Monday, April 18, 2011

Paris, Texas. (1984) Wim Wenders

Weary, dizzy, and bone-dry dehydrated, a catatonic sunburned bearded stranger steps out of the Texas desert into a bar. He's been wandering in the scorching sun, apparently going nowhere, headed for a destination perhaps long forgotten. But for what he needs now, alcohol will not suffice. If he can't find some water in this dingy little dive there's really no question that he will die.

He stumbles across the darkened room to an ice box to quench his thirst. His dry, dusty mouth is quickly relieved in crunching the cubes, but immediately upon swallowing his body falters. He crashes to the floor and passes out. Upon waking, he's under the care of a cigar toting German doctor who finds his ID and makes a phone call to his brother in L.A. We learn he's been missing four years. His brother comes to collect him, but by the time he gets there, the wanderer is gone, traversing the desert terrain yet again.

Working with only the first half of a full script and shooting in chronological order, Wim Wenders, in these opening scenes where a man tries to help his drifting brother, draws us patiently into all the themes that will gently unfold in this story of a man who trails back to his lost son. It's the Prodigal dad returning home from a mysterious wasteland of the heart. Then again, it's the Prodigal husband who recklessly wandered away, leaving the ruins of a relationship in the dust. The desert can be a physical place, but it can symbolize an interior condition, too.

Travis, the bearded wanderer, will soon be shaving and meeting his eight year-old son Hunter for the first time since the boy was four. What happened during those years is anyone's guess, but Hunter has been staying with his uncle, the brother now saving Travis, meaning Travis will soon be reintroduced to his boy. But picture an eight year-old who already has a daddy and mommy, being introduced to a man that they're both hailing as long, lost dad.

In a cute scene capturing eight year-old Hunter trying to come to terms with all this, he explains to a friend how he now has two dads. "Who is that guy? You know him?" asks his friend. Hunter: "Yeah, he's my father's brother... No, they're both brothers... No, they're both -- they're both fathers... Aw, just forget it."

It will take some time for the two to fully bond, and there is still the question of the past four years, the desert wandering, and the missing mom. What happened to her? What actually happened to them? What is that awful event that Travis won't talk about that brought them to the point of losing their son? The bonding continues, and the two begin working toward some answers, but not before we meet a screaming, mad prophet standing over a highway insulting the traffic flowing below. In one of the greatest scenes in the film, this soapbox traffic-hating apocalyptist comes from out of nowhere, like a fire-breathing turn-or-burn preacher on acid. His sermon seems to launch Travis and son on a road trip to their source, and Travis will finally give his story as a reflection in an isolated confessional. There are believable, tender, heart wrenching scenes at the end of this story. Bring some Kleenex. You have been forewarned.

Paris, Texas functions as a place where land is owned, but it is ground no one in the story has been on. The idea reminds me of the words of another Wenders title, Faraway, So Close -- We're not always meant to be together, and some mistakes can't be undone. Restoration isn't always possible; we can only do our best with what we have, living daily to take care of the present. Paris, Texas feels more like an idea than a title or a location or a purchase of land. The film of this title is like a longing for home, but perhaps it's a place we can't go.


  1. Nice, concise review. I liked this film. It didn't engage me on the level that it seemed that it engaged you, but it was "engaging." I seem to recall that it had a very deliberate, delicate color scheme, as well as some very specific blocking, but it's been a decade since I saw the film, and I was wondering if you could comment a bit on what you got out of these elements. I've been considering going back to the film and seeing what fresh insight ten years' more experience will give me.

  2. I appreciate the response, Persona! I saw the film on VHS, and I've been debating whether or not to pick up the Criterion Blu-Ray at some point. Since it wasn't a favorite back then, I was hesitant. I guess I'll Netflix it. I didn't think of the fact that the film starts out in light and gets progressively darker and uglier, though that seems obvious in retrospect. It makes me wonder about Stanton's character, though. He starts out in the light as far as the viewer is concerned, but it's clear that his past is rooted in the kind of ugly darkness that pervades the film's climax. So as the film moves forward, it's also moving backward, into the past. Is the opening the moment that his character was reborn, then? Is that the climax of a journey that is left unseen...?

    Yeah, I definitely want to rewatch the film now. :)

  3. Welcome, Matt! Your review of Antichrist remains one of my favorites.

    As far as the color scheme goes, Wenders in the commentary focuses in on this quite a bit. He confessed many of the problems he had in the shoot, pointing out "problems" I wouldn't have otherwise noticed. One of the main problems he had was with the use of red for lighting a few nighttime scenes, which he admitted made things more out of focus. And when I really looked, he was right, it did. But I didn't notice it on my initial viewing. I did notice his continual use of green in the film, a dramatic, heavier green that lit backgrounds with characters in a darker forefront. He talked about this specifically in the commentary too, but no more than just pointing out that it was a concentrated effort, a style he was definitely going for.

    When Travis steps out of the desert, where things were overwhelmingly full of light, the film seems to get darker as it goes until those final few stark scenes of remembrance and repentance and reunion. And if you've seen it, you'll remember where that scene takes place. The one-way mirror is rich with meaning and metaphor, it was the real deal and is used so perfectly for the final scenes in this gross location of perversion... it is amazing the beauty that takes place in a lit up room with a one-way mirror, in a location where beauty is cheap, for sale, and thus is really quite ugly. I like this idea a lot, a bit of heaven reaching into a hellish location. Restoration of some things. Only a glimpse of a part of heaven for now.

    As to more about the lighting or the blocking, Wenders has studied his film over and over and knows the ins and the outs of it so well. I'd highly recommend tracking down the Criterion copy and checking out the director's commentary for much better analysis than I'm capable of!

  4. Wow, you are fast! While I was fixing my spelling errors you already responded... :)

    "He starts out in the light as far as the viewer is concerned, but it's clear that his past is rooted in the kind of ugly darkness that pervades the film's climax. So as the film moves forward, it's also moving backward, into the past."

    Oh, man, I like this. And yeah, that is definitely what I was trying to get at. After this discovery through our conversation, I think I want to watch it again!


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