Criterion Project #27: PARIS, TEXAS (1984)

Paris, Texas

Spine #501

Year: 1984

Director: Wim Wenders

Paris, Texas – a film for those that long for the open road, and for the lonely souls who have lost everything and wander in search of nothing.

I go into a decent portion of the plot in this post, so if you haven’t watched it yet I implore you to do so. **Spoilers** are coming.

Any discussion of this film begins and ends with the incredible Harry Dean Stanton. No one else carries off this performance, which allows the late, great actor to utilize every tool at his disposal. His drooped shoulders and lifeless, dangling arms perfectly embody the silent, barren presence of a soul adrift in an endless desert. The lines of his face bear the emptiness of a life in ruin, and simultaneously hide the joy and love dormant beneath the crusty exterior of his sunbaked features. I can’t imagine an actor better suited for the role of Travis, a drifting husk of a human being who wears every ounce of his pain to shield his battered soul and protect the secret deep within him. It’s one of the great performances in cinema.

*On the eve of the 2022 Academy Award nominations I’d like to note this film received zero nominations at the 1985 awards. Zero. Nothing for acting, directing, screenplay, cinematography. Nothing. History has not been kind to the Oscars and omissions like those render their stature nil in my eyes. I used to love the Oscars, but how many times do you read about a film as lasting as Paris, Texas being left out? I’ll never understand how a voting body comprised of “artists” can constantly display an inept appraisal of art. And that’s the end of my rant 🙂

The film begins with the vast, almost endless landscape of the American southwest. A man ambles across the Mojave desert, somehow moving with both definitive purpose and aimless nonchalance. We’ll come to know this man as Travis Henderson. He’s dressed in a ragged, dirty suit and a red baseball cap. When he collapses from dehydration/starvation/exhaustion (take your pick), he’s collected by a local for-profit physician who promptly wishes to rid himself of the seemingly mute drifter. He discovers a single phone number among the man’s few possessions. The number belongs to Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell), Travis’ brother, and our film is underway.

Walt lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Anne (Aurore Clément), and 7-year-old Hunter (newcomer Hunter Carson). We’ll come to find out that Hunter is Travis’ son, who was dumped on Walt and Anne’s doorstep four years earlier – the same time Travis disappeared. Not only that, but Travis’ partner and Hunter’s mom, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), abandoned her life as well. The majority of the film is an exploration into multiple mysteries, both physical and existential – what happened to Travis and Jane, where has he been for the last four years, and why did they leave their son and each other?

New German director Wim Wenders contrasts the arid desert and L.A. cityscape with splashes of saturated greens and reds from gas station signs and glowing neon rooms. The ubiquitous red props ranging from Travis’ hat, to motel bed spreads and carpets, pants, napkins and blinds cast a shadow of a foreign presence. Whether that’s Travis, himself, his unfamiliar surroundings, his re-appearance in his son’s life, or the unknown of his circumstances and eventual outcome of his journey depends on the scene. City vistas are often given a backdrop of pink and purple sunsets juxtaposed with the seemingly quiet and lifeless space below. Much like these contrasts, the film is about a man in two places: half planted firmly on the ground, and the other half unmistakably in the clouds. Throughout these early portions of the film, as Walt attempts to get Travis back home to Los Angeles via interactions both laughable and dramatic, Travis must come to terms with one thing – the answers won’t come from beneath his feet or in the sky. He’ll have to set his body and mind in the same place and direction if he wants to redeem his life and that of his broken family.

The early desert scenes are scored with a minimalist touch seemingly as barren as Travis and the loose dirt beneath his feet. The melodic twang of dusty guitar strings signal the loneliness of a life gone wrong. These notes set the tone for the film, at times imbuing sadness or hope, depending on the situation. And on the odd occasion, suffusing both at the same time. Not unlike our main characters.

The flipside of Travis’ fractured life is that of Walt and Anne, who have taken to caring for Hunter like he was their own child. He has very little recollection of his birth parents and is accustomed to calling Anne and Walt “mom” and “dad”. Being Travis’ brother, Walt tries to facilitate a reunion between the estranged father and son, which upsets Anne, who loves Hunter as if he were her own flesh and blood and fears they will lose him. Wenders handles this situation in a unique way, which ends up being the film’s greatest strength. We commonly see inter-family dynamics and conflicts of this sort take center stage, but Wenders understands which journey this film is taking and which family is at its core. I was fully expecting melodramatic altercations and possibly a physical struggle between Anne, Walt, Hunter, and Travis the first time I watched the film, but these relationships aren’t given as much importance as the re-connection of Travis, Hunter, and Jane. What seems like a potentially central conflict is stirred up, but then is quickly left behind and excised from the story. Anne, in particular, struggles with the ramifications of Travis’ return, though she, herself, is responsible for what transpires in the latter portion of the film. Be that as it may, the focus remains on Travis’ mission and quest for peace. Hopefully, in the end, Anne knows how important her contribution to the resolution actually is.

At this point the primary goal turns to the most central character not glimpsed yet – Travis’ love and Hunter’s biological mother, Jane. The film smartly provides only glimpses of her in the early going, like a ghost haunting the family and, concurrently, the film. Here we wind up back on the road with Travis, this time with the company of Hunter. The film deftly re-establishes their relationship and the re-kindling of a father-son bond through interactions ranging from humorous to heartbreaking, but always organic. The characters, and in a sense, the film, put in the necessary work for this union to grow once more. It’s an incredibly hopeful picture of the power of forgiveness and understanding.

Jane, as it turns out, has been putting money into an account for Hunter every month since she left. This information provides the single detail Travis and Hunter need to find the missing piece of their puzzle. Through various means, somehow both miraculous and gut-wrenching, the boys reach their destination and the film winds down to one of the most purifying conclusions you’ll ever witness. And it does so with the quietness of a Spring rain tapping on your window, whispering its conclusive secret to create a thunderous explosion of emotion, both crushing and joyous – bittersweet catharsis. It’s everything you wanted to know and happen, and everything you didn’t want to know and happen. How this film manages to simultaneously fill your heart while leaving a gaping hole in its wake is a feat of cinematic excellence.

The more I write about this film the more I love it. This was my second viewing and it left me as optimistic and shook as the first, possibly more so this time. If you travel in Criterion circles you’ll hear Paris, Texas mentioned a lot as an essential film. Many times I’m turned off by the hyperbole lobbed around in such groups, but this film exceeded its reputation. It delivers everything I heard and more. I adore this film. One of my highest recommendations.

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