Perfect Movies: Paris, Texas

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Movies are brilliant constructions of image, sound, and dialogue. Although this seems to be a reductive analysis of what comprises a movie, it’s meant to be a boast of the complexity of the art form in general. That they live on in immortality in a way that plays cannot, or how novels are one-dimensional in many ways due to the constrictions of their format, or how music lacks the versatility of films because of a song’s breadth, aural limitations, or inability to visually represent the emotional impact, or a painting’s static existence, makes film perhaps the most complex art form in existence today.

Because while all of the preceding auditory and visual arts have their merits, painting a moving image while mixing dialogue with music and the dynamic effect of editing put together creates a dazzling parade that, at its best, seems like viewing a representation of life. Not the boring, constant, and unbroken consciousness that we experience but a heightened expression of what life feels like inside. This is what draws us like moths to the flickering two-dimensional series of images that create the illusion of motion and emotion. At their best, movies distill the human experience–and at their very best, they distill the emotional experience of life–the only one that means anything to us in the end.

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German filmmaker Wim Wenders has been a beautiful example of this ability of the medium. His films have reflected the heightened reality the medium represents: having started in 1970 with Summer in the City, a film that represented what would eventually become signature themes in his film of men searching for meaning and finding surreal, metaphysical representations of larger truths of the world, Wenders’ films often depict a sad protagonist shuffling through this mortal coil and attempting to hash out meaning in the unstructured landscape that modern life presents. Existential but never despairing, instead Wenders decides to take the issue head-on and engage in these difficult existential problems, neither judging nor casting his characters as true villains (or protagonists, for that matter) but instead humans stuck in their lot in life. His narratives deviate from many normatives simply because of this ambiguous nature but also tend towards naturalism because of their ambiguity.

He has made many fine films in his life, and while Wings of Desire is a close nominee for the title of Perfect Movies in this series, instead the honor falls to Paris, Texas–a film that’s not only a beautiful elegy to the promise of love and hope but one of the rare films in existence that seemingly transposes the limitations of film itself to become a map of emotions and the significance of biography and history–and how the two aren’t mutually exclusive but are still tied inextricably to their rooted underpinnings.

Paris, Texas – A Perfect Movie

Amnesiac Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wanders the desert in Southern Texas, looking forlorn and lost until he collapses. Discovered by a doctor who examines him and determines that he’s mute, the doctor finds a phone number on Travis and calls it. On the other end of the line is his brother, who lives in Los Angeles and of whom has not had any contact with his brother in years.

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The brother, Walt, travels to Texas to pick him up, while Walt’s wife is concerned since they adopted Travis’s son, Hunter, after his biological mother disappeared. As they drive back to Los Angeles, Travis finally utters, “Paris,” and shows his brother a picture of an empty property that he had purchased in the town.

They arrive in Los Angeles, where Hunter–age seven–has very little memory of his father and is wary of him until they watch home movies together showing the whole family together. As father and son bond, Travis finds that his brother’s wife has been in contact with the missing wife, who has been making regular deposits in her bank account to keep up Hunter’s care. Finding out the specific day and bank the deposits are made in Houston, Travis takes Hunter with him to track down his wife and the mother of his son.

When they arrive, Travis finds his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), and follows her to a peep show, where she works. He goes inside and sits behind the two-way mirror, where he begins to tell her via phone speaker the story of a young man and woman who marry and have a child together. As Jane slowly realizes who’s telling the story, Travis details how the man turned into an alcoholic while the woman suffered from depression after the birth. He also speaks of living in a world “without language or streets” and mentions a fire and an incident of domestic abuse before the family dissolved.

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Travis then tells Jane that her son Hunter is in Houston and needs his mother. We see Jane reunite with her boy in the hotel room that Travis had left him in. Then Travis gets into his car and drives away.

Fantasy and Desire

But who is Travis? Who is Jane? Both are obviously the central characters and emotional fulcrum of the film, but the audience doesn’t get a good sense of who they are as people. Travis is mostly silent throughout the film, to his brother, to his own son, and to the audience. While we see Travis slowly redevelop relationships between his family, they never seem to truly connect. Even at the end, when he and his son speak to each other while driving to track down the mother, they speak via walkie-talkie, signifying the distance of time and physical separation between them is also manifest in their ability (or lack thereof) to communicate. And when they do, it’s at a distance. In fact, Travis seems uncomfortable when he has to have physical contact with his son–or maybe just unsure of what to feel.

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This same physical representation of distance, separation, and how it manifests in communication occurs between Travis and Jane, who only communicate through a two-way mirror, with Travis mostly unseen. While Jane is brightly lit, she’s mostly wordless, mostly communicating through gestures, physicality, and quiet interrogatives. In contrast, Travis is in the shadows, but he speaks in a long monologue to her–and even then it’s through an indirect story of their lives, spoken in third-person, as if the people he’s speaking about is someone other than his broken family.

That Travis is an amnesiac is perhaps the best avenue to represent a character that the audience only understands because of how the people around him act towards him: he’s an empty vessel from the outset, and even as the audience begins to figure out the story, Travis still acts as if he’s not living in his own life. Or maybe he is willing himself not to: perhaps the pain of life and living it, of memory itself, has just been too much for him to bear. Instead, he finds it easier to be a ghost in his own life, preferring his past to be a fantasy.

That Jane ends up literally working in a fantasy-based line of work–a peep show–is representative of how fantasy, when actualized, is as hollow and cheap and degrading as much of real life can be. Although at first she’s framed in a well-lit, well-decorated peep room, once the camera cuts back and she’s framed against the peep window, we see that the room hadn’t been fully furnished and the wall that’s unseen to the customer isn’t even finished, with its insulation and structure fully exposed. In this incredibly well-framed sequence (among many in the film), it comes at the same time as when Jane begins to realize who’s speaking to her, and in one masterful shot, Jane’s sitting on the floor facing away from Travis, who’s positioned above her in the booth behind glass looking forward as she looks down and away, her back resting on the unfurnished wall that Travis cannot see from his perspective.

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Ultimately, Paris, Texas is about the desires we have for our own lives and how our fantasies will never be realized when the actuality of life still exists. Travis is an endless dreamer who would rather live as an amnesiac than face the reality of his life. Meanwhile, once her marriage falls apart, Jane runs away from her responsibilities and tries to step into another completely different life, physically separated from her family while also plying a trade that’s completely different (and rather lurid) than her former life as a housewife and mother.

And we watch Travis go from a lone amnesiac  wandering the desert to an increasingly determined man searching for a wife that purposely abandoned their son in an attempt–at what? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Finding absolution? In the end, he succeeds in reuniting mother and son but chooses to go on his own once again. As for Jane, she had become another person entirely, and although she reunites with his son, the audience–and the character–have no idea what the future is supposed to be now.

Without Language or Streets

The American Southwest is as much a part of the story as the characters and dialogue. Framing Travis, his beat-up truck, and the constant travel between Texas and Los Angeles with the giant desert, rocky landscape, multi-lane freeway lanes that clutter the skyline and the skyscrapers of the cities, and the blase architecture of its low side streets connects the story to the unbridled freedom and encroaching reality that such settings evoke in the viewer’s mind.

And it’s when the characters are outside, driving, or wandering the desert is when the film represents their greatest potentials–of father and son driving towards Houston to track down their mother, or when Travis is wandering alone in the desert, as unknown to himself as he is to the audience.

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But it’s when the characters are indoors, framed within domestic scenes and in settings that are unmistakably part of the human reality–one that takes planning and intent and exist on the human scale–that’s when the characters of Paris, Texas find themselves having to face the realities of life. When Jane and Travis reunite in the peep show, Jane is framed in a set of a coffee shop–but it’s not a real coffee shop, it’s just a set, and one that’s built for perversion, not domesticity. Separated by glass and only able to communicate through a phone, even when they see each other, it’s only through darkness and heavily angled lights and an unfinished wall.

When Travis relates into his closing monologue to Jane in the peep show about dreaming of being in a place “without language or streets,” the audience realizes why he was wandering the desert alone: he was trying to find that place, a place where his identity has been lost and there is no need for names, or relationships, or anything involving consequence. In a world without language or streets, there’s no need for domesticity or responsibility or identity. Jane similarly seeks to lose her identity, but–as the efforts of Travis show–it’s much more difficult to disappear in this world than one would assume.  

Texas Style

Although Wim Wenders is a German, he captures the American Southwest brilliantly in Paris, Texas. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see what’s truly beautiful about the familiar. But more than that, he captures the endless desire of people to somehow become something else than what they are in life. What a better place to get lost or rearrange one’s self than in the open, endless landscape of Texas?

It’s a place where one can disappear into the desert, or move to a large, unknown city and remake themselves, surrounded by unfamiliar–and largely indifferent–people. Swallowed up whole by the desert and the city and the endless road, nobody has to be anybody.

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Paris, Texas is a poetic film whose each line of dialogue holds such great meaning and portent that it almost seems like a film too large for the medium. Even such a complex art form as cinema can only contain and relate so much, and Wenders’ approach to existential identity crisis and how it breaks apart a family almost seems like it can’t be contained in a film. Paris, Texas is so packed with such great ideas and images that it’s almost a relief when the climax of the film takes place in as mundane a setting as a peep show. But then, the emotional impact of that scene and the stellar acting of Kinski as the slowly realizing Jane and Stanton relating the revealing story of their lives together is a knockout punch of drama and cinematography.

Paris, Texas may frustrate some viewers because of its pacing, which is deliberate, or its story, which is obtuse, but for those that have the patience and the desire to see an example of just how powerful, affecting, and complex cinema can be when depicting human relationships, identity, and the endless desires we feel as we to try to live this life–even if it means having to lose our selves in the process–there’s no more perfect movie about longing than Paris, Texas.

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