller’s precise eye, the images register mythically.  But as we move from image to image, the desert topography carries a sense of desperation. Their vast openness seems unreal and soon comes across as less a geological marvel and more an image of uninhibited loneliness. It all makes sense the moment Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) enters the frame. His dark sun-baked face is worn out. Without words you can tell that he is tired of life. His gestures at trying to find water are fleeting. He embodies a particular mentality, whereupon life has dealt him a bad hand. To say he appears hopeless would be an understatement – he has abandoned ambition. His steps are heavy and his emotions muted with only numbness filling the void of whatever that was left behind.

The period in which Travis wanders through the barren landscape underscores Wim Wenders’ observations on America. The German director’s understanding of the land resonates as being especially insightful in the way he frequently positions his lead character in settings that register as both familiar and foreign. The title itself elicits this notion, whereupon Americans recognize Paris, France as being a beautiful escape – a city of love. Texas conjures images of the West, desert landscapes, and cowboys. Separately, the two exist on separate plains – the foreign and the familiar. When put together, their meanings conflict. Whether it is the German doctor who works in the desert or the cityscape that Travis eventually wanders, there’s a sense of contradiction to a lot of the goings-on in Paris, Texas. There’s awkwardness to these contradictions and it seems to be an unrecognized staple of German films from directors like Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but with Wim Wenders, you sense these contradictions are coming from a place of personal observation. There’s too much detail in the way Wenders moves through the American landscape for him not to be aware of the social conditions that have positioned Travis and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) where they are now.

And what divergent lives the two brothers lead. As Travis wanders the Earth, Walt amasses wealth, lives comfortably with a beautiful wife, and looks after Travis’ abandoned child, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Though the white picket fence is absent, Walt still manages to lead an idealistic, American life. Obviously, the same can’t be said for Travis, as his battered face bares a sense of lost dreams and unfulfilled ambitions. Wenders is quite candid about the divergent paths that have brought these two men where they are – it’s essentially because of the women in their lives. Given that Paris, Texas is a very masculine-driven picture, one could assume that the allocated blame on women could come across as misogynistic. This isn’t the case though. Instead, there’s a deep-rooted reverence that comes from all the women in the film. In another example of the film’s odd blend of the familiar with the foreign, we see that within the confines of Walt’s estate is his French wife, Anne (Aurore Clement). Her presence after the first act may be a bit awkward, but she soon finds her groove and introduces a feminine component to the picture.

Travis’ trance-like state is eventually snapped when he watches some of Walt’s home movies. Gathered in the living room with Walt, Anne, and Hunter, they watch a film strip documenting a day at the beach. Travis, who had been largely silent through the first hour of the picture, views the strip with nostalgic awe. The images themselves are presented in a fairly fragmentary sort of way, bordering on a stream of consciousness projection. When the film is over, Travis seems to have awoken. There’s diligence in his movements – he wants to be a respectable father to Hunter.

Things are obviously complicated by Anne’s commitment to Hunter and Travis’ own limitations. But the situation doesn’t unfold in the sort of typical dramatic fashion that one expects. Usually, in films of this type, there’s a long custody battle that sparks drama. Here, Travis is unaware of his lacking expertise as a father figure. He knows that he could never provide in the same sort of way that Walt and Anne can provide for him. Instead, Travis chooses to provide Hunter with an entryway to his roots.

And from here, we get to know everything about Travis. Wenders and Müller stage one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema when Travis encounters his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) at a peep show. The direction of this scene is particularly evocative, with every element from camera placement to costume design playing a crucial element in the feel of the whole scene. Travis, who had followed Jane to her workplace, sits in a booth where a one-way mirror divides the room. He can see the woman on the opposite end – Jane cannot. At first, he enters a booth and requests a blonde woman in her twenties. Out comes a buxom woman in a nurse outfit. This is not Jane. She fits the descriptors, but it’s not her. So Travis exits the booth and enters a different one. The scene on the other end of the room has changed. We assume he makes a request again – this time though, Wenders opts to not let us know what Travis said to clarify his choice. Out on the other end comes Jane.

The two converse, though awkwardly. Jane’s job is to titillate, and that’s her natural inclination from the start – Travis doesn’t want that. As Travis stumbles with his words, he realizes that he’s unprepared. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there. It’s just like before – there’s his wife, a beautiful woman who he had fallen in love with, and he’s incapable of speaking to her in this wildly new terrain. The whole picture revolves around this concept of exploring the familiar and the foreign. It’s an experience that seeps into every aspect of Travis’ life. Though in the end, you sense he has the wherewithal to deal with it. Or, at least, he knows what his limitations are as a person.

Wim Wenders would follow ParisTexas with Wings of Desire. It’s a far more spiritual film to Paris, Texas, but the humanistic touches remain. Wenders’ presence in the film world faded following that picture, though he would end up getting nominated for an Oscar in 1999 for his documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club. Another silent period followed until the release of his 3-D documentary in 2011, Pina. He’s a director with such command over his material; it’s difficult to imagine such talent getting marginalized in the film community for his contributions.