A Tale Of Two Road Movies
Paris, Texas is a complex, stunning film. It has a western’s sensibility, in that its protagonist is concerned with reestablishing a type of law and order. Even so, Wim Wender’s 1984 film has little in common with classic Hollywood westerns. The story centers on a traumatized man, played by Harry Dean Stanton, and his attempts to reunite with his estranged wife and son. In terms of structure, the film is essentially two road movies.
When the viewer first sees Travis Henderson (Stanton), he is walking aimlessly through the south Texas desert. He collapses and is taken to a local clinic. Once Travis regains consciousness, he refuses to speak.
The doctor who treats Travis finds a business card among his scant possessions and calls the number on it. That turns out to belong to Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), who has not seen his brother in four years. The doctor convinces Walt, who lives in Los Angeles, to come and pick Travis up.
The news and impending trip cause tensions between Walt and his wife Anna (Aurore Clément). At the same time Travis went missing, his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) also disappeared. Consequently, Walt and Anne took Travis and Jane’s seven-year-old son Hunter (Hunter Carson) to live with them. Anne worries about how Hunter will be affected by his father’s reappearance.
Walt’s trip to retrieve Travis comprises the first road movie. After being on the road many hours, Walt arrives at the clinic to learn Travis simply walked out. Walt tracks his brother down in the desert and convinces him to go to Los Angeles. However, it takes quite a while before Travis speaks. Even then, it is just one work-“Paris”. By this, Travis means a town in Texas. He believes he was conceived there, and he has gone so far as to buy a lot there.
Once they reach Los Angeles, Travis undertakes the job of reuniting with a son who barely remembers him. Walt screens old home movies showing them all together, which is the viewer’s first glimpse of Jane. Hunter sees that his father is still in love with his mother.
Travis makes a series of clumsy attempts to engage Hunter, mostly by showing up at his school. The boy is more embarrassed by his shabby appearance than anything else. Travis perseveres and also makes an attempt to dress more sharply (mostly, by taking Walt’s clothes). A bond begins to form between father and son, although it exists uneasily given that Hunter also thinks of Walt and Anne as parents.
When Anne mentions that Jane makes monthly deposits to a bank in Houston for Hunter’s upkeep, we have the setup for the second road movie. Travis decides to drive to Houston in time for the next deposit, hoping to meet Jane at the bank. When Hunter finds out about the plan, he asks to come along.
After a couple of near misses and a chase, they track Jane to a sleazy peep show. She works as a stripper who stands behind a mirror and converses with customers on a phone. Travis poses as a customer at her booth. The two relive the traumatic events that led to their separation. Travis reaches a bittersweet decision that will enable his wife and son to make their way forward in life.
Sam Shepard, who wrote the earlier parts of the script before being called to another job, created the story for Paris, Texas. Shepard compiled a series of notes outlining the remainder of the story. The task of finishing the script fell to L. M. Kit Carson (father of Hunter Carson, who played Hunter). Wenders also gave input to the script.
It is very easy to see the difference in writing styles. I much prefer the early portions of this film to the later ones. The slow reveals and, especially, Stanton’s ability to convey emotion without words, remind me of silent cinema. With Roby Müller’s stark, wide-angle cinematography and Ry Cooder’s moody score, you have a film that is downright hypnotic.
The disconnect started for me at the twenty-sixth minute, when Stanton spoke for the first time, but did not really kick in until the start of the second road trip. I began to anticipate Travis’ actions, something you do not want in a film like this. Stanton is a strong enough actor that you keep watching regardless; I just wish the writing had maintained its earlier quality. The later scenes tell when you want them to show.
That being said, I still recommend this film to fans of cinema. Wim Wenders has created a haunting film, inconsistencies and all. Harry Dean Stanton gives a career-making performance.
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