From the film’s first scene we know that “Paris, Texas” is something unique. A sprawling overhead camera combs a sparse desert landscape to the ominous twanging of an acoustic guitar. The camera settles on a thin, disheveled man with a straggly beard, dusty suit, tattered shoes, and a red ball cap. He drinks the last of his water from an old milk jug and then heads on his way.
Immediately we find ourselves asking a number of questions. Who is this man? Is he looking for something? Where has he been? Where is he going? He seems lost, like a wanderer. But at the same time he’s heading in a specific direction, his eyes fixated on the horizon. These early scenes highlighting the South Texas desert are filmed with an almost postapocalyptic perspective. The rugged and bleak terrain that Travis roams offers no sense of hope or life. This landscape is captivating and we are instantly drawn into the mystery of this man.
“Paris, Texas” was directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders and written by “Kit” Carson and Sam Shepard. The film was a big winner at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and over the years it has been heralded as a true film classic. The movie has often been singled out for its striking score from acclaimed guitarist Ry Cooder and its mesmerizing cinematography from long time Wenders collaborator Robby Müller.
After its brilliant setup, the story doesn’t leave us in the desert long. In a surprisingly brisk fashion the film begins feeding us morsels of information about this man whose name is Travis. He’s played by the great Harry Dean Stanton, an actor who has always been able to speak volumes through his expressive face. It turns out Travis disappeared four years ago and no one has seen him since. We learn that he had a wife and son but something happened and he lost them. In fact, in some ways this gets to the key focus of the film – loss, fear, insecurity, sacrifice.
The slow and methodical unveiling of information begins in the desert and then picks up when Travis is found by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt, his wife Anne (Aurore Clément), and their son Hunter (Hunter Carson) each play a part in putting together this complex human puzzle that is Travis’ life. They are keys, each unlocking new portions of his backstory while also moving the narrative forward. Nastassja Kinski appears later to offer an even different layer to the Travis character.
The movie is basically broken down into three chapters. The first chapter follows the desert wanderer. The second chapter spotlights the time Travis spends with Walt and his family. The third chapter turns into an unexpected road trip. I won’t spoil a thing, but the film makes an interesting shift and the story sets its focus in a new direction while still maintaining its very grounded and cliche-free structure. The third act is the most fascinating and compelling even though it has a fairly glaring narrative hiccup and a couple of lapses in logic.
“Paris, Texas” has so many unique features that differentiated it from the majority of movies being made at that time. And the film’s captivating uniqueness still makes an impression today which is a testament to its quality. The cinematography is sublime, never using camera trickery or gimmicks. It visualizes truth and authenticity. The story is simple but emotionally rich and pure, again focusing on truth. It stumbles in a few places but never loses itself. Most of the performances hit every right note especially Stanton, Kinski, and young Carson. All of this is brought together under the management of Wenders who tells a living, breathing story free of contrivances and artifice.
The film never sets foot in Paris, Texas. It’s a mirage that sits in the back of Travis’ mind. It serves as a connection to his past. It serves as a small hope for a potential future. For a time it gives Travis a sense of direction, a purpose to follow. But over the course of the film we see Paris, Texas replaced. He finds a new purpose at least for a time. But Paris, Texas still lingers for Travis, and by the film’s end we fully understand its importance.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Based on the films of Wim Wenders, this one is still my favorite. From its score, Muller’s photography, and Harry Dean Stanton’s performance. It still moves me as I fell in love with it when I first saw it in my late teens/early 20s. It was a long time ago as it is one of my favorite films ever.
I can definitely understand the love for it. It’s a movie I had seen bits and pieces of but never saw the whole thing through. Really glad I did!
Great review, Keith. I need to rent this. The cinematography, the colors, the score, the performances–all ingredients I favor in a film.
It doesn’t take long to see that this movie is doing several unique things. I was really impressed with it on so many levels. Glad I finally sat down and watched the whole thing.
Great review! I have this on my prelim list for next year’s Blind Spot series. I’ve always wanted to see it.
Thanks. I had only seen bits of it up to this point. Really glad I gave it a look. Would be interested to hear your take on it.
This is my favorite film from 1984, and one of my all time favorites. Kinski’s performance is traumatizing, it’s so real and honest.
Kinski was superb. The way we see her character broken down and opened up without her saying much it all really blew me away.
Sounds intriguing Keith, especially the chapter format which is quite unusual.
Well the movie doesn’t really break itself down into chapters. I mainly meant that if you were to dissect the film it could easily be broken down into specific chapters. That is both a strong point and a weakness.
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Harry Dean Stanton & Wim Wenders!! This is one of my favourite films of all time and I have no idea why.
LOL. Really glad I finally saw it. I had seen bits of it in the past but never sat down to watch the whole thing.
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