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The beautifully filmed Paris, Texas is German filmmaker Wim Wenders' attempt to bring his road-picture aesthetic to the American scene. After spending several years on Hammett, under the supervision of Francis Coppola, Wenders unwound with The State of Things, an anguished sketchbook film about the impossibility of moviemaking in the American system. The never-idle Wenders then enlisted cinematographer Robby Müller and cowboy playwright Sam Shepard for Paris, Texas, a freewheeling experiment in improvisatory methods. As he proudly remarks, there was not one day where he went to the set knowing exactly what he was going to shoot.
Although directed by a foreigner, Paris, Texas is one of the more interesting "American" independents of the 1980s. Emotionally invested in the Hollywood counterculture, Wenders brought actor Dean Stockwell back from semi-retirement and nominated as his hero the soulful Harry Dean Stanton, a character actor with a haggard face and haunted eyes. After 25 years playing quirky oddballs in big films (Alien, The Missouri Breaks) and marginal cult items (Wise Blood, Deathwatch), Stanton was Wenders' idea of star casting. Wenders was also not averse to making a film with commercial appeal -- as shown by the signing of the provocative Nastassja Kinski to play the film's mystery woman.
The movie is half Wenders road picture and half Sam Shepard "lonely motel" drama. An entire hour is spent establishing what's going on. A man (Stanton) walks out of the Texas desert and is nursed by a doctor from a local clinic, who calls Los Angeles in search of a reward. The patient is Travis Henderson, and his brother Walt (Stockwell) flies back to pick him up. Travis has been missing for four years and Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément of Lacombe, Lucien) have been raising Travis's son Hunter (Hunter Carson) in his stead.
Walt finds Travis in an uncommunicative state. The clearly disturbed man tries to run away and for several days refuses to speak. Back in Los Angeles, Travis has a tentative reunion with Hunter and slowly wins the boy's acceptance. It's determined that some unstated disruption broke up Travis's family four years ago, causing both Travis and his wife Jane (Kinski) to run away. Perhaps worried that she will lose her "adopted" son, Anne slips Travis a clue as to how the long-lost Jane might be located. Without telling Walt, Travis prepares to go find his wife ... and when Hunter asks, takes him along on the search.
Paris, Texas takes its time with its slight story. Wenders concentrates on the landscapes and atmosphere of cross country driving. Wenders and Müller try not to revisit popular movie images of the Southwest, avoiding John Ford vistas, etc.. But the German tourist-director is a sucker for odd signage and kitschy attractions found along the road. The giant concrete dinosaur attractions in Cabazon are the same ones tapped for their camp appeal in Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure. One deleted scene on Criterion's disc was filmed because Wenders was amused by a large roadrunner statue outside a Texas diner. Wenders seeks out locations that express the essence of America, a process that becomes rather transparent when Walt is shown to live in a featureless tract house perched over a smoggy view of a freeway and an airport. When Travis and Hunter converse, it's under an enormous web of freeway bridges, where no Angeleno normally parks his car.
Harry Dean Stanton plays the laconic loner with perfect pitch. The director knows that simply observing Stanton's worn, photogenic face is a scene in itself. A slow-thinking melancholic, Travis returns from the edge of sanity to reassemble the pieces of his broken life. This part of the movie is pure Sam Shepard: a despairing working-class guy yearns to atone for his sins and heal those he's wounded. Travis could have become a raving loony like the man he finds screaming on a freeway overpass, but his commitment to family realigns him as a man on a moral mission. 1
Wenders' restless drifting finds its focus when Travis makes contact with lost wife Jane, now a performer of sexual fantasies in a seedy peep-show / sex club / brothel on the outskirts of Houston. The oddly cinematic setup of the peep show booth schematizes the difficulty of intimate communications between estranged lovers. Jane cannot see Travis through the one-way glass. Although Travis can see Jane, he remains a disembodied voice talking to her over a phone connection. Perverse as this may be, Travis's initial anonymity makes it possible for him to fully express his feelings and his wishes. The extended ten-minute scene for two that follows is the ultimate one-act play situation. Travis and Jane are "faraway so close", isolated in separate emotional compartments, connecting with just their feelings.
Wenders may have avoided visual nods to John Ford but Paris, Texas closely resembles a modernist reworking of The Searchers. This more self-aware Ethan Edwards also realizes that he is the discordant element who has no part in his own newly restored family. The melancholy film is contrived but sincere, and its emotional impact is considerable: these "experimentalist" filmmakers have rediscovered sentimentality. The bittersweet conclusion is almost identical to the "weepie" ending of the old soaper Stella Dallas. It also has the classical contours of the traditional folk song John Riley.
Criterion is releasing Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas in both Blu-ray and standard DVD formats; the HD version is a wonderful showcase for the heightened reality of Robby Müller's glowing color images. The color green suffuses Travis's "revival" at the ragged desert clinic as well as the conclusion in the parking lot, where green lights bathe the solitary searcher in a magical aura.
Composer Ry Cooder's slide guitar soundtrack sets the pace and the mood for Travis' lonely wanderings. In the disc extras Wenders explains that Cooder improvised in long takes one reel at a time, altering and improving his choices with numerous retakes. This, Wenders explains, is much the way the whole movie was made.
Criterion's extras are a fine introduction to the creative, independent Wim Wenders. The director's commentary emphasizes the importance of personal relationships and artistic freedom to his filming style and provides an anecdotal account of the production's wanderings across four states and a thousand miles.
Interviews include Roger Willemsen's talk with the director from 2001 (in German) and new input from Wenders' associates Allison Anders and Claire Denis. Ry Cooder works with Wenders in a 1984 piece from French television. A long-form (but reportedly cut-down) 1990 career docu on Wenders features input from a gallery of collaborators, including Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Hanns Zischler, Patricia Highsmith and Sam Fuller.
Other items include a compilation of deleted scenes and Wenders' location scouting photos; unit photographer Robin Holland's cast and crew photos, and a theatrical trailer. A thick insert booklet has input from essayist Nick Roddick and interviews with Stanton, Shepard, Kinski and Stockwell, as well as excerpts from a Wenders photo book. Criterion's disc producer is Susan Arosteguy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paris, Texas Blu-ray rates:
1. The deranged "screaming man" (Tom Farrell) would seem a nod to the Science Fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wenders brought Farrell back again seven years later, to play a similarly deranged (but sympathetic) terrorist in Until the End of the World.
2.In certain details, a big slice of the Tom Cruise / Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man seems a conscious rip-off of Paris, Texas. Cruise has trouble dealing with his uncommunicative, unpredictable brother. The brother panics on a plane, forcing the pair to continue across country by car.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.