Welcome to Cinematic Panic, a new column in which I anxiously watch all of the Criterion Collection films that have either slipped under my radar or have fueled my film obsession and then share my personal rambling insights as to what makes them so damn good. This week, I take a look at Wim Wenders's classic Paris, Texas.
There are some films that speak to your heart in ways that words fail to describe. You cannot always articulate just what speaks to you so deeply but when it hits, you know it’s there, and the film seeps into your soul and lingers. It satisfies those tender parts of yourself that you keep under lock and key for fear of vulnerability. But perhaps this inability to describe our undeniable love for these films says something about the greater sense that there are so many things we love and yearn for that don’t even have a face or a name in which to call them—a desperate hunger for something you’ve never tasted, the endless desire for a place you’ve never been, mourning the absence of something never to be regained. The Portuguese have name for it: “saudade,” or the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something.
Andre Breton once said, “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.” And when I think of the films of beloved German auteur, Wim Wenders, that quote seems to resonate through all of his work. But for all his work—from the black and white existential road movie Alice in the Cities to last year’s 3D ode to his dear friend Pina Bausch, Pina—it’s his 1984 Palme d'Or winning exploration of the love-worn American psyche Paris, Texas that has remained my favorite. In the way that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opened up a part of my brain to an absurd world of psychological obsession and perversion that’s become a part of me, Paris, Texas immediately penetrated my heart and managed to capture something that I had always felt but never known. It also happened that around the time I initially saw the film: I was also traveling out west alone for the first time. Flying over the midwest, amidst my own battle with unrequited love, I sat and stared out the window with the Ry Cooder-scored soundtrack twanging away in my ears and couldn’t help understand what made this German man, who grew up amongst the wreckage of World War II, so fascinated with the myth of the American West. Speaking to his fascination with that part of the country, Wenders said, in an interview we did last year, “It was as sort of a utopian place compared to where I lived. All I ever wanted was getting there…there was rhythm and fun—the notion of fun was completely strange to me. Everything I really liked was from this mythical place called America.”
It only makes sense that the story of Paris, Texas came from the greatest Pultizer Prize-winning tortured American playwright, Sam Shepard. And what makes the film so emotionally and cinematically rich is the juxtaposition between he and Wenders—the German with a fantastical pastiche obsession with Americana and the rough-tongued “rock and roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth” himself, whose words are engrained in the sprawling western landscape. The two have collaborated many times since, but this holds as by far their best work—creating something that speaks to the human condition so effortlessly in a way that few films have been able to. No one does melancholic American isolation like a misanthropic German.
Paris, Texas is a heartbreaking character study of longing and lacerations of the heart. The film follows Travis (Harry Dean Stanton in the most profound performance of his career), a silent and weathered drifter who reemerges after a four year absence to reunite with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), who has been in the care of his brother Walt (played by Dean Stockwell) in Los Angeles. Upon reconnecting with Hunter, Travis sets out to find his estranged wife, Jane (played with soft perfection by Nastassja Kinski). When it comes to Shepard’s writing, his world has always a bit hyper-realistic and things just happen—like Travis leaving for years without a trace and with no one chasing after him. But because of his command of narrative and language, the story unfolds in a way that feels extremely real and the emotion so raw and genuine that it doesn't matter. You don't need to question it because you can feel it, and that's so much more powerful.The plot is simple, stripped to bare elements of narrative, but in its sparseness lies a tale about the myth of the American family and opens questions about love’s ability to fix the void within us all.
The most stirring moments of the film come when Travis and Jane finally reunite at the peepshow parlour that Janes has been working, where customers sit on the opposite side of a one-way mirror, observing the woman on the other side, instructing them via a telephone-intercom. Separated by glass, Travis can see Jane, while she remains unaware of who is watching her. Picking up the phone to speak with her, he begins to tell their story. “I knew these people,” he begins, and continues to deliver one of the most beautifully written monologues ever delivered on film. In this 8:41s monologue you gain more emotional insight into the characters and their relationship than you could possibly have gained from actually seeing these moments played out. Perhaps a lesser director would have taken these words and morphed them into montage or flashbacks, but Wenders’s brilliance lies in the way he’s directed the delivery of these speeches, intercut with shots of Jane’s face as she begins to realize who is speaking to her and the implications of that. When Travis returns the next day, it’s Jane’s turn to speak as she sits with her back to the wall and explains how she "used to make long speeches to you after [he] left." "I used to talk to you all the time, even though I was alone," she says. "I walked around for months talking to you.” This physical separation between the two speaks to the notion of feeling alone even in the presence of someone else, even in the presence of someone you love. Jane and Travis both feel an incredible sense of isolation yet long for connection and in finding one another that longing turned into a painful attachment. This reunion begins to rip them apart from the inside out. When Jane finally turns to Travis as they touch from opposing ends of the glass, his is relfected in hers—reminscent of the Ted Hughes line from "Lovesong":
In their dreams their brains took each other hostage
In the morning they wore each other's face.
These scenes have no tricks, no cheap ploys for emotion. The shots are simple and the weight lies in the heaviness of their words and devastation that resides on their faces. The subtly of the acting creates such a natural essence to the scenes that make them even that much more painful to watch. Harry Dean Stanton once said, “The painful part, with Sam’s writing, was to understand how to do it. Because you don’t have to act his writing. Finally, Wim said, ‘Don’t act these lines. You just say them, like poetry, say it with a meter,’ and that’s what Natassja and I tried to do at the end, just say the lines. That’s the problem, I think, with people who do Sam’s plays. They try to act it, and his writing you don’t act. You don’t even have to motivate it if you can just be simple, because all that needs to be said is in the writing."
What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive. Some of them find it in others and then some of them realize even if they did—would it even make them feel better? Or are they destined to eternally feel that hole inside? Travis leaves Jane and Hunter in the end because he knows putting together the pieces of the past won’t put him back together. He’s ripped apart we’ll never know why. None of us do. Wenders’s also expressed that, “hotels room have a real magic because you feel yourself, who you are in a different way and in an anonymous hotel room than you would ever be able to at home.” His films all live in transient places like motels where everyone’s face changes from moment to moment—and in a way that’s more comforting than feeling sorrow in the comfort of stability. In the end, Travis isn’t escaping (as he and Jane once dreamed of doing), he’s relieving—finally freeing himself.
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