“I knew these people…These two people. They were in love with each other. The girl was very young, about 17 or 18, I guess. And the guy was quite a bit older. He was kind of raggedy and wild. And she was beautiful, you know. And together they turned everything into a kind of adventure.”
So begins one of the most famous monologues from arguably one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history. Released in 1984, Paris, Texas unanimously won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year, and 32 years later it remains a film of extraordinary beauty and power. Film critic Robert Ebert simply dubbed it “true, deep and brilliant.” It is the work of a master director (Wim Wenders), a great writer (Sam Sheppard), an expert cinematographer (Robby Muller) and an outstanding cast of actors (Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clement and Hunter Carson.)
The film is essentially a poetic fable of loss, set against the lonely and mythic landscapes of Western America. But there is also a rare alchemy at work in Paris Texas, a synergy between the films highly visual nature and Ry Cooder’s mesmerising score, which seems to sear it permanently into the viewer’s emotional memory.
The opening scene begins with a man walking out of the desert in Southern Texas, his haunted fragility evoking images of Christ emerging from his 40 days and 40 nights. Ravaged by heat and thirst, he comes to a tap that yields no water. He walks on to find a roadside bar where he collapses, winds up in the care of an opportunistic doctor and is eventually picked up by his loyal and loving brother. The pair then embark on a road trip back to Los Angeles.
Except for Ry Cooder’s sparse slide guitar, the film is completely silent up until this point and we are left to contemplate what might drive a person to walk out into the desert towards nothing but the inevitable point of collapse.
The story, which lies between main protagonists Travis, his estranged wife Jane, their eight year old son Hunter, and Travis’s brother Walt and his wife Anne, unfolds slowly and with minimal dialogue.
During a stopover on the journey home, Walt returns to a motel room to find Travis gone and discovers him walking along the nearby railroad tracks. Walt implores him to come back, but Travis seems trapped between one wilderness and another; between escaping back into the void and returning to face what was left behind, which seems to point to the central question of the film. “What’s out there?” Walt asks him, and then answering his own question, “There’s nothing out there.” Sensing it to be true Travis reluctantly gets into the car and embark upon the difficult journey back to LA and back into his past.
Travis returns to stay with Walt and Anne who for the last four years have been raising his son Hunter as their own. There is a scene here where Travis is encouraged to watch a home video of them all together on a beach with Jane. Bathed in sunlight, Travis and Jane appear happy and in love. These images are all Hunter has had to remember his parents by and as he sits beside a fish tank watching his father’s painful reactions, his gaze shifts between the images on the screen and the fish behind the glass, which he presses his small hands up against. A poignant symbol of how both scenes are immensely visceral, but ultimately untouchable. We wonder what cataclysmic event must have occurred to shatter this perfect image and cause Jane and Travis to abandon both each other and their son.
Ultimately, Travis and Hunter set off in search of Jane and eventually find her in Houston. It is at this point that the film addresses the question of what has happened to set Jane and Travis on their current paths. They answer using a series of metaphors (“he tied a cow bell to her ankle so he could hear it if she tried to get out of bed”) and literal recollections (“I kept talking to you for so long after you left.”) Painful longings must finally be reconciled with uncompromising realities.
Everywhere throughout the film there are recurring images of people trapped behind glass. From Hunter’s hands pressed up against the fish tank in the super eight scene, to the wall of thick glass that Travis watches through as Hunter and Jane re-unite, to the one way window of the peep show where Travis and Jane are reduced to talking like strangers to each other through a phone line and speaker. There is an unforgettable image in this scene where Jane gets down on her knees, hands pressed up against the glass, and tries to see through it to the other side, “Is that you Travis?” she asks, but there is no real way for them to touch. No way back. It is a potent example of the visual language used to communicate themes of alienation and loss that run throughout the entire film: themes of loving and caring but being unable to touch or be touched.
The film’s title; Paris Texas, alludes to the distinctly European treatment given to a film about America by it’s German director; Wim Wenders. In speaking about the influence Wenders had upon his own work, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) comments that Paris, Texas is “not a film for Americans made through American eyes. It is a film about America made by a European.” This is evident in the films “absolute confidence in silence, it’s lack of need to talk for the whole time. In the courage it has to hold single shots and silences.” The films lack of a conventional leading man is another hallmark. Wenders commented that he chose Harry Dean Stanton because “he is one of the few adults I know who has kept alive within him the child that is dead within most adults.” Indeed, Stanton seems to embody an innocence and a vulnerability rarely seen in American depictions of leading men. There is also a German doctor, Walt’s French wife Anne, the character of Jane played by European actress Nastassja Kinski, and the vacant block of land that Travis bought in a place literally named Paris, Texas. But perhaps most compelling of all is the American landscape itself, rendered vast and lonely through the eyes of a European film maker who began his career as a painter. All of this combines to create a sense of otherness that makes a familiar America seem somehow strange, as though we are seeing it for the very first time.
When Paris, Texas was first released there were several reviewers who while loving the film for its mythic symbolism and cinematography, felt that it’s narrative was ultimately a letdown. “What the movie – rather tardily – seems to be about” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times “is the difficulty in communication between men and women.” Or as A.A Dowd put it; “The resolution of the films mystery turns it into something much smaller and more ordinary.” But this criticism seems to miss one of the film’s most fundamental points.
For me, Paris, Texas is a film of profound insight into the very ordinary and common nature of the things that break us. It is a film about what can happen to us when the love we live for is shattered. A mythical fable that holds up a mirror to anyone who ever lost their family, their greatest love or themselves. It is about grief, running away, losing yourself in an indifferent world and finally returning to recover the pieces, on your knees. Making right what can be made right, finding the strength to let go of what cannot be made right and ultimately resolving to move on in the shadow of great loss. If you ever took a shot at loving another person and missed, you will recognise yourself in Paris, Texas.