France, Germany, 1984
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox VHS
We first see the tragic hero of Paris, Texas in an enormous, vacant, and unfamiliar Texas setting in which he may not survive. He is disheveled, unshaven, and appears to have been walking for some time. He succumbs in a gas station he manages to find in search of water, and a doctor contacts his brother in Los Angeles, whom he has not seen in four years. There is the implication he has not spoken, either, in the same amount of time.
We learn the man is named Travis, estranged from his wife and son. His persistent silence implies a past trauma. Once resuscitated Travis resumes his custom of walking, and leaves the rural hospital before his brother, Walt, arrives. Sitting static, we gather, he must consider his past; moving forward, he obstructs any memory of it.
Travis’ history is established in piecemeal: we learn of his dissolved marriage, and his son who Walt has fathered. The brothers travel to Los Angeles as Travis, always silent, has no other destination. This trip is photographed with intense ethereality (this, along with Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Dead Man, is one of cinematographer Robby Müller’s many distinguished efforts); dusk horizons have a fluorescent, neon quality seen in no other film. It is poetic and totally surreal. This artificiality can perhaps be attributed to German-born Wim Wenders’ perception of the American Midwest (a perception also evident in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point).
In contrast to its visuals, Paris, Texas inherits the austerity of the American Western. Its principal character is an anonymous, individualist hero in a rural western setting. He has heroic intentions, but his story will conclude with his solitude. There is mention of harm and conflict in the film, but it is only described in monologue; we witness the repercussions of violence and not its source. Paris, Texas uses the familiar thematic construct of the Western, and updates it with a contemporary setting. This revision is acknowledged subtly, as the film is conducted in somber nostalgia.
Travis meets his son, Hunter, and the camera lingers on their faces. This introduction (staged with dramatic, disconcerting angles and voiced only by a “Hi”) exhibits Wenders’ directorial signature, in allowing the human face to transmit emotions no dialogue could sufficiently — and efficiently — relay in the same amount of time. The two are silent and awkwardly aware of each other during the first days of their reunion. Travis offers to walk Hunter home from school (eager to resume this pastime, Travis has polished every pair of shoes in the house), which the son refuses and later accepts. There is a telling scene in which the two walk home on opposite sidewalks. Their distance (an integral and visually manifested theme in this film) is not quickly diminished. This confrontation is preliminary, as Travis tells Hunter of his mother, Jane, in Houston, and expresses his interest in finding her. Hunter, who somehow shares his father’s need to reconcile, decides to accompany him without telling Hank and his wife, who have raised him in Travis’ absence.
In the film’s incredible final third, Travis locates and follows Jane, inconspicuously, into a peepshow where she is employed. It has a hallway of fabricated scenarios — a poolside or hotel room — and the customer is kept separate by a two-way mirror and communicates to his woman of choice via telephone. Jane enters Travis’ room in a brilliant fluorescent light. Colors are flattened, and she looks like an old photograph, coalescing smoothly with the artificial environment. (She is seen earlier in an 8mm home movie, and this footage is resemblant.) Travis, phone in hand, watches and speaks to her from a darkened room. He asks her to listen and begins to describe events from their past.
In this manner, Paris, Texas’ revelatory climax is delivered aurally, described in two riveting monologues. With few films have I been as transfixed by spoken words. As Travis and Jane speak they face opposite directions, each taking a turn to listen. Their admissions resurrect pain; it is the prevalent sentiment shared between them. They speak to admit and to be heard, and the resulting catharsis is only individual. In the film’s final shot, Travis drives away, alone.