There is the man in the desert. Brown suit and tie, red cap, bearded, shrouded in dust like some forsaken antique no one’s touched. Four years ago he tried to disappear, a difficult thing to do, even in country as vast as this. He got as far as shaking off his voice. When Travis Henderson’s found passed out on the floor of some Texas tavern in the middle of nowhere they call his brother Walt, a maker of billboards in Los Angeles. Walt comes for Travis, to reintroduce him to the world. Travis could be mentally ill, autistic, or on the lam. But he’s the hero of Paris, Texas (1984), a sort of interrogation of American life and landscape, directed by a German, photographed by a Dutchman, financed with European money, written and scored by Americans, performed by an international cast—the arresting hybrid of cultural sensibilities is right there in the title—that’s still one of the most mysterious and moving pictures I know. It’s now available in a beautifully put-together two-disc set from the Criterion Collection.
The first half of Paris, Texas has Walt driving Travis back to California, where he and his wife live with Travis’ seven-year-old son Hunter. Along the way Travis recovers his speech, though he does not reveal where he’s been or why he left. The second half finds Travis reunited with Hunter and driving the two of them back to Texas, where Travis believes he can find his wife Jane, who, like Travis, vanished four years back, leaving Hunter in Walt’s care. Their reunion takes place in a strange sort of peep show, on either side of the one-way glass—Travis can see her, but she can’t see him. Travis speaks into a telephone, while Jane communicates through a speaker on the other side. They tell each other stories that may or may not be precise retellings of their troubled love and its collapse. So over the course of this movie Travis goes from being no voice to nothing but voice, a disembodied phantom from Jane’s past who has come back to restore something. What, exactly, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little heartbreaking. Questions linger. What makes a man give up his life, his voice, to go somewhere “without language or streets”? What makes him abandon his own child? But by the time we’ve reached the end of Travis and Jane’s stories the emotional specificity overwhelms the spare facts and unexplained actions.
The weight of Travis and Jane and Hunter’s story is alleviated by the lightness of Wim Wenders’ direction, his lack of judgment, his dogged attention to actorly nuance, his deep affection for American horizons, truck stops, and music. The score is by Ry Cooder, a bottleneck improvisation based around Blind Willie Johnson’s old blues ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,’ veering between wind-carved desolation and Mexican-tinged nostalgia. The movie, as much about walking as it is about driving, was shot by Robby Müller in such a way that emphasizes the expanse of the settings, splitting focus between faces and backgrounds and weather. The script, as such, comes from great playwright and handsome actor Sam Shepard, and if Criterion’s package focuses heavily on Wenders’ dominant authorship, I’d argue we should consider this just as equally to be a Sam Shepard movie, so in keeping with his themes and voice that even the bits not actually conceived by Shepard—the peep show device came from Kit Carson, who filled in as scripter while Shepard was knee-deep in Country (84)—feel ripped directly from the imaginative world of his writing, one of lonesome places and bad genes, ghostly fathers and opposite brothers. In any event, Paris, Texas is easily among the greatest achievements of everyone involved, including the actors.
Wenders wanted Shepard to play Travis, but this is impossible to imagine once you’ve spent two minutes with Harry Dean Stanton, in what sadly remains his sole credit as a leading man. He was pushing 60 then, while Nastassja Kinski, who plays Jane, was only in her mid-20s, if radiating preternatural maturity onscreen, having already worked with—and in some cases been romanced by—Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader. Kinski’s depth of character, the suspicion and longing in her gaze, and the gentleness and frustration mixed into Stanton’s voice, gestures, and face—itself a sort of road map—doesn’t leave you preoccupied with how Jane could love this man. Their long climactic scene together more than assures us that a thick and thorny story lay behind their union. Hunter Carson as their son feels playful and alert, yet never falsely ingratiating in his scenes with Stanton, while Dean Stockwell gives a warm performance as Walt, patient and anxious and mystified by this guy who happens to be his kin. To think that when Wenders cast Stockwell he was ready to give up movies for a career in real estate, a footnote in the movie’s history that nicely echoes one of its key moments, when Travis shows Walt a dog-eared photo of some land he bought in Paris, Texas. It’s just an empty lot, but it only makes sense that Travis would want to invest in a place where there’s nothing.
Criterion’s supplements are superb, including an audio commentary from the very articulate Wenders, as well as a fascinating interview he did for German television back in 2001. A major highlight is the 43-minute documentary Motion and Emotion: The Rood to Paris, Texas, gorgeously and inventively edited using a blend of talking heads and clips from Wenders’ already prolific body of work, and featuring commentary from Wenders, Cooder, Müller, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Highsmith, and even Sam Fuller, chomping cigars, of course, and offering memorable assessments of Wenders such as, “He can be very slow, but his mood is like a fire!” My personal favourite supplement however would have to be a new, 20-minute interview between Kent Jones and Claire Denis—one of my all-time favourite critics talks to one of my all-time favourite directors! Denis was assistant director on Paris, Texas, Wenders having managed to convince her that the best way to move forward on making her first feature would be to help him make his movie. Her stories are rich, vivid, funny—she affectionately calls John Lurie a snake-face; I guess you can do that when you’re French—and full of love for what would become a defining moment in her life.