The Conversation is a feature at Sound on Sight bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their seventh piece, they discuss Wim Wenders’s modern classic Paris, Texas (1984).
Throughout Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), Travis Henderson (played by Harry Dean Stanton) carries with him a photograph of an empty lot he bought in the eponymous city, which he later tells his son is near “the Red River” that borders Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The reference automatically draws to mind Howard Hawks’s beloved 1948 Western, Red River, which drew together an unlikely screen pair with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. That Hawks classic was also featured prominently in Peter Bogdanovich’s canonical 1971 film The Last Picture Show as the “last picture” of the film’s title exhibited at a dwindling moviehouse in an increasingly barren West Texas small town. In Bogdanovich’s rendering of the strange and expansive landscape of 20th century West Texas, Red River serves to illustrate ideals of the West that are quickly fading away, eroding to the forces of listlessness, boredom, and the pressures of conformity, if such ideals ever existed at all.
In Wenders’s vision of West Texas, the vistas share a hypnotic potential for treachery and magic, equally fit for lost wandering and chance encounters. Wenders’s West Texas feels simultaneously somewhere and nowhere, a place in which Stanton’s wordless expressions of catatonia that open the film befit a landscape as mesmerizing as this. Yet also, Travis’s pipe dreams of calling Paris, Texas a home (as both the site of his conception and a spot where he owns land and might perhaps build his future) feel equally appropriate for a place so mysterious. Robby Müller’s painterly cinematography is essential to the film’s storytelling in this respect: he and Wenders realize an incredibly engrossing sense of dislocation. Unlike Classic Westerns and their new Hollywood interventions, Wenders is less interested here with the myth of the West than he is with the West as a living, breathing, and immersive place. After such haunted terrain has been conquered and “civilized,” how do everyday people wander its expanses?
Dislocation is a theme and style that runs deeply throughout Paris, Texas, whose title references a location that the film never visits. While we begin our cinematic journey with Travis in the infinitely sparse landscape of West Texas and later return to the state as Travis and his son navigate the interchangeable glass buildings of downtown Houston, the northeast city of Paris, Texas is never seen onscreen (an absence that only contributes to Wenders’s illustration of the state’s epic size) except for the aforementioned photograph. Yet the image of Travis’s enigmatic vacant lot greater resembles the deserts of the West within which he is introduced, not the forests and farmland characteristic of Paris’s region.
This sense of dislocation is communicated elsewhere through other mentions of the town. After Travis’s brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) convinces the reluctant wanderer to travel to Walt’s home in Los Angeles and be reunited with his biological son, Travis’s imprecise descriptions of his destination produce the inevitable confusion with the far better known European city. As something of a thematic closure, Travis tells his son during their journey to and around Houston that Travis’s father would often jokingly call his mother my “girl from Paris” until his father eventually convinced himself that his wife really was a Parisian. Like the fake hotel room and diner in which Travis’s long-lost wife Jane (Natassja Kinski) is ungainfully employed to perform fantasies of some vaguely fetishized regional past, the settings of Paris, Texas constitute both illusions and sites detailed and immediate in their realization, settings that are stunningly present yet dislocated at some point between the past of a saloon bar and some elusive future within the glass walls of Houston or the enigmatic promises of some obscure town.
This in contrast to the relative place-less-ness depicted of greater Los Angeles. As airplanes noisily hover outside Walt’s hillside home, a sense of transience pervades. Everyone is constantly coming and going, and quickly. LA is also the place where Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) make giant billboards – massive advertisements designed to litter the skyline of the nation’s highways with the promotion of mass produced products, images that embed national uniformity within these otherwise particular landscapes. When Travis returns to Texas, it’s as if he’s pulled by a force of regional gravity suggested by the allegiance of the film’s title. One cannot possibly stay in a place so restless, a place that so many are hardly satisfied to call a consistent home. Travis’s sense of unassuming destiny (a paradox only the likes of Stanton could reconcile) is reinforced by his unlikely finding of Jane amongst the identical corners of Houston’s commercial scene.
Despite the no-doubt puzzling effect that Wenders’s film’s title has on non-Texans, and despite that this is a distinct work of a particular American milieu made by high-profile practitioner of European art cinema, Paris, Texas is far from a “foreign” tour of the oddities of American regionalism like New German Cinema contemporary Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) or, more recently, the Zellner brothers’ wonderful Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014). Working from a screenplay co-written by playwright Sam Shepard (who, as an actor, would himself become a mainstay in regional American cinema), Wenders’s approach is largely without irony, and exhibits far more interest in how these settings construct certain dynamics between his characters rather than making any broad statements on the settings themselves. Texas is an enigmatic character in Paris, Texas, but it is not a one-dimensional or perfunctory character. Texas is instead a delicately realized, artfully photographed co-conspirator in the course of these characters’ lives, a setting that eventually brings about a subtle kicker of an emotional climax when Travis finally unburdens himself to Jane.
More so than certain tendencies of European art cinema at this time, Paris, Texas works in surprising harmony with American independent cinema of the 1980s. Several months before Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or, a Texas-set noir and the debut feature by the Coen brothers similarly used the expanses of the state to illustrate its tone and color its setting. Blood Simple won the Dramatic Prize at Sundance, then a fledgling film festival. Competing for that same prize was Jim Jarmusch’s low-key NYC-to-Midwest road movie Stranger Than Paradise, after which Jarmusch would almost invariably collaborate with Paris, Texas’s Müller to help realize his subsequent studies of regionally specific Americana. In a burgeoning new landscape of America-set narrative filmmaking, a German director’s cross-Atlantic adaptation of his signature take on the road genre would prove to yield a growing interest in the possibilities of regionalism for character-based cinematic storytelling.
When sitting down to write this review, I started browsing the web for historical context and came across this line in the midst of an analysis: “Like Godot, Paris, Texas is eagerly awaited but never arrives” (I’m paraphrasing, but close enough). In the context of the piece, this was not meant to be a backhanded critique – the writer is talking about the city, not the film. Yet, the line stuck with me after the film’s credits rolled. There is a lot of waiting involved when watching Paris, Texas and yet it never arrives.
And that is what makes the film perfect.
As Landon describes, the film takes its name from a place that we only see inside a small, faded photograph. Paris, Texas looks nothing like the West Texas landscapes that Wim Wenders and Robby Müller wash over us. It is green, like most of East Texas, and piney. When I accepted a position as a Professor at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, about one hour from Paris, I was expecting the Texas of John Ford or Peter Bogdanovich; the Texas seen in Travis’s photo. Dry, brown, and sun drenched. Yet, while East Texas certainly gets burned, it is humid and lush, almost swampy. Sure, there are cultural and sociological similarities in my adoptive community to a film like The Last Picture Show – the boredom, the social Conservatism and old fashioned manners that mask regret and unhappiness. But our landscape is better represented by Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011) or, for those familiar with Texarkana’s history, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976, 2014).
Yet, the Paris of Texas is not the only landscape whose iconic features are undermined and misrepresented. When Travis arrives in Los Angeles to live with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), and his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), Wenders stages the action in the Sun Valley – deep in the San Fernando Valley- twenty miles to the north of the metropolitan area. Thus, the Los Angeles of Paris lacks the identifying landmarks of the city. When Travis looks down upon an airport, it is not LAX with its modernist Theme Building. It is Bob Hope Airport, flat and sprawled out, an island on the mountain covered land. For a city beloved for its proximity to the ocean, the Pacific goes unseen. Essentially, Wenders is drawing a connection between the topographical features of the “lesser seen” (cinematically, that is) Los Angeles and West Texas while also making them strange. Even when he gives us a view of a Texas roadside or a vintage motel, the prevalence of primary colors makes them seem less like a place and time and more like a time out of mind.
The ways in which Wenders represents, undermines, and misrepresents the landscapes in his film are matched by his narrative slight of hand. For instance, when Travis goes to Los Angeles to reunite with his son, Wenders plants two narrative red herrings that ultimately go unfulfilled in a traditional sense. First, the emphasis on who is rightfully Hunter’s guardian (Is it Walt? Is it Travis? Should it be Jane?) is brought to the foreground in a scene when the boy can hear Walt and Anne arguing about what is best for the young boy. Those expecting the conflict and melodrama of a more mainstream film might expect this to blossom into a fight for Hunter’s future, a la Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Yet, after foregrounding the unique qualities of the parenting situation, Travis and Hunter take off for Houston together without argument and Walt and Anne are never seen again. Time and time again, Wenders refuses to indulge in traditional forms of conflict to drive his narrative across the terrain.
The second red herring is the tease of a reunion of the nuclear family. When Travis is faced with grief and yearning after watching old family movies, Hunter asks Anne “Do you think he still loves her? I think he does.” The father and son road trip, a modern quest to track down Jane (Natassja Kinski), would also suggest a reunion – a final destination where all roads converge. Yet, the surprise of Paris, Texas is that after an emotionally devastating and cinematically stunning scene in which a peep show is used to bare emotion instead of skin, Travis reunites Jane with Hunter and leaves again. They never touch; they never kiss; they speak acceptance of an unfortunate situation through a two-sided mirror, sometimes with their backs turned on one another. Yet, it is one of the most intimate scenes in modern cinema, rewarding precisely because the scars on these two damaged characters are too deep to heal with a superficial reunion.