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Paris Texas 2

On First Watching Paris, Texas

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We all have those films that we’re embarrassed to admit have escaped us for one reason or another. And I have lots of those films. So, seeing that The Frida was to play Wim Wender’s Palme d’Or winning film, Paris, Texas, I took this as an opportunity to finally sit myself down and write my thoughts on one of the most significant and influential independent films of all time. And a film that I’d put off watching for some time. Here are those thoughts:

The opening scene of the film, a shot panning the desolate landscapes of west Texas, its bajadas and mesas like the terrain of an alien world, sets a tone of searching. Of yearning. Into the frame saunters a haggard man in a dusty suit and red baseball cap. He walks with a secret determination through the hot nothingness of the Texas desert. As we learn later, this man is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), who, for some reason, has lost his memory. As he walks, his expression is that of a beaten dog. Upon learning of Travis’ whereabouts, his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who hasn’t heard from him for four years, flies from Los Angeles to pick him up from the eccentric German doctor who finds him passed out in some dusty bar in the small town of Terlingua, Texas. At first, Travis is mute; Walt more so talks at him than talks with him. But after a day on the road, Travis, like the opening of a sleep-deprived, crusty eye, starts to talk. 

Paris TexasWhy is Travis amnesiac? And why was he wandering the desert, nomadic and listless, on a path to Paris, Texas, of all places? As Travis grows less laconic on the long drive back to L.A., he explains to Walt that their father and mother had met in Paris, and Travis suspects he was also conceived there. Does Paris represent a coming home of sorts for Travis? The place where his life “began”? This “coming home” leads to a central theme of the film: the inability to go back. Life goes on, we are reminded, and we cannot return to memories. Travis cannot take back the four years his son, Hunter, grew up without his mother and father. He can’t take back the thing that broke his family apart. Perhaps the most iconic image from the film is of Travis and his estranged wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), in a home video, their love entwined in their eyes, all smiles, warmth radiating through the film.  Interestingly, this video brings Hunter and Travis closer together. They remember what they had together as a family. So, while memories are important, as they remind us of good times and loving moments, we cannot dwell on them. We cannot idealize the past within the frame of memories and recollections. 

Stylistically, the film is beautifully shot, extremely well-paced, and heartbreakingly well-acted by the entire cast. What Wenders does with color is brilliant and visually stimulating. Red is prominent, suffused through the work, from Travis’ bright baseball cap in the beginning to the upholstery and Jane’s dress in the final act. This uniformity of red gives a sense of both passionate searching and a singularity; Travis’ modus operandi is uniting the family, finding Jane, restoring what once was. The uniformity of color forces us to focus, like Travis, on the all-encompassing emotions experienced.  The score of the film, composed by Ry Cooder, lends a tonal cohesiveness to this emotionally complex story. Harry Dean Stanton, in one of his only leading roles during his six-decade-long career, steals the show. From the first act where Travis is of few words, the tension on Stanton’s face tells of a great loss even before we become aware of what that loss was. The climax of the film is so, so heavy, with transcendent acting by both Stanton and Kinski; I had to remind myself to breathe during these scenes.

Paris, Texas lives up to the praise. It’s a classic of independent cinema for a reason, with its timeless themes, superb story, and gorgeous cinematography by Robby Müller. I have a tendency to catapult a newly seen great movie into my amorphous top 4 list on Letterboxd, and Paris, Texas has certainly made its way there.

Paris, Texas screens starting Friday, February 23rd.
Friday, Feb 23 – 12:30pm, 9pm
Saturday, Feb 24 – 7pm
Sunday, Feb 25 – 7:30pm


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