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.

Style Wars (Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver, 1984)

The modesty in which Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver approach their subject matter is what makes Style Wars so relatable. The film is just as much about the graffiti that imbues 1980s New York as it is about the people and cultural movement behind the artwork. The argument as to if graffiti ought to qualify as art is discussed, but the joy of Style Wars stems from how nonchalant such a discussion is proposed – Chalfant and Silver are less concerned with the answers, less concerned with the right and wrong attached to the actions, and more concerned with immersing the audience into a unique world.

The handheld camera element Style Wars adds to the sense of guerrilla movement through the streets of New York. We are displaced, led through a maze of abandoned subway tunnels, as flashlights hint at the larger mass of graffiti that surrounds us. Chalfant and Silver allude to this sense of unknowning from the onset of their film, as a passing public train is shot at night, with track lights illuminating the side of the train – we gather how the train is used as a canvas from this point on.

The directors hint at the larger cultural purposes behind the graffiti, though I found their analysis on the topic to be a bit too half-hearted due to their forced neutrality. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the film – questions are posed and discussed, though at times, there’s a preoccupation with trying to remain neutral. This is particularly evident in Chalfant and Silver’s inclusion of the other side – lawmakers and “ordinary” citizens are interviewed in talking head segments that rarely serve to enlighten the discussion. Perhaps that’s the point? The artists helming such grandiose graffiti projects may not be the most educated, by they certainly possess a level of bite and audacity to their convictions – you get a sense that they live and die for their art.

That visceral quality is the lasting impression I get out of Style Wars. The film’s sampling population is composed of people who want to make a name for themselves but don’t have the resources to do it the traditional way. They crave to be seen, to be understood, and to be appreciated. One of the recurring interview segments involves a young black boy and his mother. The boy discusses why he does the art, while his mother is distressed at the very idea of what he’s doing. In a way, I can sense the frustration on both ends – they both want the same thing, but it’s the method in which it should be reached that divides the generations. Though the boy’s mother, I believe, is limiting the canvas of possibilities for her child – the boy is trying to expand on it.

Rating: 7/10

Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)

Woody Allen adopts an Ikiru-esque framing device to tell the story of entertainment promoter Danny Rose (Woody Allen). Various comics and entertainers share stories about Danny Rose – with the centerpiece story revolving around Danny’s commitment to nostalgia-act Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte). As the narrator notes, Lou is an alcoholic, and was popular when he was younger. But with age, he has withered away into obscurity. Though with Danny’s help, he hopes to once again become a star. While married, he has found himself smitten by a young interior designer named Tina (Mia Farrow).

Danny’s commitment to Lou is not entirely selfless, as Danny’s string of failures have forced him to reevaluate his life. But even with that, there’s something genuine about their relationship. A friendship between them exists. That friendship may be incidental to Lou, but to Danny it means a whole lot more than a business arrangement – they’re best of friends. So when the management-client relationship disintegrates, there’s something genuine and heartfelt in the way it all falls apart. Lou sees it one way, Danny sees it another.

This ranks up high on my list favorite Woody Allen films in the way it blends comedy and poignancy. But even beyond that, Allen’s sense of bitterness is surprisingly toned down – as Danny Rose, Allen is surprisingly optimistic about his future despite his getting on in age. Themes of friendship and commitment are reinforced throughout the narrative  - entirely noble traits that go against the grain of typical Allen films. Broadway Danny Rose stands as Allen’s finest performance as an actor, and one of his best films in general.

Rating: 9/10

Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)

Well, after a track record of nine excellent films, I was bound to come across a disappointment from Altman. Secret Honor functions primarily as a one-man play (it was, unsurprisingly, adapted from the stage), with the talented Philip Baker Hall assuming the role of Richard M. Nixon. The film takes place in his study, as Nixon recounts his life in recorded memoirs. Portraits of former presidents and his mother occupy his room, as his mental health progressively disintegrates.

My biggest problem with the film is not knowing what to make of Hall’s performance. The scenery is inhaled, thrown up, and chewed over again, as Hall overacts his way throughout the entire picture. He outlandishly vocalizes one idea while beginning a new one, never completing a thought. It’s effective in portraying Nixon as an unstable, border-line insane individual, though I can’t say that had to be the intended effect. The formal elements of Secret Honor – the foggy lens, the abrupt zooms, etc – are typical Altman. But the fact that this is so driven by one character makes me uneasy to accept this as an Altman film at all though – there’s no lingering sense of community here.

Altman does shed light on the paranoia and overriding pressure that overcame Nixon – his commitment to his mother and desire to do right are noble traits that were unfortunately misinterpreted by the public. Nonetheless, the film simply lasts for too long and becomes repetitive. Hall’s performance is an anomaly though, and worth a look.