I tend to think that my initial reason for wanting to watch Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) was because it contains the word “Paris” in the title; however, upon viewing the film, what I discovered was a film tinged with loss and sadness set in the United States. Anyone who has watched Wenders’ Golden Palm-winning film will know that Paris, Texas is about as far away from the manicured boulevards and cobbled streets of Paris, France as you can get.
I grew up in a city, Dusseldorf, that was 80% obliterated, flattened. The river was there, but the bridges were gone. The buildings were rubble and chimneys, most of the streets were empty and you had these streetcars driving from nowhere to nothing. As a boy, of course, you think that this is the way that the world looks because you don’t know any better. Then it begins to dawn on you through magazines and newspapers and newsreels at the movies and the movies themselves–there is another world out there with peace and beauty and tranquility. There are different horizons out there and of course I was attracted to that Promised Land. Everything I associated with pleasure in this dire country was America.
The film opens with the vast and empty panorama of the desert before locating the lone figure of a man (Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton) seemingly wandering aimlessly through the barren landscape. After he collapses at a gas station, Travis is found by his brother (Dean Stockwell) and is informed that he has been missing for four years and that his ex-wife (Nastassja Kinski) is also absent. Travis is subsequently reunited with his son (Hunter Carson) and they set off on a road trip to Houston to find Hunter’s mother.
To my mind, the road movie is one of the most quintessentially American film genres. Perhaps the reason why so many people, including myself, have been taken under the spell of Paris, Texas is because the film provides a view of America from the perspective of a German director with a distinctly European sensibility, giving a fresh twist to the genre. Although the film contains little in the way of action, cinematographer Robby Müller inscribes visual poetry in what may otherwise have looked like a mundane journey. There is something about the use of colour and light that is too vivid and lush to be accepted as truly realistic. Effectively, the film is an outsider’s view that approaches the American landscape with a naïve sense of curiosity, wonderment and mysticism. Müller’s cinematography films a stunning cartography of streets, highways and drab interiors; a vision that is audibly punctuated by Ry Cooder’s haunting score.
The linear narrative of the film is intercut with Super-8 shots that reveal the family’s happier times and the aged aesthetic of the footage is solemnly juxtaposed to the current reality of alienation and separation. In general, road movies are prefigured in terms of escapism and a journey away from conformity and the routines of domestic space. Paris, Texas, on the other hand, is not as concerned with escape as it is with repairing the broken bonds of the family unit. The hedonism and adventure that is present in road movies such as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) is replaced by a profound melancholia and longing.