Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas ★★★★★

The opening notes of Ry Cooder's score that accompany the title card are almost alchemical in the way they accomplish so much with so little. With this first salvo, along with the opening shot of Travis engulfed by the open desert that is implied to be from a bird's perspective, Wenders sets the mood and some of the themes of the overall film with astonishing clarity and precision. The dominant emotions are undoubtedly sorrow, regret, and isolation, but it feels more than a little exhilarating, such is the nature of Wenders' portrayal of the American West. Indeed, this movie feels at least a little like a Western in the way it explores the harshness of its setting and its use of an (initially) taciturn protagonist, but it ultimately is much, much more than that.

Paris, Texas uses the travels and struggles of one man in order to dissect an entire nation. Through its exploration of the desert, the suburbs, and the city, Wenders creates an all-encompassing examination of the ways of life that are predominant in the various regions. The desert is portrayed in a harsh and unforgiving manner; while it is certainly not a wasteland, it is almost devoid of life, both in the small towns that seem to pop up in the middle of nowhere and in the picture of the vacant lot that Travis treasures so much. For him, Paris, Texas seems to have been his only sign of hope or connection to society during his self-imposed exile due to its association with his past, but it is still in actuality a patch of dirt, little more than a dream and a reminder of his past for him.

The suburbs are an uneasy hybrid of the desert and the city, possessing the best and the worst characteristics of both. It is perhaps the most conducive area to regular, day-to-day life, but it has a certain hollowness, trapped in between the openness of the desert and the modernistic ubiquitousness technology of the city, with the airplanes serving as a constant reminder. There is a lack of fascination personified in Walt and Anne, and it is certainly not implausible that Hunter was seeking to leave that behind when he leaves with Travis. The city is perhaps the most alien area of all, with its towering skyscrapers and modernistic buildings, symbolized best by the bank, which seems more like the spaceships that Hunter is fascinated with than an actual functional building.

Paris, Texas is also, fundamentally, an anti-romance. Though the two lovers are only present on-screen together in two scenes and the home movie, there is a sense of yearning that is continually present throughout the film. The first mention of Hunter comes quite early in the film, and the first mention of Jane comes soon after, clueing the viewer into a large part of Travis's past. His melancholy is strongly apparent, and much of the pathos of the film is conjured up by his reflections upon and his reactions to the past, much of which is directly or indirectly related to Jane, who is in some way responsible, either through her own or his own fault, for all of his fears and failings. In a film that is filled with more than a handful of exceptionally powerful scenes, the two strongest are the two booth scenes, which feel almost like exorcisms in their revelatory nature of the pain that the two had visited upon each other and the catharsis that ensues, both for the characters and for the viewer, having felt like they had lived through the lives that the characters had.

Yet this is not a dour or a miserable film. Much of the film is rather heartwarming and funny in its portrait of the bonds that tie a family together. The relationships between Travis and Walt, Anne, and Hunter are extraordinarily well developed in such a short time, and it does a wonderful job at hinting at a past that was as happy as the home movie without blotting out the sadness and melancholy that comes with time. In a way, it is a mirror image of real life, in all of its smoothness and awkwardness, warmth and cold, light and darkness.

Of course, none of this would have been possible in the slightest without Sam Shepard's utterly extraordinary screenplay. It operates at an impossibly high level of suggestion and yearning for the past, soulful yet never fully mournful. The dialogue flows incredibly smoothly in a folksy manner, adding to the representation of the American West in an entirely organic manner. The characters are fleshed out just enough to begin with, and developed strongly over the course of every scene without too much being revealed, a decision which makes the booth scenes all the more astonishing. Shepard crafts a show-stopper of a monologue, full of repressed pain and anguish and memories of times both good and bad that are long gone in a way that is utterly heartbreaking. It is the speech of a man who is pouring out his soul; while he was previously near-mute, he is given the opportunity to speak freely, with only his audience of one to listen, and takes it with subdued volubility.

Harry Dean Stanton is utterly astonishing in the way he embodies the almost mythical Western archetype of the lone cowboy while remaining a fundamentally broken and damaged man. In the first part of the film, Travis seems almost like a automaton in the way he moves, with purpose and what almost seems like a disregard for his surroundings, such is his focus on simply walking, presumably to Paris, Texas. He is, however, never made anything less than human, with the small, nuanced gestures that he makes reflecting some sign of life left in the shell of a man that he is at that point in his life. Travis is eventually revived with help from Walt, and a good chunk of the joy that arises from the first third of the film is to see a man essentially come back from the dead and learn how to live again. Stanton never makes Travis seem hopeless or naive, though he is purposely childish at times, but always emphasizes the sense of passion that he has, whether it be under the surface or not, especially when he is talking about something that interests him. The scenes in Los Angeles continue Travis's rehabilitation, and Stanton deftly pulls off his character's struggle with reconnecting with his son and with his past, sometimes hilariously, as in his attempts to look like a real father, and sometimes in an incredibly heartbreaking manner, as in when he is watching the home movie. Stanton's skill is such that he is able to accomplish all of this while remaining silent for the most part, letting his astonishingly expressive face and gestures convey his inner struggle.

With the last third of the film comes another subtle change in Stanton's performance. He only becomes more expressive, but as he comes closer and closer to confronting his past he seems to become more and more lost and afraid of what lies ahead for him. In the first booth scene, Travis is as taciturn as he was at the start; as he stares the past in the face he can't help but look down. This response makes the second booth scene all the more moving, as he pours out his feelings in a soft-spoken and gentle manner that very nearly belies the trauma that he is reliving with his audience. At the end, Travis is calm, and just a little relieved, and Stanton's face tells his whole story: where he has been, where he is, and where he has been.

Nastassja Kinski is absolutely enchanting in her relatively small but absolutely vital role. She could not be mistaken for being anything but a co-lead in this film, such is the magnetism that is on display. She is silent for much of her time onscreen, but she conveys a whole world of emotion with her physical performance, displaying at first humor and flirtatiousness, which eventually gives way to doubt, pain, and sadness that is never overplayed or made melodramatic. When she speaks, it is with sensitivity and a certain amount of pride, but with a melancholy and disenchantment with her current state of life.

Hunter Carson is a delight in this film, as he is never made to be an adult in any way, but remains a child in the best and most realistic sense. He is immature, confused, and annoyed, yet he is also curious, happy, and spirited, lending a counterpoint to Travis and bringing out these characteristics in him to a certain degree. Most of all, he is sensitive to Travis's struggle and becomes attentive and caring in a way that is a joy to watch.

Dean Stockwell does an excellent job of making his character feel like the everyman in the overall narrative. While Travis is, in some ways, a mythic character, and at the very least damaged beyond the point of no return, Walt is the ordinary man; he lives a comfortable if not entirely satisfying life and reacts with care and a relatively large amount of sensitivity towards his brother. He is a flawed man, but only about as flawed as an average human being. Aurore Clement also does a lovely job of inhabiting her character and her dissatisfaction, and infuses a certain air of mystery and sensitivity as well.

Wenders' direction is utterly masterful in how efficiently and effectively it uses absolutely every element of filmmaking to its maximum potential. Cooder's score is perhaps the most noticeable application, remarkable in how well it uses edge and sharpness to its advantage, shifting through variations smoothly and effectively. It is used at exactly the right moments, unpredictable yet fitting. The editing, too is quite incredible in how attuned it is to the rhythm of the scenes, especially in longer scenes like the booth scenes or the home movie.

Perhaps the most astonishing element is Robby Muller's cinematography. For one, it renders the nuances in the actors' expressions with stunning detail when it is needed, but also utilizing shadows whenever they are needed with perfect darkness. The grand landscapes of the desert and of the city are extremely beautiful as well, and the blue sky is clearer than day. But more than any of these, it uses color aesthetically and thematically to an unbelievably high level. The film is dominated by primary colors that emphasize contrasts, especially in relation to the costumes of the characters. The effect is dazzling but always organic, breathtaking in its simplicity and symbolism. It is a profound influence on the mesmerizing mood of the overall film, and incredibly well integrated.

A film about love, America, and loneliness, that causes feelings of bottomless sadness and infinite joy.

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