Paris, Texas (1984, USA, 197 min.)
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriter: Sam Shepard
Awards: Cannes IFF 1984 – Palme d’Or, FIPRESCI Prize, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
BY STEVEN GRAY
The film was put together half a lifetime ago, its reputation as phantasmagoric as the medium, and yet I didn’t get around to watching it until a few days ago. I’m not sure what held me back. I may be under the influence of unconscious forces that are wary and discerning, when they’re not a little self-destructive. I had an intuition that it would fall flat as the desert. I have spent a lot of time in the desert, but it’s usually the high country with rock formations. I don’t need to flat-line when I’m getting close to the earth.
“If life sometimes feels like you’re in a bad Sam Shepherd script, you might want to call for a rewrite or get another writer.”
The film was directed by the man who made Wings of Desire, a high-flown credential. The story was from the man who wrote True West and acted in The Right Stuff. He also slept with Patti Smith when she was more or less unknown. The man in the lead role is a sad sack who is usually a character actor, like in Repo Man. If the film went off the tracks, having him in the lead role had something to do with it. But then he didn’t have a lot to work with.
There is a scene in the comic strip “Peanuts” where Lucy pretends to read a book, “A man was born, he lived and he died. The End.” Linus muses, “Fascinating… it almost makes you wish you had known the fellow.” The writer behind this film is operating on a similar basis. Whether he is lazy or he has limitations as a writer, he presents a barebones sketch of a character. It makes for an unearned suspense, leaning on the contrivance of withholding information. Not hard to do if you don’t have any information in the first place, having made up a character in arbitrary circumstances – walking aimlessly in the desert – and never mind if some things don’t make sense. It’s like a dream where things are unexplained. Have you noticed how your eyes glaze over when someone is telling you a dream they had? Welcome to Paris, Texas.
The movie was a letdown (so was Inland Empire by David Lynch, in my opinion). It may have been intentional, in order to convey what life is really like in this over-hyped country. On the other hand, Waiting for Godot was written in Europe, so maybe existence is a letdown in other parts of the world. It is reassuring to blame it on the town or country one lives in, instead of on the circumstances of being human, which is like blaming yourself. I was struck with how the landscape has a presence in the film, not only as a dramatic setting, but as something which deforms the people in the story.
“Newsweek referred to the film as ‘a story of the United States, a grim portrait of a land where people like Travis and Jane cannot put down roots, a story of a sprawling, powerful, richly endowed land where people can get desperately lost.'” (1)
Never mind that millions of people have managed to put down roots in the same land and not get lost. If Travis and Jane can’t do it, it is because the man who wrote this story doesn’t want them to, otherwise he doesn’t have a story. If life sometimes feels like you’re in a bad Sam Shepherd script, you might want to call for a rewrite or get another writer. Vincent Canby referred to the film as “extremely diluted Sam Shepherd.” The latter wrote the screenplay, along with the man who wrote Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (and whose son is in the film), but diluted subjects are a stock in trade for the emotional eyewash known as film.
Where was I, losing track of Travis. He floats away the minute I turn my back, like a balloon when you let go of the string. An existential crisis in the land of the free. A few things don’t add up, and the suspense is killing time. The two-dimensional are leaving town.
“It is a road film full of cognitive dissonance, along with the ‘pathos of distance.’ Wim Wenders probably won’t mind if I use a phrase from Nietzsche. The director is known for leaning on the road to generate a motion picture.”
If Travis and Jane are rootless, it is their own fault. As he describes it near the end of the film, and four years after their marriage fell apart, he was a jerk. He would quit his jobs because he didn’t want to be away from her. A fine sentiment, except he didn’t trust her. He was jealous and possessive. He tied her to the stove in the kitchen so she wouldn’t run off when he was sleeping. He was drinking in those days, and is a lot older. That is something else which doesn’t make sense – she was young when they were together, living in a trailer of eternal love, while he is old enough to be a grandfather. Harry Dean Stanton was nearly 60 when the film was made in 1984, and Natassja Kinski was in her early 20’s. It would take someone a lot more dynamic than him to hold her attention – perhaps a man like Sam Shepherd. It makes a little more sense to imagine him in that role, except for one thing. The character is a spaced-out passive wreck of a man, and that is not in Sam’s repertoire. One reviewer compared him to a ghost.
I did not like the character of Travis – suspecting it was a composite dreamy fake-out. He hasn’t seen the love of his life for four years, but when he tracks her to a peepshow in Houston he only talks to her from behind a window. That is more than pathetic, it is unlikely. I thought, IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. Maybe it is supposed to convey the alienation of Americans – the concept is lapped up by this German/French production with a German director – but it’s lame. Who would do that? I don’t like it when men are reduced to a spineless state, but we have no idea how he got like that.
It reminds me of when Kerouac drank himself to death, and certain sympathetic people wanted to blame the system. Civilization invented whiskey (2), and may have pointed him in that direction, but the whiskey took over as his brain eroded. It is stronger than us. We don’t know what reduced Travis to the state he was in, wandering through a barren terrain with a plastic bottle (which he leaves in the dirt). An exposure to the elements for months or years would do it – whatever got him started, the desert took over and burned the life out of him. Or was he a zombie after going on a drug and alcohol binge and he never quite recovered? The scene of him walking on those railroad tracks reminds me of Neal Cassady’s fatal walk on some tracks in Mexico. The vanishing point was his own. He was allegedly on barbiturates.
I used to see a man walking on the streets of this town, staying close to the parked cars. He was in his 30’s with a beard, thick glasses, and walking with a zombie-like gait, his arms hanging loosely by his sides. I never heard him talk, except for one time when he was yelling obscenities, like he was off his meds. I thought he was an acid casualty who took one too many trips and didn’t make it all the way back.
People can get “desperately lost” in this country, but it may have something to do with an ethos of “every man for himself.”
The film opens with a man stumbling through a gorgeous wilderness in Texas. He is wearing a dirty old suit and a red baseball cap. Probably eccentric. The film doesn’t live up to the aesthetic background. I was mystified by the reviews of people who thought the film was beautiful. It has nowhere near the aesthetic integrity of No Country for Old Men, or even the TV series, Breaking Bad. There was too much time spent in boring surroundings. I wondered if the director thought that’s what this country is about, so let’s wallow in the mundane and get sentimental while we’re at it. The film was “weirdly banal and unsatisfying,” as A.A. Dowd put it.
“Speaking of musicians, this was the favorite film of Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith, both of whom were suicides. Smith said he liked the film because there was ‘no bad guy,’ but what about Travis and how he treated his wife when they were together?”
I know that foreigners can have a fresh and interesting grasp of this country when they write about it, from Lolita to the journal by de Tocqueville. This movie is a foreign production, but it was saddled with a homegrown story (3). Something was lost in the translation, and that is deadly for a film that is 2 ½ hours long. The story is loaded with symbolic portent, like it is on the way to being the Great American Movie, but it’s not firing on all cylinders. The wanderer has a brother in the billboard industry and his ex-wife works in a peepshow. Whoa, I’m getting future shock. It would be better to drop this notion of American exceptionalism – especially when it comes to books and movies about the human condition – and admit that alienation, corporations, and – get ready for it – dysfunctional relationships, are found in other countries.
I seem to have lost track of Travis again, like he is doing a long walk off a short stage. Having established the weakness of the main character, what is one to make of the intense soundtrack by Ry Cooder? His slide guitar is informed by “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” from the gospel-blues musician Blind Willie Johnson. It gives the film an unearned gravitas. Taken a step further, it would be like hearing the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly while watching a bland film about child custody.
Speaking of musicians, this was the favorite film of Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith, both of whom were suicides. Smith said he liked the film because there was “no bad guy,” but what about Travis and how he treated his wife when they were together?
A reviewer didn’t treat her very well either: “Miss Kinski… is memorably miscast. The more she tries to act, the worse her performance becomes, which is more than unfortunate, considering the importance of her scenes to the end of the film” (Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1984). I read this before I saw the film and thought she would be bouncing off the walls in a fit of overacting, but instead I found her restrained. I’m not sure why, considering the voice on the other side of the one-way mirror in the strip-club is her husband who she hasn’t seen in years. Why would it take her so long to recognize his voice? When I get a call from an ex-girlfriend in Colorado who I haven’t seen in many years, I recognize her immediately.
It is a road film full of cognitive dissonance (4), along with the “pathos of distance.” Wim Wenders probably won’t mind if I use a phrase from Nietzsche. The director is known for leaning on the road to generate a motion picture. There is a built-in motion when you drive, with the windshield like a movie screen within a movie screen. You have two people talking in a car, the passing sights are edited, and every now and then the car pulls off the highway for a change of pace. It is more about hypnosis while you’re waiting for a story to develop.
(2) It may have been the other way around, beginning with beer in Egypt.
(3) While it won the prize for best movie at the Cannes Film Festival, it didn’t win any awards in the U.S. and only made about $2,000,000. It’s a low-budget movie and it shows.
(4) For those who’re interested in what happens when you put a German film crew in the desert, I would suggest Willow Springs (1973), written and directed by Werner Schroeter. “A feminist cult survives by robbing and killing passersby at their remote desert ranch. The… cult leader Magdalena refuses to work for the Yankee dollar… she subjugates her two followers, who are forced to listen to the music of German opera all the time… But the lesbian masochist’s iron rule over the rundown California ranch is questioned when a mother-loving young male wanderer…stops in and romances the cult’s meek slave Ila….” (IMDb).
Watch the trailer for Paris, Texas-