Mar 18, 2014
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective for one to truly appreciate their own nation and its idiosyncrasies, or at least that is the conclusion that I and many other people have drawn after watching the West German-French-UK-USA co-production Paris, Texas (1984) directed by German auteur Wim Wenders (The American Friend, Until the End of the World). Indeed, while a work featuring a number of less than cultivated American characters that have been known to live in trailer parks and drink their fair share of whisky and beer, Paris, Texas also depicts the United States, namely the scorching Southwest, as a place with an almost mystical and fantasy-like landscape while simultaneously demystifying the region via its tragic and less-than-larger-than-life characters. In that sense, Wenders' film seems partially like an American (anti)Heimat film, thus making it all the more ironic that Paris, Texas was directed by a German of ½ Dutch extraction and shot by Dutch master cinematographer Robby Müller (Die Wildente aka The Wild Duck, To Live and Die in L.A.). Based on a curious character study written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American actor/playwright Sam Shepard, Paris, Texas is like a Teutonized slice of Lynchian Americana (the fact that Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell star in the film only adds to this), albeit minus the wayward and whimsical weirdness and goofy degenerate jazz scores. Probably the most successful example of German New Cinema meets Hollywood, Paris, Texas demonstrated that, for at least a second, Wenders—the undisputed master of road movies—was successful from making the transition from kraut auteur to Hollywood maverick (which he failed to do previously while working on Hammett (1982) with Francis Ford Coppola) and that the European arthouse film could be made palatable for culturally-retarded Americans. Unanimously winning the coveted ‘Palme d'Or’ at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas has certainly obtained a rather prestigious reputation in the cinephile world, yet I would hesitate to call it a unflawed masterpiece, let alone Wenders’ greatest work, but it is indubitably one of the most important films of the 1980s as a picturesque, if not pathologically melancholy, celluloid postcard of some of America’s most cinematically under-appreciated geography and landscapes. A more ‘optimistic’ take on what great American Guido Vincent Gallo would later attempt in his much hated arthouse work The Brown Bunny (2003), Paris, Texas follows an irreparably internally wounded man (who does not speak for the first 26 minutes of the film!) who is haunted by the past and is thus incapable of treading on to the future, thus being in sync with the post-WWII German New Cinema theme of the ‘inability to mourn.’ Dedicated to German Jewish film historian Lotte H. Eisner and featuring a small role by Austrian leftist auteur Bernhard Wicki (Die Brücke aka The Bridge, The Longest Day), Paris, Texas is also a sort of quasi-cryptic tribute to Wenders’ roots.
Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) is a man suffering from a seemingly selective form of amnesia who collapses upon entering a saloon after hardly being able to bear the rather arid South Texas desert landscape. Travis is treated by a Germanic doctor named Ulmer (Bernhard Wicki), but refuses to answer the good doc’s questions. After finding a random phone number on Travis, the doctor manages to get in contact with the seemingly mute man’s brother, Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell), who agrees to pick him up and bring him back to Los Angeles, California. As it turns out, Travis had been missing for four years and Walt assumed he was dead and decided to adopt his brother’s little boy Hunter (Hunter Carson, who is the progeny of writer L. M. Kit Carson and actress Karen Black), who was abandoned by both his young mother and mentally ill father. When Walt arrives in South Texas, Travis has already fled Ulmer’s place, but the concerned brother eventually finds his big bro wandering along the roadside all by his lonesome. Rather annoyed by Travis’ silence, Walt attempts to verbally beat out some answers from Travis, but it is only upon looking at a map of ‘Paris, Texas’ (a place he theorizes is where he was conceived) that the ostensibly mute mensch breaks his silly silence. Since Travis seems to be suffering from a variety of autistic tendencies, he refuses to fly in a plane, so Walt is forced to drive his brother back to LA. When the two arrive in Los Angeles, Travis is reintroduced to his son Hunter and Walt’s French wife Anne (Aurore Clément), with the former acting somewhat dismissive of his biological father and the latter doing her darnedest to comfort her seemingly impenetrable brother-in-law. After watching some old Super-8 home-video footage of himself, ex-wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), and baby son Hunter, Travis begins to remember the former life he has tried so hard to forget. Acting like a skittish man-child, Travis gets some help from a Mexican maid on how to ‘look like a father’ and begins showing up at Hunter’s school in an awkward attempt to break the ice with the son he once abandoned. Over the next couple days, father and son finally develop an almost childish bond and after Anne tells Travis that his ex-wife Jane deposits money for her son each month at a bank in Houston, Texas, the fallen family man gets it in his head that he will hunt down his beloved, with Hunter agreeing to help him with the almost juvenile search plan/adventure.
Without saying a word to Walt and Anne, Travis and Hunter hit the road and develop a rather heartwarming father-son relationship that seemed all but impossible only a couple days before. After spotting Jane at the bank in Houston that she deposits money at each month, Travis and Hunter follow her to what is ultimately a sleazy strip club. Forcing Hunter to wait in the car for obvious reasons, Travis enters the strip club and eventually comes face-to-face with his ex-wife Anne, but she does not know it, as she is the ‘performer’ in a one-way mirror peepshow room where she cannot see the ‘customers.’ Assumedly shocked by Anne’s dubious choice of occupation and the fact this is the first time he has seen his ex-wife in a number of years, Travis leaves the strip club without saying a word and instead opts for getting wasted at a bar and contemplating his next move. The next day, Travis leaves Hunter at the Meridien Hotel in downtown Houston and finally gets the gall to ‘connect’ with Jane. Once again entering the stripper peepshow booth with the one-way mirror he had entered the day before, Travis tells Jane a story about a young girl and a much older man who were deeply in love and who had a child together, but whose romance had imploded after the man became insanely jealous and alcohol-addled, thus forcing the young girl to make her great escape, ultimately abandoning her husband and young son. Eventually, Jane realizes that Travis is on the other side of the mirror and the two ‘touch’ in a symbolic scene where their hands are separated by a pesky mirror. Indeed, in this ‘peepshow’ scene, which is arguably the most important and certainly most climatic scene of Paris, Texas, Travis finally reveals the source of his initial wordlessness and amnesia as a man who made it up in his mind to go to a nowhere land “without language or streets.” While Jane pleads for Travis to stay, he knows there is no hope for their relationship (after all, she makes her living peddling her flesh goods) and instead tells his ex-wife to reunite with their son at the Meridien Hotel. In the end, Jane and Hunter are reunited and Travis drives away all by his lonesome in what is a rather bittersweet ending.
In an interview with female filmmaker Allison Anders (Border Radio, Gas, Food Lodging) featured as an extra feature on the Criterion Collection release of Paris, Texas, she makes the somewhat impressive claim that Wenders’ film almost single-handedly sparked the American ‘Indie Film’ movement that reached its peak in the early 1990s. Indeed, Paris, Texas would prove to be a hit film with many important American artists of the 1990s, with both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith naming it as their favorite film, which is rather ironic since both men committed suicide under dubious circumstances. Undoubtedly, in its innate existentialist angst, Paris, Texas is most certainly a ‘bummer’ of a film and I find it rather humorous that a German filmmaker would release a sort of aesthetic Weltschmerz plague on American artists, as a sort of metaphysical revenge for the Second World War and subsequent physical and spiritual colonization of the Fatherland by American forces. It is also interesting to note that star Harry Dean Stanton, who has spent most of his career playing support roles as a character actor, has named Paris, Texas as his personal favorite of the films he has acted in. Aside from inspiring suicidal grunge musicians, I think the creators of hit meth-themed AMC crime-drama Breaking Bad (2008-2013) certainly owe an aesthetic debt to Wim Wenders and his Dutch buddy Robby Müller, as the arid aesthetic prowess of the TV shows seems almost unimaginable were it not for Paris, Texas, a work that makes the epic of English auteur David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) seem superlatively superficial in their depictions of vast landscapes. Like a Europeanized western lacking cowboys and Indians and romantic views of the wild west that somehow still manages to be romantic in its rampant melancholia, Wenders' Paris, Texas is not unlike its cinematic grandfather F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), as a sort of cross-national anomaly of cinema history that demonstrates what a real cinematic artist can do with the resources of Hollywood. As someone who has always seen Wim Wenders, not unlike Volker Schlöndorff, as having always been more ‘Americanized’ than his contemporaries of German New Cinema like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Werner Herzog, and Werner Schroeter, Paris, Texas certainly seems like the film the auteur was born to make, so it should be no surprise that the director stated of the film himself in an interview with Roger Willemsen, “Everything before was practice which enabled me to make this film. And all the other films taken together were a kind of platform for it.” A film where the landscape and music (undoubtedly, Ry Cooder’s score is nearly immaculate) are just as much, if not more so, characters in the film as the lead characters themselves, Paris, Texas is ultimately an ‘existentialist’ exercise in cinematic form and a work that belongs to the category of films Wenders once described as ‘emotion pictures.’ Of course, I must admit that my emotions are more in sync with a Herzog film than a Wenders flick, so the tone of Paris, Texas is somewhat alien to me due to its passivity, though it is an alien essence that I welcome from time to time by re-watching the film every couple years or so.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:22 PM
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