Putting the two words together is something of an oxymoron. A comma between them becomes a pregnant pause. Two places couldn’t be further apart than Paris and Texas. We can’t seem to come to terms with its existence as a real place…but then we see a picture of that barren stretch of land. For a man named Travis and his son Hunter it becomes the center of their universe, the origin of all things, a place achingly unreachable, alive only in their dreams where they long to be with a woman named Jane in a faraway land where the purchase of a remote plot of dirt represents the key to a happiness that could never be.
It’s a place that can only exist as an “idea ——- of her…love…family…redemption…the movies.”
As I recently announced on my own ever-expanding list of favorite films, and soon to be registered in the Best Films of the 1980’s polling at Wonders in the Dark, Wim Wender’s 1984 Palme D’Or winning Paris, Texas is hands-down my pick for the greatest film of the decade.
I decided to revisit Paris, Texas, which I only saw for the first time back in 2005. It was one of those weirdly magical movie-watching experiences. I was flipping through the channels on TV and came across it totally unaware of its existence before that moment, not realizing I had missed the first thirty minutes or so…but I was instantly transfixed. By the end of the movie, I was beside myself and re-watched the entire film from the beginning the very next day when it was rerun. Shortly thereafter I purchased the DVD and re-watched it yet again.
Looking back on my original review, I’m surprised I didn’t see fit to mention the following:
- Ry Cooder’s unforgettable and blisteringly unique film score that travels across the desert along with Wim’s camera and hits all the right chords. Only Anton Karas’ zither score from The Third Man or Jonny Greenwood’s moody strings from There Will Be Blood could possibly outrank Cooder’s high-water mark for originality in film music composition.
- The beautiful photography of the LA hills and valley and the Houston cityscape. One will always be scorched by the photography of the barren desert, but these haunting shots of civilization are equally as powerful.
- Some great movie moments when Travis becomes entranced watching the shadow of an airplane move across the ground as it takes off or when he attempts to walk his son home from school after the maid gives him lessons on being a “rich father/poor father”. Both of these scenes are brilliant and simple examples of a director telling his story and revealing something about the characters through what is seen in camera — the classic “show, don’t tell” move.
- Hunter’s fascination with “space” revealed in his ramblings about the Big Bang and time travel while on the road with Travis…or his perfectly 80’s LA kidspeak where he’s always on the verge or pre-irony and innocent precociousness and clips phrases by saying things like “I want to come with” instead of “I want to come with you” and “Night” instread of “Good night.”
- In my original review I failed to name the writers (a most grievous sin from a fellow writer) — L. M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard — who were later honored in my post on The Best Screenplays of All Time.
There’s also a pensive and quiet suspense that is only experienced on repeat viewings when you know everything is slowly building up to that moment when Hunter spots Jane for the first time at the bank…and then Travis follows her to that down-and-out Houston neighborhood with the Statue of Liberty mural on the back wall by the dumpsters, and he enters the peep-show where the audience finally meet Kinski’s Jane in person. On first viewing you expect a show when she appears, but on repeat viewings you hold your breath…for all that conversation. “You can just talk…she’ll listen.”
In the years since first seeing it, my love for it has only grown, and any time it is mentioned — oh, how I became tinged with meloncholy when I learned it was rumored to have been Kurt Cobain’s favorite film, and oh, how I laughed the other day when it was referenced in a skit from The State (finally on DVD), and yes, I could probably set the record for x hours straight spent talking about Paris, Texas — I get an immense feeling of satisfaction.
Yes…Paris, Texas…I’ve been there, and it is wonderful. If you’ve never been, you’ll never know…so visit soon and visit often. When you layover in Houston, we’ll be waiting for you at The Meridian…room 1520.
Written by David H. Schleicher
*If you wish to view the film for the first time as an open book, I caution you not to read any further as there are many spoilers ahead!!!!!
Here is my review from the IMDB, originally posted back in December of 2005:
The Continued Development of the Dark Romance with Cinema
Author: David H. Schleicher
Directed by cinematic lyricist Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas is a slow-burning masterpiece. Marked at first by stark, beautiful photography of the American Southwest, later by memorable dialogue and conversational intercourse, and lastly by sublime and emotionally involving character development, the film transcends the idea of an atmospheric mood piece to deliver an engrossing meditation on loneliness, alienation, family and redemption.
Character actor Harry Dean Stanton is fantastic in the lead role of Travis — a man who had fallen into an emotional black hole and is then reunited with his brother (Dean Stockwell), who has been raising Travis’ young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), in an idyllic and loving suburban landscape with his foreign wife, Ann (Aurore Clement). As Travis slowly begins to grapple with his past and bond with his son, he soon realizes he must find his long, lost wife, Jane (an excellent and understated Nastassja Kinksi), whom he still deeply loves on some level, and abandoned their son years ago shortly after Travis went off the deep end.
This all could’ve been the plot of Lifetime TV movie, but the European filmmaker’s perspective on an all American slice of melodrama adds an undercurrent of intrigue in that you never know what these characters are going to do next. We soon find Travis practically abducting his son (who eagerly plays along) from his happy new family life to go on a trek to Houston to find Jane.
The closing in scene in a Houston hotel where son and mother are reunited is one of the most fascinatingly rich scenes ever put on screen. Rarely does any one scene work to engage a viewer on so many levels:
Firstly: There is a complex psychological framework that is set into place in the scenes prior between Stanton and Kinski in the peep show booth where she now works which are two of the most expertly photographed and brilliantly acted scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Travis has confessed all to his lost love, Jane, and she is clearly in dire straits. His attempt to reunite her with their son is both selfish (in that it is clearly not in the child’s best interest to be raised by his emotionally troubled mother when he has loving foster parents waiting for him back home) and selfless, in that he truly feels his only way to repair the damage he has done is to leave after getting mother and son back together.
Secondly: It is beautifully acted with Kinski’s ghost-like entrance and young Hunter Carson’s trepidation. Witness his hand slide across the wall looking for something to grip, and then his hands running through his hair before he finally decides to embrace her.
Thirdly: It is exquisitely photographed. Earlier we see scenes of stark isolation as the child waits in the hotel room. Sofia Coppola later used a similar photographic technique in Lost in Translation to show how being alone in a big city and looking down from an anonymous hotel room window can be one of the loneliest things in the world.
The final scene is both beautiful and emotional, and at the same time makes the viewer wonder, how will this all end? Yes, it is wonderful to see the child and mother reunite, but their new life could easily turn into an emotional hell because of the now absent Travis’ misguided attempt at his own redemption.
A film working on so many levels like this is best summed up in its own dialogue. In one scene where Travis is drunk and telling his son some family history, he essentially says that his father was more in love with an “idea of her” than with his actual mother. This is a fantastic movie for people more in love with the romantic “idea of movies” and their potential power as an art form than with any one movie in particular. As such, this ranks among the best I have ever seen.
***A special side note to those who have read my novel, The Thief Maker, I hope you will notice a scene from the book near the end that is directly inspired by the closing scene of Paris, Texas mentioned above. Yes, that’s how much I love this film.
Favorite Paris, Texas quotes:
Travis to his brother: “I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of falling.”
Mad man on the highway overpass: “There will be no safety zone!”
My Top 25 Films of the 1980’s followed by honorable mentions:
- Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)
- The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)
- Blood Simple (1984, The Coen Brothers)
- Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
- The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
- Hope and Glory (1987, John Boorman)
- Atlantic City (1981, Louise Malle)
- Fanny & Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman)
- Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)
- Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
- Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)
- Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, Louise Malle)
- Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough)
- Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick)
- The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989, Terry Gilliam)
- Glory (1989, Edward Zwick)
- Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
- Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)
- Raising Arizona (1987, The Coen Brothers)
- My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
- Heathers (1989, Michael Lehmann)
- The Killing Fields (1984, Roland Joffe)
- River’s Edge (1986, Tim Hunter)
Honorable Mentions from the 1980′s:
- Airplane! (1980, Jim Abrams and David Zucker)
- Fitzcarraldo (1982, Werner Herzog)
- Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)
- Testament (1983, Lynne Littman)
- Without a Trace (1983, Stanley R. Jaffe)
- Zelig (1983, Woody Allen)
- The Natural (1984, Barry Levinson)
- Places in the Heart (1984, Robert Benton)
- Come and See (1985, Elem Klimov)
- Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)
- My Life as a Dog (1985, Lasse Hallstrom)
- Out of Africa (1985, Sydney Pollack)
- The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, Woody Allen)
- The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan)
- Lady in White (1988, Robert LaLoggia)
- Lair of the White Worm (1988, Ken Russell)
- Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Woody Allen)
- Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)