Last week, one of America’s greatest character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, passed away. He lived a long, full life and experienced occasional critical and commercial acclaim with his acting. The 1984 Wim Wender’s film “Paris, Texas,” was one of these critical high points and was the perfect star-feature in the art-house market. From sparse John Ford-esque vistas and grit to that night gloss we all recognize as Wender’s great contribution to the grammar of cinema, the great Robby Muller’s cinematography was perfect at every point. The script derives from the work of our greatest American playwright Sam Shepard. And there a number of great performances, but of special note are those of Dean Stockwell as Travis’ (Stanton’s) estranged brother and Nastassja Kinski as Travis’ estranged lover.
Reviewers have focused a lot on how they perceive this film to either be a deeply-moving ode to American film culture. Likewise, some critical writings, taking these former cues too seriously to grasp the emotional weight of the story at the crux of the film, have critiqued it as hollow and all exteriors. The truth has been largely missed by both camps. Paris, Texas uses codes and grammar from American cinematography and style, but the story is neither uniquely American or second to the looks.
The film begins with Travis wandering the Mojave desert, running out of water, finding a small bar, and passing out. The local M.D. finds identification in his wallet and manages to contact Travis’ brother (Stockwell) who gets on a plane, rents a car, and drives out into the middle of nowhere in Terlingua, Texas to pick him up. He hasn’t seen Travis for four years and during this absence has been raising his child, Hunter. Travis doesn’t speak until 25 minutes into the film. And then, he doesn’t disclose what he has been up to. And we won’t for the remainder of the film.
Travis travels with his brother back to his home. He bonds with his son and the two go on a trip to find the boy’s mother who gave him up years ago, but has been wiring money to his Uncle and Aunt. Travis’ brother’s wife Anne has tracked down the payments to a bank in Houston. When Travis and Hunter arrive, they wait outside the bank, spot Jane (Kinski), and follow her to her place of employment, a striptease one-way mirror joint. Travis leaves the kid outside and goes inside. What takes place over the course of the next two days in their talks is an airing out of frustrations, an examination of the ways drudgery and work and jealousy can mutilate the human spirit. Domesticity and the 9-5, and the disconnect those two things can create within a marriage. The argument that life in the modern world’s way of doing things can destroy and mar the bonds that hold people together, that it can bring tensions to a head, and generate neuroses and traumas is not just applicable to life in America, but to life pretty much anywhere in the world today.
We’re reminded throughout this film, especially by Stanton’s dialogue, how anxiety and malaise creeps up and affects all parts of life, up to and including how one perceives things. Travis’ vacant lot in Paris, Texas was to be a place the three could one day call home, but he remarks that its “empty” and chuckles at the hopelessness of it. When he asks, “is four years a long time?”, regarding his disappearance we can all reflect on how time does the same for us in hopeless situations (Have I really worked at this fast food restaurant for 7 years? Why?). When Travis wants to take over driving for his brother during their trip to his home in California, he remarks that he doesn’t know if he knows how to drive anymore on a conscious level, but “my body remembers.” The perfect statement summing up just going through the motions.
While living with his wife and child in a trailer home, working a dead end job, and spending too much time away from his family, he “didn’t realize how much rage [he] had.” Eventually his rage boiled over and he acted indecently and drank too much and pushed too hard. His wife Jane had had enough too and burned down the trailer with him in it. He escaped and ran away, and ran for five days. He ran until he found “somewhere without language or streets.” He reflected on the absurdity of his plot of land in Paris, Texas that he purchased because his demanding father prone to flights of fancy and his subservient, quiet, unassuming mother first made it there. Paris, Texas was possibly the wellspring of his being, of his conception, and it almost became his trap (as Jeffers or Bukowski might use that term).
Its absurd to work your life away and to go mad in the process. But people continue to do it because ours and other’s societies are oriented in the way they are currently. But people continue to love and to watch each other deteriorate. Paris, Texas was a triumph in film-making, in narrative art, in non-partisan social commentary, in restrained and powerhouse acting, and above all else, in laying bare the web of complexities at the heart of modern existence.
In memoriam to Harry Dean Stanton