Friday, May 22, 2020

Paris, Texas (1984)

West Germany / France / UK, 145 minutes
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: L.M. Kit Carson, Sam Shepard, Walter Donohue
Photography: Robby Muller
Music: Ry Cooder
Editor: Peter Przygodda
Cast: Harry Dean Staoton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clement, Hunter Carson, Bernhard Wicki, Socorro Valdez, John Lurie

As advertised, this eccentric and lengthy but uneasily absorbing picture is set in Texas. We never actually make it to Paris itself, a small town on the Oklahoma border standing in as a psychological and literal starting point for Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton). He's a man on an incoherent mission. Instead we spend most of the movie in the wide open spaces and rugged terrain of West Texas. With its striking badlands scenery and a score by Ry Cooder, it's easy to think we are entering a Western as the picture begins. And it probably is a Western in some neo-Western sense. Wikipedia calls it a road movie, which is also fair, but to me it feels more like a theatrical domestic narrative, a strange surprising mix of affected dayglo hipster fare, wrenching human drama, and actor improv. Ultimately the cast and story are more important than all the flights of cinema that director Wim Wenders can throw at it—and Wenders throws some considerable ones.

I have to admit I don't know a lot about many of these principals—you could almost reverse-engineer this movie out of what I don't know—and I never got a look at it until the new century anyway. On Wenders, I didn't like Wings of Desire the one time I saw it and Until the End of the World just confused me for the nearly five hours of its director's cut. The American Friend and especially Kings of the Road are more like it and they are better harbingers of this, but I still don't feel like I really have a handle on him. For Harry Dean Stanton, it's the first time he's impressed me as anything more than someone who instinctively knows how to stay out of the way of his own evocative face. I keep wanting to make co-screenwriter Sam Shepard the significant contributor here.

But I probably know even less about Shepard than any of the others so take that with a grain of rock salt. The story in Paris, Texas is full of holes and plot conveniences. The outrages include amnesia, intrepid sleuthing, and a peepshow that's too arty by half even if it is mesmerizingly effective (which latter is co-screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson's contribution, it says here), Yet the characters are so finely drawn and unique they almost instantly feel like friends we care about and want to gossip about and agonize over. First it is good on aching brother relationships. Then it is good on aching father relationships. Then it is good on aching sexual dynamics, abiding love, and loss. Your emotional centers get a workout in this one, even if the circumstances are so odd they never quite register as real. The ending is muddled—the story unfortunately reaches a fork where no conclusion is likely be satisfactory, but at least it executes the one it chooses with a brave face. And the getting there is so well done basically all miscues are easily forgiven. 

Even down on the secondary supporting levels of Paris, Texas—the fretful stepmother (Aurore Clement), with her pronounced French accent and touching integrity, or a housemaid (Socorro Valdez) who helps Travis find some personal swagger—this picture is working on inspired levels. The surprise for me was Dean Stockwell, who I forget is often surprising, from Night Gallery to Blue Velvet to Battlestar Galactica. He's one of those players, Mark Wahlberg is another, who's so natural, so able to sink into a role, that we're not always sure it's even the same actor. As Walter Henderson, the good younger brother left behind by the heedless older brother, caught in the middle only because he wanted to do the right thing, Stockwell is one of the high points in a movie that has many.

Nastassja Kinski is another fascinating vortex here. I know Tess and Cat People too, but does anyone really know her? Shepard, Carson, Wenders—whoever—plays to her strengths almost perfectly here. We don't even get a glimpse of her until nearly an hour in, and then it's just fragments in a home movie. We don't actually see her for more than 90 minutes. Holding her back that way plays well to her natural mystery, perhaps the most important thing she inherited or learned or both from her father, and it makes the last hour of the picture, centered around the peepshow, almost dazzling in what it pulls off. All the trappings of the strategy here, the two-way mirror, the alternating points of view, the electronically mediated voices, are more made-up than real the way I understand it. But the artificiality is overcome by the script and by Stanton and Kinski, who power it through on force, leaving the rest of us exhausted.

So, right, I need to see more pictures by Wenders, more performances by Stanton and Stockwell and maybe Kinski, and definitely more stories by Sam Shepard. But I'm pretty sure everything else is going to have to go some distance to match this amazing one-of-a-kind collaboration.


  1. I have this vague idea this was Wenders last good film, probably for no better reason than I found his next one so annoyingly bad. What I remember ab PT is some glum poignance and a lot of "too arty by half" cinematic shots. You make me want to check it out again. Also, like the way you slowly build this up to a rave. Nicely done.-Skip

  2. I'm actually a little mystified by Wings of Desire -- both that Wenders made it and that people seem to like it so much. I probably need to see it again. It's the highest-ranked Wenders at They Shoot Pictures, so I will be getting to it one of these days.