The American West meets a harsh ’80s reality.
If you have any feeling for film, the first few shots of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) will take you captive. The camera coasts above the Mojave Desert, past buttes shaved thin by geological processes you can only begin to consider if you break free from your recollections of the Western and the realization that John Ford never climbed so high to look down on the landscape he defined for generations of moviegoers. The helicopter perspective in Paris, Texas would be entirely regal if the camera didn’t gently list from one side to the other. The whole movie is in that initial shot: continental scale and human frailty. Just as you’re adjusting to the purely American topography, a tiny figure is glimpsed making its way across the landscape. An edit both jarring and eerily graceful delivers a close-up of a vulture alighting, then we cut to the figure as he comes to a halt. He has no horse, no gun. Just a plastic water jug and a face that looks like it’s been dragged over miles of red dirt. The actor is Harry Dean Stanton, poised to step out of the ranks of supporting actors you love and join the icons that broke your heart. His extraordinary, long face seems to have weathered the history of human calamity, yet the way his eyes search out the distance makes him as blank as the desert. He’s funny-looking too, in a red cap and suit jacket with absurdly pointy lapels. Ford would have cast him as a card shark or a traveling preacher with a revolver cut into his Bible, but he also would have been kind enough to provide him with a seat in the stagecoach. In Wenders’s hands, he’s an enigma great enough to fill the wilderness of the movie screen. His eyes pan toward the vulture and we see what he sees. Then he takes the last slug from his water bottle, litters, and heads on into the desert. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar, a whirlpool of metallic hum and drawling notes that has been with us since the credits, pulls us deeper.
It turns out the man is called Travis and he’s been missing for four years. His brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) travels from LA to pick him up at a trailer park-cum-medical facility. Walt takes it easy with his apparently shell-shocked brother, but eventually he starts to ask where the hell Travis has been all this time. Travis isn’t answering—that or anything else. Here in the tension between silence and talk lies the mystery of Paris, Texas, a glory and limitation that could be applied to the movies in general. The more Walt asks Travis where he’s been, the less we care. We want to know where he’s going, despite the fact that director of photography Robby Müller’s mile-wide shots of electricity pylons and railroad tracks slicing into an empty horizon bear witness to Walt’s statement that there is “nothing out there.” The movies create the illusion of being in the present tense, but are intrinsically in the past. By the time you’re watching, whatever happened happened, and what happened before that is usually extraneous. Many of the great detective movies—The Big Sleep, Chinatown, the upcoming Inherent Vice—border on the incomprehensible because their directors understand that backstory isn’t the point; the point is the moment and the mystery of where it might lead. Compare any of these movies to the leaden explanatory monologue at the end of The Maltese Falcon and you’ll know what I mean. A movie that ends with a long monologue explaining what happened before the movie started probably isn’t very good. Paris, Texas is the exception that proves the rule.
We never do find out much about where Travis has been in the four years since he left his young wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and infant son Hunter (Hunter Carson), but we intuit that his destination is a plot of land he owns in Paris, Texas. The land we see in the photo Travis carries around is about as flat and uninviting a piece of real estate as North America has to offer. Yet it’s the pinnacle of his dreams, the place where he believes he was conceived and where he wants to reunite his scattered family. There’s nothing out there, except what you yearn for. Paris, Texas is the place you’ll never get to and the place you’ve always been, which are not mutually exclusive propositions if we accept that wishes live elsewhere than the body. The contradiction in the title expresses the impossibility of the dream—the Paris we know is not in Texas—but each of the words’ imaginative weight conveys the dream’s intensity.
The odd coupling of a city in Europe and a state in America is matched by the two names above the title—director Wenders and writer Sam Shepard, then both at their creative peaks, both lovers of the American West, but acutely different kinds of myth makers. Shepard contributed his larger-than-life, thicker-than-blood combustive brothers and lovers to Paris, Texas, but a child and a man teaming up to search for a mother, as Travis and his son do, is pure Wenders (see his early masterpiece Alice in the Cities). The differences go deeper. Wenders is a filmmaker of long silent stretches, of looking out the window and turning the raggedy nothing into a monument of projected light. Shepard is a playwright most interested here in what made the peaks and valleys of twentieth-century naturalist American drama: long third-act speeches that reveal why a character is what he is. When Travis finally finds Jane sitting in a fake hotel room behind a one-way mirror in a peep show cabin in Houston and embarks on a long story about “a man and a woman he used to know,” the improbable theatrical conceit just about scuttles the movie.
Somehow, Paris, Texas overcomes its stagey finale. Why? Because it’s Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas. It’s the thing he wanted most, the landscape most exotic to a German kid born in 1945, a place so naturally outsized that he can casually use full-scale replicas of dinosaurs as half-lit backdrops to his parking lot dialogue scenes. Wenders makes no bones about loving and breaking the illusion. When the camera first reverses inside the peep show cabin to film from Jane’s point of view, we see that her side of the glass is surrounded by exposed insulation. So much for fantasy. A decade earlier, Peter Bogdanovich had paid tribute to the great Western directors in The Last Picture Show by coupling the horizontal grandeur of their black and white shots with the straitening reality of small-town Texas life. But Wenders does not seek to uncover the tawdry or deliver an elegy; he celebrates the illusion, filming Jane like Our Lady of the Peep Show. He wants to keep the myth alive a little longer. In that sense, the movie’s most realistic touch is the recurrent reference to Hunter’s love of Star Wars: branded sheets, action figures, “a galaxy far, far away.” In 1984, every eight-year old was into Star Wars and every filmmaker knew that it had changed the game forever, magnifying the business and reducing the art. Harsh ’80s reality.
Paris, Texas screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Friday, November 28 and Sunday, November 30.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.