The fragments of a family: Revisiting Wim Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece ‘Paris, Texas’
“Any movie that has that spirit and says things can be changed is worth making.” – Wim Wenders
In the rocky wilderness of southern Texas, there’s a man. The camera pans to show the vast nothingness with no signs of life except an eagle and a man. He’s wearing a red baseball cap and is armed with an empty plastic container that once had water. Mythical symbols of Western tales are distorted by objects of modernity. In search of something that we don’t know about yet, the man enters a run-down bar with a sign that says, “The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through or whatever.” He takes a handful of ice, chomps on it and passes out. That’s how Wim Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas begins.
A nearly perfect film in almost every way, Paris, Texas featured on Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list, the Society of Cinematographers’ list of 100 greatest films of all time and it won the 1984 Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Dirk Bogarde, the president of the Cannes competition jury in 1984 recalled, “We were to choose films which would please a family audience, not ones which would appeal to ‘a few students and a handful of faux intellectuals. Family entertainment for all the world markets.” The authorities were not convinced that Wenders’ work was entertaining enough for families. 36 years after its release, it is safe to say that it was never meant to be. It was an artistic investigation of the dysfunctional mechanisms of the modern family and a very powerful one at that.
The film discovers the life of a lost man, Travis (in a performance of a lifetime from Harry Dean Stanton). We learn that he been missing for four years, he doesn’t know where his wife is and his son Hunter (Hunter Carson) is being raised by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell) in the opulence of Los Angeles. Walt travels all the way to Terlingua, Texas to pick his brother up but Travis has been rendered speechless. All he does is walk through the wilderness and when he is stopped, he grows restless. The landscapes that Travis traverses are beautiful in their emptiness, stitched together by electricity lines and telephone towers. His brother manages to find him but he walks away again, following the train tracks to an unknown destination. Walt lashes out in frustration, “There’s nothin’ out there.”
Wenders has made road films throughout his career like 1974 film Alice in the Cities and, two years later, Kings of the Road, but none more poignant than Paris, Texas. Speaking about the genre, Wenders said, “Frankly, I didn’t know the genre existed. I must have seen some movies, I think I saw Detour (1945), but I didn’t recognise it as a genre. Of course, I knew a lot of westerns, if there was any precursor to those movies it was the western. But I didn’t know you could make movies while travelling.” Transportation is a vital part of Paris, Texas. Travis refuses to fly because he is fearful of leaving the ground. We see cars and trucks on the highway and trains zooming past them. The trains turn into aeroplanes when they reach Los Angeles, complementing the change in the landscape. A lot of the dynamism in the film is a result of this constant movement of traffic. They are surrounded by warping freeways and skyscrapers but despite all of this, despite all of the noise from the cars and the trains and the planes, there is an unmistakeable silence that permeates Paris, Texas.
Told through the brilliant visual narrative of Robby Müller (beautifully simple) and amplified by the impeccable sound design of Ry Cooder, Paris, Texas is a story of loss and a fragmented reunion. When Travis finally meets Hunter, neither of them know what to say. They are biologically bonded but there is no recognition beyond that. Throughout his stay at his brother’s place, he tries to reconnect with Hunter. He offers to pick Hunter up from school and walk home with him but Hunter mumbles, “Nobody walks.” Travis, in a terrible state of isolation, can’t sleep. He obsessively cleans dishes and polishes shoes, sits on the hillside and watches the bustling city of Los Angeles through his binoculars. His psychological integrity has been destabilised to such an extent that he has become a spectator to his own life. He looks at a Super-8 film of his past life, shot by his brother. All of them are together, smiling without any hint of grief. Hunter looks at his biological mother in the film and says:
“Yeah, but that’s not her. That’s only her in a movie. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
There are a lot of allusions to the performative nature of societal roles in the film—especially in the iconic peep-show scene. Travis searches multiple magazines to figure out what a father looks like, only to be helped by the housekeeper. He dresses like a “rich dad” and goes to pick Hunter up from the school again. It’s undoubtedly one of the best scenes in the film, both of them walking on opposite sides of the street. The camera cuts back and forth, showing that they are learning to connect again but are still separated from each other by an inexplicable divide. That is, until Travis crosses the street and joins Hunter.
Hunter learns more about his identity from Travis, from old photo albums and anecdotal stories. He realises that Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement) are his guardians and that his “real” family is different. Hunter tells Travis that he could feel that he was alive and so was Jane (Nastassja Kinski), his mother. Together, they embark on an epic journey to find her. Equipped with walkie-talkies, they almost fly on the asphalt as Hunter teaches Travis about the Big Bang, evolution and time-travel. He learns the mysteries of the universe from his seven-year-old son. These moments are, perhaps, the most endearing ones in the film, revealing what it is like to learn how to love again.
They finally find her amidst the sprawling skyscrapers of Houston, after following her to her workplace. Travis discovers that Jane works at a peep show club. In the entire film, Travis finds himself in the same room as Jane just once but he is told by the manager, “Sir, you’re in the wrong place.” He has to go down to the booth to talk to her, only to find out that she cannot even see him. It’s the ultimate illusion of intimacy (a similar exploration can be found in the ending of Tsai Ming-liang’s 1992 film Rebels of the Neon God), there’s a flickering TV set in the background and a “performer” who says, “You realise that I can’t see you even though you can see me?” Voyeurism is impotent when the yearning for real connection sets in. In what is one of the greatest film endings of all time, Travis returns to tell Jane their entire love story. She smiles in recognition and cries uncontrollably when their self-destructive past is brought up. Frantically, she tries to see through the looking glass after dimming the light on her side of the wall but Travis can’t see her anymore. He tells her where Hunter is and to take care of him. So close, but forever separated by an irreconcilable past.
Paris, Texas ends with Travis’ sacrifice. He acknowledges that his alcoholism can never ensure Hunter’s proper upbringing. With a tinge of red, the camera shows him driving into the night with tears streaming down his face. The camera never reveals the road ahead because it is unclear but focuses on Houston instead, a past that will always define Travis’ tragic life.