Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders’ 1984 Paris, Texas might be set in the American Southwest but, if the past is indeed a foreign country, then the movie reaches out to all of us through the memories of one man who does things differently.
Both the landscapes at the start of the film and the lines on the face of the protagonist seem carved by time – this great destroyer of things. However, one must acknowledge that although the gradual elapsing of life itself brings us closer to death, it also fills us with rich experience and relevant wisdom. Like Jesus Christ, our hero comes out of the desert a little wiser than he has supposedly been before that experience. His prudent refusal to speak seems an astute move: look and learn before letting anyone use your words against yourself. Lost and a little confused he may be, but he is not stupid.
Walking across the desert in Texas, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) – thirsty and tired – stops at a trailer camp and then collapses inside a little saloon. As a German doctor examines him, trying to identify who he is, he finds a piece of paper with a phone number on it. The doctor calls his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) in Los Angeles, who agrees to pick Travis up. As Walt gets to the place he learns that his brother just walked away. He finds Travis marching on towards the unknown. Having disappeared for four years, Travis finally meets his brother, who tells him that he is taking Travis home to L.A. They stop at a motel and at the first opportunity Travis wanders off again. On their way to California, Travis finally mentions Paris, in Texas, where he owns a piece of land. This is the place where his parents supposedly conceived him.
In Los Angeles, Travis meets up with Walt’s wife, Anne (Aurore Clément) and his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), who is being looked after his brother and his wife since the disappearance of his parents. In trying to reconnect with his son, further details of Travis’ personality are revealed. It is hinted from a Super 8 home movie that he was deeply in love with his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and that that love was mutual. Anne eventually tells Travis that Jane regularly deposits money into Hunter’s account from a bank in Houston, Texas. As Hunter has been bonding with Travis for the last few days, when his father informs him of the decision to go looking for Jane, he agrees to go along. Travis will eventually find Jane working in a peep show place. At the end, after a long talk, Travis tells Jane that Hunter is at a hotel room waiting for her. As mother and son are reunited, Travis leaves town alone.
..Old Memories Bathed by Golden Sunlight…
Travis Henderson is a man guided by a great contradiction. He seems dominated by the spheres of time other than the present moment. His story is propelled by his past – his memories of it, as well as the present consequences of such past actions – leading him towards a future which excludes him by design. Seen from this perspective, Travis is a very odd protagonist. Perhaps he is supposed to be perceived as the anti-protagonist: a man who initiates all the actions, who consciously seek to affect change in order to achieve a goal, but whose own existence seems irrelevant to the outcome of the narrative. Almost like a ghost in other people’s lives. Some would say, a saint…
From the outset Paris, Texas induces us to think about places which at the end are shown to be empty promises. A man dressed in ragged clothes, unshaven and dirty is in the middle of a desert, surrounded by ancient landscapes shaped by the wind through millenia. As he walks towards the unknown, we obviously ask ourselves, where is he going? By the end of the film, when he departs again – this time, in clean clothes driving a car – we still have no clue where he was coming from or where he was heading in the first place. Even the location referred to in the title of the film and its assumed existence, is no more than a mere photography of a dirty piece of land. In fact, we are not even sure that the place’s relevance to the main character (the town of Paris in Texas is where he was supposedly conceived) is truly valid.
It is this out-of-the-box feeling that permeates the movie and gives meaning to the difficulty in communication found anywhere between parent and child, man and woman, dreamer and pragmatist. Sometimes the miscommunication is contained within the self. Notice few examples of seemly unmotivated actions: 1. Travis seems determined to keep going to the end of the world but passively accepts his brother’s instruction to leave for California; 2. Travis has not seen his son for four years but soon enough wants to reconnect with him; 3. Happily living with his uncle and wife, Hunter seems reluctant to bond with his real father but when he does he soon agrees to depart with him looking for his mother. These plot points that seem awkwardly argued, end up giving weight to a certain intrinsic human contradiction.
It is interesting that Travis’ dramatic arc reflects the inverse trajectory of another great character from Wim Wenders’ follow-up feature film, Wings of Desire (1987). In that movie, the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz), tired of overseeing human activity in Berlin, decides to experience mortal existence, with all its loving and suffering that it entails. Travis seems to wish his journey takes the opposite direction. As a form of redemption, he will influence those around him but does not want to take part in the eventual outcome. Having convinced Jane that she needs to reconnect with her son, Travis hears her pleading for him to stay (and perhaps, start life together afresh?!) but ignores it for some higher purpose – would they be better off without him?
The movie is arguably the high mark in the career of everyone involved in the project. Poignant, visually arresting and filled with endless precious moments, Paris, Texas is one the greatest films of the 80s.