Daily Archives: May 24, 2020

Paris, Texas (1984)

*. It is, of course, pointless to ask where Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) has been for the past four years. Was he wandering the desert all that time? This isn’t a question we can gain anything by speculating on. But I think it is a relevant question to ask where he’s going.
*. The reason I think this is a question worth asking is because Paris, Texas is often described as a movie informed by a “mythic” vision of the American West, particularly as filtered through movies like The Searchers. I can see some of this, from Travis’s initial appearance walking out of a landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley, and his later adoption of a 1958 Ford Ranchero as his steed. But I wouldn’t want to go very far in this direction.
*. For all his bow-legs, Travis is not a cowboy. What’s more, and this gets me back to the question I started with, I don’t think he begins the movie anyway as a man on any kind of mission. I say this despite the comment Wim Wenders makes on the commentary track where he describes Travis as on a “mission to find his family and put it back together again.” But Travis is not Ethan Edwards.
*. When Travis comes out of the desert he is not looking to reunite with his family. In fact, he clearly wants nothing at all to do with them, even his well-meaning brother (Dean Stockwell). It’s only later that he begins to bond with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). And even then he doesn’t seem to have any plans on finding his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) until his sister-in-law puts the idea in his head (which I take it is part of a plan on her part to get him out of her house). Then, at the end, he rides off into the sunset, which is hardly putting his family “back together again.”

*. This sense of Travis not being a coherent character — I don’t mean someone who travels a rocky character arc but someone who just doesn’t seem to always be the same person — may have been a product of the fragmented script. I guess Shephard wrote most of the beginning and the end and Wenders and L. M. Kit Carson sort of tried to stick things together as they went along, while also allowing for some improvisation. The results have a kind of patched-together quality, with some scenes, like the ranter on the bridge, not really having any place or purpose at all.
*. Kinski is very good. Her voice coach deserves a lot of praise, as she comes across as perfectly natural, with an accent not unlike Clarice Starling’s. I also like how she plays her one big scene. But is the relationship between Kinski and Stanton credible? Jane looks stunning and Travis, even after he gets cleaned up, looks like “forty miles of rough road.” Not to mention the thirty-year age gap.
*. As David Thomson notes, “I can believe the teenage Kinski could have fallen for [Sam Shephard, the co-screenwriter and someone Wenders originally wanted to play the part] and driven him crazy. But I’m not sure that she would have noticed Harry Dean Stanton.” I share that uncertainty. And I’m even more doubtful that she would still be pining for him, after having escaped being trapped in an abusive relationship with him years earlier. I’d have a hard time believing she’d forgiven him. This is clearly a woman with issues.
*. I suppose one response is just to say this is a male fantasy and the woman here is never really understood. But Jane is given a chance to explain herself and . . . it just doesn’t ring true. I’d almost be willing to believe that Travis was imagining the whole conversation, but I don’t think that’s a real possibility.
*. Watching that scene makes me wonder exactly when it is that Jane realizes Travis is the guy in the booth. Wenders says it only slowly dawns on her, which seems to be how Kinski plays it, but does that make sense? Wouldn’t there be a moment when she knows? Especially as she claims that since she left “every man has [his] voice.” That should make it more recognizable.
*. Do they still have those peep-show booths? The nature of the adult economy has changed so much. 1984 (the year, not the dystopia) seems like another world. Nowadays I guess Jane would have a camshow. But still not be making a lot of money.
*. But then so much has changed. Nick Roddick: “if Paris, Texas is a love letter to America and American cinema, it now also has something of the feel of a farewell. The world to which Wenders pays homage is vanishing fast: not the desert, which is close to eternal, but the pay phones and diners and motels that used to line the approach to every small U.S. town, now replaced by cell phones and McDonald’s and multistory Doubletree Hotels and Quality Inns. All offer a sterile, branded comfort—and all deny the lure of the road, the impulse to keep moving, by affirming that, nowadays, however far you go, it’s still going to look just like home.”

*. The peep-show booth scene is the big set piece. The actors wanted to keep every word of Shephard’s script and Wenders wanted to shoot it “very much as a stage play,” which is how it sounds. So apparently there were several cameras all filming the scene as one long take. It’s perfectly arranged though, even to the point of appearing somewhat schematic, with the sides of the mirror reflecting each other, and with Travis and Jane doing most of their talking while facing away from it. Given the constraints I think it’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking.

*. It’s the look of the movie that stands out. From the green wash of the urban lights to the found poetry of the land and cityscapes everything about it is beautifully rendered.
*. The performance are also all very good, and they stand out the more for this being such a strangely depopulated movie. Houston is as barren as the desert, with everyone locked away in their cars (even when doing their banking) or hotel rooms. I can’t think of another movie that so clearly underlies the growing atomization of society. People in this movie just don’t interact that well, if at all. Communication is done through telephone, walkie-talkie, intercom, or taped messages. Watching Paris, Texas one can understand how the Internet came to dominate social networks so completely, and so quickly. It was another stage of remove, or social isolation, that we were waiting for.
*. I’ll confess I’m less impressed by the story. Even Stanton’s subtle, “tender” voice (in Wenders’ precise judgment) can’t sell me on Travis, who seems a bit too much like the Man Who Fell to Earth. As I’ve already said, I also don’t buy the relationship between Travis and Jane, which is kind of important. I keep finding myself thinking that the whole thing is a dream, or that at least at some point it goes through the looking-glass into a world of fantasy. That story Travis tells sounds made-up, so maybe it never happened. Or maybe he never left L.A. with Hunter. Or maybe he died out in the desert somewhere, and these were his last thoughts.