Paris, Texas (1984), a collaboration by writer Sam Shepard and director Wim Wenders, is a film of dichotomies: dichotomy of location, of ideals, of personalities, of gender roles. Even the words in its title are at odds with each other. The film follows Travis Henderson, played by a worn Harry Dean Stanton, who is always on the move but not really getting anywhere. The first time we see him is as a small figure with a red baseball cap, standing in the vast desert near the Texas/Mexico border. In this shot, we see no civilization or roads, only the rocky landscape. It’s as if he was dropped out of the sky or, more appropriately, materialized from the rocks around him, for they are both heavily weathered by time. We cut from this moment to Travis entering a rest stop area that, like Travis, has seemingly sprung up from the ground. This becomes a visual progression in the film, showing man isolated in nature, and slowly building more structure around him. For example, when Walt, Travis’ brother played by Dean Stockwell, comes to pick up his estranged sibling, he meets with the doctor who found him in what looks like the skeleton of a cafe. There is a table and vinyl seats that you’d see in a diner, but only the frames of walls – it is merely a suggestion of a location. We see the evolution of this scenery when Walt and Travis stop off for dinner on their way back to Walt’s home. In that scene, the diner where they eat is fully realized – complete with walls, waitresses, and patrons.
The diner scene is also a perfect example of how light is creatively used in the film, both for aesthetics and as extensions of a character’s frame of mind. As the scene starts, Walt is in a payphone outside telling Hunter, Travis’ son, that he found his real father. Travis is then shown sitting inside the diner by the window – a pickup truck is parked just outside shining its headlights on to his face. In this moment, he looks trapped, framed by the window and the diner’s signage – the light from the truck keeping a close eye on him. When the scene moves inside the diner, Walt and Travis have finished their meal and Walt is about to broach the subject of Travis’ son. The truck still lights them through the window, casting a harsh light on their faces that adds texture to the composition, while representing the subject of Travis abandoning his son, which has sat with them all through dinner.
The lighting of Paris,Texas is reminiscent of the films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, who would light their characters in striking colors to heighten the suspenseful mood of their films. In Wim Wenders’ film, light and color are used to serve several purposes, from augmenting a character’s emotional state to unifying characters in different locations. When Travis and Hunter call Walt to tell him that they’ve gone off to find Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), they do so in a payphone colored in green fluorescent light. Walt and his wife Anne take this call in the kitchen, which is also lit by a similar green light. For Walt and Anne (Aurore Clément), it’s a distressing revelation tantamount to child abduction, but the green tint of the lights is soothing, and keeps the scene from getting too far out of control with hysterics. While green shows up often in the film, it is always at odds with red, which is used to signify internal and external conflict, and is found throughout the film in the lighting, clothing, and props. When looking at an old home video of happier days, Travis wears a green jacket, but a red shirt peeks out at the wrists and neckline – foreshadowing that those peaceful times would soon come to an end. Despite the conflicting nature of these colors, in color theory, they are referred to as complementary, and, as with Wim Wenders’ film, you can’t have one without the other.
Constantly working from these visual themes, Paris, Texas allows the audience to understand these characters at a sub-textual level, which is necessary when many of them leave so much unsaid. By the final act, where Travis and Hunter find Jane in Houston, the viewer is equipped with the tools necessary to connect the film’s themes and how it reconciles, if at all, the dichotomies addressed throughout. Architecturally speaking, it is the final progression from where Travis started at the unfinished diner, and yet it doesn’t feel that far evolved from the desert. Greenery is sparse, the colors are of gray concrete and light brown stone – Jane has lost herself in its urban landscape just as Travis did in the wild. When Travis sees her for the first time in years, she’s working at a seedy club in a peep booth, where people pay money to watch girls roleplaying in different environments through a one-way mirror. In this first encounter, Travis does not reveal his identity, he only watches her and asks questions about her life. The small room Jane sits in is filled with red objects – that are also lit with a red light. For the viewer, this particular color has been built up as a sign of conflict at this point, and one recognizes that Jane is surrounded by it, even wearing it, just like her family. Now it carries a deeper meaning, that of blood – the bonding life force between this broken family.
The climax, when Travis chooses to come back to the club where Jane works to confront her, is perhaps the strongest scene in the film. It begins with a variation of the over-the-shoulder shot, Travis anonymously looking at Jane from the peep-show booth. The depth of field here is deep, creating a distance between the two. Travis, before telling his story, turns the seat around, presumably because he can’t bear to look at her while he does. But it may also be fair play, since she can’t see him through the one-way mirror. This also allows the camera to slowly push in on Travis for his close-up. As he tells his story, the camera cuts to a medium shot of Jane, uncomfortably framed by the window, and whenever Travis says something that she identifies with, the camera cuts closer to her, with her close-ups being the moments when she’s most personally affected. When it seems like she knows who is behind the mirror, Wenders goes back to the over-the-shoulder shot, but the depth of field has changed – the distance between the two has narrowed, despite neither of the characters having moved. Eventually, Jane comes to the window, realizing that the man speaking is her husband, and Travis turns to her to see his face transposed over hers. It is an eerie shot that suggest that Travis is not only facing his wife, but himself as well. When Jane tells her story, she does so the same way Travis did, by turning her back to him, and taking a place beneath him in the frame. Travis sits behind the window, and the reflections and lighting make him look like a specter drawing parallels to Jane’s story about being haunted by him, hearing his voice from every man she performs for. Wenders stays with this two-shot throughout her story, keeping the two of them together in frame, so that when Travis eventually walks out, the separation is clean and definite. These subtle compositions and camera techniques are so important to the subtext of this moment and how the relationships change, through a course of dialogue that feels like soliloquies, and clarifying Travis’ intentions at the end of the film.
In the last moments of Paris, Texas, Jane reunites with her son in the hotel room where he’s staying. She wears green, and Hunter’s shirt, which seems black at first, absorbs some of that color, both from her and the green lights behind them. Travis watches from a parking garage roof, washed over with green light, connecting him to his family in this brief moment before he sets off. Our last image of Travis is of him bathed in the red taillights of the cars around him as he drives away. He is the source of conflict that separated a boy from his mother for years, and he is now taking himself out of the equation. Perhaps he’ll make his way to his empty plot of land in Paris, Texas, and should his family ever want to connect to him again, they’ll know where to find him.
— Jae K. Renfrow