Wim Wenders spent the better part of the late 70’s and early 80’s working on his first American studio film Hammett. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and helmed by Wenders—one of the bright, young German new wave directors—the film failed to live up to the expectations set by the wealth of talent involved. It was through the trials of Hammett that Wenders met the playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who he had wanted to cast in the film but the studio denied. They agreed to work with each other in the future and thus planted the seeds of Paris, Texas. Shepard went on to write Motel Chronicles, which served as the starting off point on a film about the great American west, the allure of the road (and the road movie), and the mirage of the American Dream.
After Wenders’ contentious experience with the American studio system it seemed fitting that his next films would be about America (the other being The State of Things about a Hollywood film production going bankrupt). Equally fitting is the simultaneous romanticizing of the American landscape (both natural and manmade), and the placement of a man alone, mute, and trying to find his way in the vastness of the country. And that is how Paris, Texas opens: a man, a desert, and a slide guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that twangs across the vista. Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton, walks into frame looking as bewildered as we do as to why he is there. This is the harsh desert of The Searchers and The Man With No Name, only here the hero has traded in leather and a ten gallon hat for a worn down suit and trucker cap.
We later find out that Travis has been walking these deserts for close to five years, trancelike, in search of something that can make sense of his alienation from his wife and son. It is a mythological and physically impossible amount of time to be lost in the desert and in one’s psyche. Travis finally stumbles upon a foreign hospital run by Germans in the middle of the desert, where he gets treated and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), who lives in California, is called to come pick him up.
This is where the film truly becomes a road movie. Travis refuses to fly back to California so Walt reluctantly agrees to drive. The landscapes that the two pass are shot with the picturesque quality of a postcard. The vistas of the Texas desert and the San Bernardino Valley are matched by the parade of diners, motels, gas stations, billboards, Laundromats, and mom and pop shops that litter the highway. I was reminded of Robert Crumb’s “Short History of America”, except rather than contempt Wenders finds beauty in the neon green and acidic hues of the great American pit stops. It may be because the America that Wenders chooses to portray is more idyllic than the corporate corner stores that Crumb clearly hates.
When they arrive at Walt’s house in California Travis is reunited with his son, Hunter, who Walt and Walt’s wife Anne have been taking care of since Travis’ disappearance. Hunter, who is eight now, has been missing his father for half of his life. Travis’s reappearance begins a complicated journey for the young boy as he rediscovers who his parents are. At first he is wary of Travis, but the two have an immediate connection. Travis decides that in order to redeem himself he must reunite Hunter with his mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who lives in Houston. This begins the second road trip in the road movie.
They set back across the southwest towards Houston in the hopes of finding Jane at the bank that she has been sending child support checks from. They stop at a rest area with giant plastic dinosaurs towering over them in the dark, they stay at one of the many motels that Walt and Travis passed on their way home, and they finally come upon a city with a metallic sheen jutting up out of the desert. All this acts as a showcase for cinematographer Robby Müller to create a dreamlike, hyper-colourful version of America.
Arriving in Houston Travis finds out that Jane has been working at a phone sex booth where men pay to talk to women in fantasy settings that mirror reality. He ends up speaking to Jane through a one way mirror in the “hotel” fantasy room. Their encounter through the veil of a fantasy continues the isolation and disconnection from reality that began with the opening scenes of Travis the wanderer. She doesn’t know that it is him, and he isn’t ready to reveal who he is, so he leaves without confronting her.
The next day he goes back, and they begin two of the best expositional monologues I’ve ever seen. Expositional monologues can run the risk of feeling forced or prosaic, but these feel as genuine as anything. Travis reveals exactly what happened to cause him to go into the desert; Jane reveals that every man who comes into a booth sounds exactly like him. They are two people from a broken marriage speaking to each other through a thick glass window in a fantasy coffee shop. Travis decides that the only way to redeem himself from his past is to reunite son and mother and then slip back into the sunset of the west again.
One of the key aspects that sets Paris, Texas apart from an ordinary family drama is how the American landscape plays a role its genesis and its convictions. It swallows Travis up before the film begins, and it takes him back as it ends. He owns a vacant lot in Paris, Texas that he once dreamed of living on with his family, and the fact that the lot will stay vacant speaks volumes as to what Wenders and Shepard wanted to say about the dissolution of family and the American Dream. Men like Travis will fantasize about the ideal life—they will even go to sex booths to fulfill that fantasy—but it will all be just a mirage. So he takes to the desert, or the open road, or the myriad of escapes that come to him in the promise of a cleared mind.