An Appreciation – Paris, Texas
Paris, Texas (1984). Let’s examine that title for a moment. When you hear the name of the town, chances are you immediately think of the city in France. Strange that the place referenced in this film is located in the vast desert of the second largest state in the U.S. I believe that is what director Wim Wenders was going for. Here is one of the prominent filmmakers of the German New Wave, telling a story steeped in the American culture. There’s a melding of two opposite voices—one of the outside observer, and the other of the characters he is observing—both trying to find common ground. It’s no surprise these characters are constantly adrift, trying to find truth and peace in their lives. By contributing these different cultural influences, Wenders makes this less about a certain place and time, and more of an overarching human experience.
The main character is a man named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). Travis is a lost, sad, and aimless soul. We first find him wandering the desert, clothes ragged, sporting a heavy beard and a red baseball cap. There is something wrong with him. He travels on foot, with no sense of direction or purpose, and eats and drinks wherever he can. He stops by a gas station, and in a desperate act for water, chews ice from a freezer just before passing out. How did he end up here? Where is he going? In a way, we are put into his shoes. Travis has lost his memory, and as the film unfolds, he slowly begins to remember. We learn of Travis’s past just as he does. This rewards multiple viewings. As we come to understand who this person is, we can fully grasp how he found himself to be so alone. This opening act—of a man emerging from a long journey in the desert—is full of religious connotations, which are only strengthened as we continue further.
Turns out that Travis was once a family man, who (four years earlier) had a beautiful wife and son, and somehow left them for this world of isolation. Whatever caused this must have been traumatic, as Travis remains mostly mute throughout the first half of the film. When examined by the German doctor who finds him (Bernhard Wicki), he doesn’t say a word. Why doesn’t he speak? It’s clear early on that he is not mentally ill, but there is something that is bearing down on him. Perhaps his guilt (whatever it may be) is so heavy that it got to the point of him being afraid to talk and relieve his memories. All that is left is a face worn from time, eyes sunk from some hidden pain. The casting of Harry Dean Stanton was an act of brilliance. He has to emote with his facial features so often, but he does it effortlessly. Each wrinkle seems to have something behind it, a story wanting to be told. Stanton may not speak much here, but there is plenty that he says.
Travis’s return to civilization is a tough one. His brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), realizing that Travis is alive after all these years, travels from Los Angeles to Texas to fetch him. But as Walt tries to bring Travis back home, he must also help him start to remember who he once was. When they first reunite, Travis walks right past Walt as if he were a stranger. And when Walt leaves Travis in their hotel room to run an errand, he returns to find it abandoned and must search for him again. The only thing that gets Travis to talk once more is the mention of Paris, Texas. He once bought land there, and carries an old picture of it with him at all times. Travis confesses to Walt that their mother told him that was where he was conceived, and one day he wanted to return to live there. The place is more than just a stretch of dirt and grass; it stands as the main allegory for the whole film. Here is a character that wanted to escape to a place that he associates not only with his mother, but also as a form of lost happiness. It seems like Travis was willing to walk forever until he found it, or it found him.
The narrative is broken into three major sections, strung together fairly linearly. The first involves Walt discovering Travis in the desert and bringing him home, the second deals with Travis meeting his son Hunter (Hunter Henderson), and attempting to rebuild their relationship. We discover that after Travis left his family, his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), unable to provide for their son, left him with Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement). After four years of living with them, Hunter has assimilated Walt and Anne as his own parents, even calling them “Mom” and “Dad.” This is a unique family dynamic, because just as Hunter has accepted Walt and Anne into his life, they have accepted him into theirs. They treat him as their own child, and when Travis returns, it’s understandable that they would have trouble adjusting. There is a risk of this dilemma falling into over-the-top melodrama, but Wenders (along with writers L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard) never allows it to delve in that direction. In fact, the beauty is in how we can attach to every character as they face these major questions.
Travis’s and Hunter’s relationship grows steadily. It doesn’t happen right away, though—when we see Hunter decide to go home from school with his friend instead of with Travis, we sense how much it hurts him. But as Hunter begins to open up, we come to find that he always hoped his real father would return. Even though he calls Walt “Dad,” the thought of Travis being alive always lingered in his head. And although Travis has trouble remembering his past (he doesn’t even recall Hunter’s age), we feel that Travis regrets not being a part of his life. This culminates with Walt showing Travis an old home video depicting both of their families having a vacation getaway at the beach. Accompanied by slow, melodic guitar music, we see the rush of memories come flooding back to Travis as he watches. Just as Paris, Texas, represents a happy place for him, so does this video, showing a time in his life that now seems so far away. It’s one of the emotional high points of the film, because we finally get to see what it was that Travis lost, and what it is that he hopes to bring back, especially for his son. From there, we see the two connect, with Hunter walking with Travis home, and Travis showing Hunter pictures of his younger self.