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Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is less about America than “America”

Palme ThursdayPalme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Paris, Texas (1984)

There are men of few words, and then there’s the man of no words who staggers, bleary-eyed and haunted, out of the humid Southwest desert in the opening frames of Paris, Texas. Who is this mute nomad, this traveler weathered by the harsh weather? Wearing decomposing shoes; a faded, red baseball cap; jeans and a tie; and the bearded, distinctive features of Alien actor Harry Dean Stanton, he seems to have returned from some private pilgrimage—or, more abstractly, to have been born from the dust itself. Collapsing inside a saloon, from exhaustion or dehydration or just the shock of civilization, the man awakes to a wanderlust renewed. He will trudge on, along some invisible path, toward some invisible horizon. “What’s out there?” the cavalry, once arrived, demands to know. The man has no answers, just the apparent manifest destiny compelling him forward.


Travis, as it turns out, is the name of this enigmatic character, but that information—like everything else about Stanton’s drifter protagonist—is only gradually revealed. Hell, a full 26 minutes elapse before he utters a single word, finally finding his voice in the backseat of a car. Paris, Texas thrives in the silence and mystery: This is a movie that seems most profound when it’s saying the absolute least, privileging iconography over psychology. Viewing the world through a windshield, it lingers on highways, roadside diners, grand canyons, gas stations, billboards, flickering neon signs, stretches of lonely desert, phone booths, and the gigantic dinosaur sculptures of Cabazon, California. The scenery shifts from the arid expanses of rural Texas to the verdant hills of Los Angeles to the glass and steel of Houston. Even when the characters are inside, they tend to be framed against windows, a vast backdrop greeting them from the other side of the glass.

Last month, I argued that Cannes tends to go for American films that have something important to say about America. Paris, Texas suggests that the festival is just as enamored with non-American films that have something vague to say about “America.” The jury in 1984, which included English actor Dirk Bogarde, French actress Isabelle Huppert, and Italian composer Ennio Morricone, was supposedly unanimous in its selection of Wim Wenders’ movie for the Palme—something that certainly doesn’t happen every year at the world’s most prestigious film festival. A lack of especially formidable competition probably played its part, but there’s no discounting the deep, cinephiliac chord all that stirring western imagery must have struck with the (predominately European) jurors. Even during the Reagan years, American-malaise—as reflected and inflated by the nation’s gorgeous landscapes—possessed a magnetic, romantic allure.

In his original four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert made comparisons to Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, on-the-road classics of shifting national identity and generational yearning. But Paris, Texas is less a spiritual successor to those counter-cultural milestones than a vision of our country from someone whose ideas about the place were shaped by them. As with several of Wenders’ films, it was shot in America, whose history and “character” have long fascinated the New German director. Only an outsider could have conjured so much reverential awe and curiosity, to say nothing of the telltale European intrusions—a German doctor in Texas, a French wife in L.A.—that betray the project’s international roots. The title turns out to be dually appropriate: It conveys not only the application of a European sensibility to an American milieu, but also how unattainable Wenders’ idealized nation is. (Travis owns a plot of land in the titular town, but he never gets there, and the film depicts the location only as a sign in a faded photograph.)

Though it’s rarely acknowledged by its fans, Paris. Texas is essentially three films rolled into one, each designated by a change in location. The best of these is the first one, a kind of brotherly-bonding odyssey that begins in earnest when Walt (Dean Stockwell, of Quantum Leap) learns that Travis, his estranged sibling, has popped up in Texas after mysteriously disappearing for four years. Travis has a young son that he abandoned when he dropped off the grid; Walt, who drives out to retrieve his missing brother, has essentially raised the boy as his own. This conflict will shape later events, but it scarcely disrupts the road-movie bliss of the first act, as these two men traverse the Southwest corner of the map, absorbing lots of cross-country Americana in passing. (Their attempt to fly back to L.A., where Walt lives, is thwarted by Travis’ last-minute insistence that they drive—not necessarily because he’s afraid of flying, à la Rain Man, but because he’s hooked on the highway.)


Why did Travis take off four years earlier? For a while, Paris, Texas allows that question to simply sit, like a third passenger in the car. Wenders, who loves to stick two characters in a vehicle and watch them connect, has never staged a road trip quite as invitingly scenic as this one. He hasn’t done it alone: Sam Shepard, the famous actor and playwright, wrote the screenplay; his handiwork becomes clearer once Travis begins talking again, contributing to one half of the chatty, mobile True West drama happening between these long-lost relatives. Meanwhile, slide guitar master Ry Cooder provides the famous soundtrack, setting scenes on the open road to his plaintive picking. If directing is about the gathering and orchestration of talented collaborators, Wenders proves in this passage that he’s got the chops.

Eventually, the two men arrive in Los Angeles, and Paris, Texas shifts gears, becoming an almost Spielbergian family portrait. (It’s like E.T. without the alien—though maybe Stanton’s wanderer fills that role.) Travis wants to reconnect with his boy, Hunter (Hunter Carson, one of those child actors who doesn’t even appear to be acting), but Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément, with a thick French accent) fears that their reunion may cost her the son she’s grown to love. (SPOILERS HEREAFTER: Her fears are justified.) There’s great tenderness and sentimentality to these scenes, as well as a touch of comedy in Travis’ awkward fumbles toward fatherhood. Wenders treats the endless sprawl of Los Angeles with no less awe than he did the beautiful desolation of the Longhorn State. All of America seems to set his imagination ablaze.


There are faint hints, too, of social commentary. Travis, a creature of an older world, is obsessed with the past—a preoccupation Wenders captures through the character’s almost anguished absorbing of old Super 8 movies and photo albums. At one point, he asks if he can trade his new cowboy boots for his brother’s old, worn ones; symbolically, he’s clearly prepping for a march into history. This interest in moving backward, instead of forward, makes him an anachronism in modern L.A.—a fish out of water in an ocean of dubious “progress.” When he proposes walking Hunter home from school so they catch up, the kid replies, “Nobody walks.” Later, when trying to dress for the part of patriarch, someone insists that “you either have to be a rich father or a poor father.” There’s no in-between in America, Wenders implies.

The third and final chapter of the movie begins when Travis resolves to find his wife, agreeing to bring Hunter along with him on this great search. (Notably, he does not ask his brother and sister-in-law for permission to do so.) In theory, the development is welcome, as it gets Paris, Texas back on the road. But I’m inclined to agree with the great critic Vincent Canby, whose contemporaneous review bemoaned the turn the film takes when reuniting its anti-hero with his lost love. There’s just something weirdly banal and unsatisfying about the explanation Wenders and Shepard belatedly supply. What drove Travis to abandon his family and flee for the freedom of Mexico? I’m afraid it’s nothing more complicated than a case of run-the-mill relationship troubles, revealed during a very long monologue that places Travis on one side of a two-way mirror and his ex, Jane (Nastassja Kinski)—now dancing at a seedy Houston strip club to make ends meet—on the other.


Granted, the way Wenders stages this bittersweet reunion is glorious. The twin booths, divided by glass that allows Travis to see Jane but not vice versa, beautifully conveys the emotional and temporal gulf that’s grown between the lovers. Kinski, too, is remarkable in the role, allowing the realization of who’s on the other side of the barrier to slowly creep across her face. (There’s also a miraculous shot, after all the cards have been placed on the table, of Stanton’s face superimposed over Kinski’s.) But none of this can quite transcend the underwhelming nature of the narrative reveal; whereas so much of Paris, Texas feels almost mythological in its power, with Travis cast as a fabled figure of American restlessness, the resolution of the film’s mystery turns the story into something much smaller and more ordinary.

Furthermore—and this may seem nitpicky to some, but so be it—the manner in which Wenders wraps up the complicated issue of who Hunter belongs with is frustratingly reductive. Walt and Anne don’t even get a proper farewell; they’re last seen pleading with their adopted child to come home, or at least to put his biological father on the phone. At this point, Hunter is their son—they’ve raised him since his formative years. Leaving these characters hanging on the line, without a single gesture toward their predicament, is almost cruel. Paris, Texas builds to an ostensibly touching reconciliation between mother and son that takes the de facto parents out of the equation. One could argue that Wenders is after something more timeless than a custody struggle, but to introduce such a grounded conflict and then basically abandon it in favor of a Hallmark conclusion seems cheap. Some may be left counterintuitively wondering what happened to the movie’s stealth heroes, who ponied up to the responsibility of parenthood, only to have their efforts rewarded with a thoughtless disruption of their new domestic bliss.


Ultimately, falling for Paris, Texas depends on accepting it on its mythopoetic terms, and forgiving it its dramatic failures. The film is most satisfying, most moving, when it’s at its most narratively vague: There’s more power in its sightseeing, in its cultural tourism, than there is in the therapy session to which it belatedly amounts. What Wenders is chasing for so much of the runtime is the mirage of America. I can’t help but wish he had stayed in the desert, languishing in his illusion rather than trying to see what lay beyond it.

Did it deserve to win? From what I’ve seen of the ’84 Cannes lineup: yes. Wenders’ New German compatriot Werner Herzog also had a film in competition, the Aussie aboriginal drama Where The Green Ants Dream. For once, I prefer Wenders’ mythology to Herzog’s. Lars Von Trier made his feature-film debut with The Element Of Crime, a wildly entertaining genre mishmash that lacks the discipline and conceptual adventurousness of the Danish director’s later work. The Bounty is an interesting but less-than-remarkable adaptation of an oft-told tale, with Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh and a very young Mel Gibson as Mr. Christian. Speaking of page-to-screen transplants, there was also John Huston’s troubled, ambitious adaptation of Malcom Lowry’s Under The Volcano—a film everyone expected to do better at Cannes than it did. (Albert Finney, in the role of a drunk former diplomat, is phenomenal.) For its flaws, Paris, Texas still feels like the most idiosyncratic and enduring of these cinematic visions—even as I vastly prefer Wings Of Desire, Wenders’ true masterpiece.


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