Dir. Wim Wenders. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassja Kinski
Like the angels in the sky over Berlin, whose job is to record and preserve the little human moments they witness, our job as moviegoers is to watch without hope of climax and see with wide, sympathetic eyes.
I said this about Wings of Desire when I wrote about that movie, and the same holds true in Paris, Texas. Just as in Wings of Desire, produced three years after Paris, Texas, Wenders has an eye for long shots, especially overhead ones. The opening sequence is one of my favorites because it is utterly unexpected; a moving aerial shot of some beautiful landscape isn’t news, but showing us a small moving figure without any background of who he is or where he came from is unusual. For Wenders, the smallness of things at a distance mirrors the smallness of the details in a story recounted over a telephone or the smallness of adjustments in fixing a floppy-brimmed hat. It adds up to something in the end: understanding instead of resentment, humor instead of sternness. Context only puts people in a place; as we learn from Travis (Stanton), we have to let them tell their own story in their own way after that. The context of this movie is barren and lovely, and I only ever expected to use one of those words about Texas.
Shots like these give us a full understanding of place, hinting at events to come while bringing meaning to the moment. The endless railroad tracks are like the endless desert that Travis has been walking for the past four years, searching for emptiness. (I’ve been a huge sucker for people walking around in the wilderness and learning about themselves through aloneness since I read the Bible.) Despite the playful walk home that Hunter (Hunter Carson) shares with his recently reappeared father, there’s a hard road between the two of them yet, one which looks tranquil but which could turn out to be a dangerous one to cross. The pickup truck carrying father and son is only going to be one little blue blip on a highway much wider than the country road it’s on now. It’s Travis more than anyone who gets these long, long shots placed in connection to him. Sam Shepard, who wrote the screenplay, gives Walt a business which puts up billboards. It’s a fine piece of opposition. Travis is perpetually at a distance and is more than a little inscrutable. Walt’s job requires him to work in larger-than-life images, whether for the Los Angeles Raiders or Evian, and as a person he’s significantly simpler to understand. There’s no question that the simpler man is the better one, either. Travis has a dark personal history, where Walt’s is vanilla ice cream melting on top of hot apple pie. Travis’ cruelty in his marriage ended when his wife set his bed on fire, took their three-year-old, and ran. Walt took the child in and gave him an affectionate home.
Wenders is a little sly, too. The camera is far from the only one looking for a focal point from a distance. Travis sits out on his brother’s back porch more than once, by day and by night, with binoculars (as below) and without. Travis takes his time about everything, but once he’s made a decision he doesn’t drag his feet. It takes him ages to begin talking to Walt (Stockwell), but once he does he does not hold back. It takes him a while to decide that he wants to track down his wife, Jane (Kinski), but once he does he vaporizes from his brother’s house. And it takes him hours to decide if he’s going to tell Jane everything, but in the end he does just that in a long monologue which Stanton speaks beautifully and which Kinski is forced to react to for minutes on end. (She’s good.)
Wenders’ slyness extends to the turning point of the movie as well. Hunter has been a little cold to Travis, which is understandable; he’s seven and he’s known very little outside the life that Walt and Anne (Aurore Clement) have given him. Being told that the new man in the house is actually his father does not impress the boy whose main pleasures appear to be Star Wars and the relatively advanced physics he’s been taught at school. (He gives a pretty fair summary of the Twin Paradox at one point in the movie, which is not in the average seven-year-old’s mental encyclopedia.) It’s only by watching a home movie that Walt took years earlier, where a younger Hunter interacted lovingly with his real father and mother, that he warms to Travis. Travis, who has been waiting for some kind of breakthrough and not knowing where it might come from, seems grateful for recognition that the movie gives to his son (and, presumably, to himself; it’s doubtless the first time he’s seen his wife’s face in many months now). I’ve thought for a long time now that the mark of a good movie is its ability to open us to emotional reactions. Wenders seems to think so as well. Walt’s film is not beautiful – it is grainy old Super 8 – but it finds the right moments all the same. Maybe it’s the grainy quality of the film helps to void some of those lines in Stanton’s face; certainly it erodes some of the features of Kinski’s outright, leaving her very much a mystery until we see her in that awful fuzzy pink sweater, sitting across from her estranged husband in a fake hotel room.
Stanton is silent for nearly the first half-hour of the movie, and while I wished he would speak up with his never-lost brother during that time, I came to like him a little better again when he was quiet, acting with his body or with his face. In one scene, he and his brother’s cleaning lady, Carmelita (Socorro Valdez), have a conversation where he tells her he’s looking for a father. (She gets his drift eventually: not his father, what a generic father looks like.) She tutors him in how fathers dress and walk, gets him to choose between being a rich or poor father (rich), and then coaches him through the correct walk for a rich father. His chin must go higher. He must walk more stiffly. Stanton does both, gives her a few rehearsals. It’s the soft, downy humor that Paris, Texas uses, and much of that humor is found in Stanton’s physical performance.
Wings of Desire is, at least from a plot perspective, largely about someone deciding he doesn’t fit in where he is and choosing a new setting. Paris, Texas does the reverse; someone decides he fits in, is thrust in a new setting, and from what we can assume based on his actions at the end of the movie, returns to the old way. (I look forward to the upcoming film featuring Stanton at 90 which features his time on the road. They’ll call it Taciturn Travis: Road Sojourner.) It’s an interesting ending, and one that doesn’t fit neatly with the half-hour preceding it. Stanton and Kinski launch long monologues at one another through telephones and microphones, one in the light and one in the dark, one pretending to be something she isn’t and the other revealing the scorched earth in his being. One expects them to reunite, but the only reunion we see is a close embrace between Jane and Hunter, whom she hasn’t seen in those four years. Of course it doesn’t happen; once again, Travis watches from a distance, gazing from the top of a parking garage into a hotel room where two green-clad people fold into one another’s fabric. In the green light of the roof, Travis drives away. Given what we know about how he interacted with his wife and child before – in a story that I think must be heard in Stanton’s low, quiet, steady voice as opposed to read in whatever voice we have in our own heads – it is the most humane choice, and certainly the safest one. It hurts to see him get into his truck, but whether or not it hurts him I’m not sure. It’s one last piece of anonymity, a little surprise that Wenders and Shepard spring on us just when we thought we understood everything. It’s frequently said that to understand all is to forgive all; based on the ending, we can’t quite squeeze our fists around either.