15
Jul
09

Paris, Texas

paris_texas

I don’t know how I feel about German director, Wim Wenders. I saw Wings of Desire a few years ago and felt deeply ambivalent about that film and I had similar feelings after watching Paris, Texas.

The movie places a lot of emphasis on the Texas and California landscapes that dominate and almost dwarf the understated characters. This is not really anything new, with the desert/red rock country being a major feature of most Spaghetti Westerns, if not just Westerns in general, but of course Paris, Texas focuses on the aftermath of emotional/psychological violence between outcasts as opposed to the commission of violence between outlaws. The desolation of the empty desert and the emptiness of the blank Los Angeles suburbs mirrors the benumbed emotional and mental life of the main character, Travis, played masterfully by Harry Dean Stanton (who is certainly one of the most underrated contemporary actors). As someone who grew up in the west, I’m very familiar with the power and beauty of that unique landscape and I can easily see how this aspect of the film alone captured the imagination of many when the film first came out.

Beyond the cinematography, Wenders does create an entrancing mood of mystery, loneliness, and memory, with dramatic tension that builds in a natural, consistent arc toward the ending. The viewer has an eerie, dream-like feeling almost the whole way through as you become more and more enveloped in the story and the unraveling of what is haunting Travis, especially when we glimpse the former bliss of the little family he once had and the developing relationship between him and his son, Hunter.

But in a certain way, I feel like maybe Wenders does a little too good a job of setting up the tension and the sense of mystery in the film for the resolution we are ultimately offered at the end of the picture. Cue spoiler alert. In the culminating scene of the movie, Travis finally talks to his former lover and Hunter’s mother, Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski), and this conversation fills in all the missing pieces of what went wrong between them for the audience. Mother and child are ultimately reunited and Travis rides off into the proverbial sunset, seemingly too damaged by his history with Jane and too worried about his Hunter’s future for the full reunion the audience hopes for.

The film is an extended exercise in understatement, with the audience inferring the deep emotions that are too powerful for any of the battered, regret-laden characters to directly address for a full 90% of the movie. Travis is in so much pain at the beginning or has at least been so extremely adverse to remembering that pain, that he does not seem to remember how to talk or who is brother is. To me, this pushes things too far beyond the balance. It is like being given a close-up of just a weight-lifter’s face right as she raises the barbell, with all its pain, misery, and concentration. You’re likely to imagine such a terrible burden that when the camera zooms out and you see the banal, literal weight she’s lifting, you’re bound to be disappointed.

After the tremendous build-up and atmosphere established in the beginning of the film, it is vaguely unsatisfying, bordering on inconsistent to have the story boiled down to the all-too-familiar plagues of the modern American family- alcoholism, poverty, and domestic violence. That which had seemed so loaded with existential power and meaning dissipates into the dry, Texas air. Wenders gives us no flashbacks of the family’s destruction which could concretize and dramatize these demons, but does give us enough of a blank re-telling for almost all our questions to be answered. I can’t help but wish that Wenders gave the audience either a little more or a lot less.

And it certainly feels like less than a happy ending, not just because Travis melts into the background, but also because Hunter is taken from a happy, loving middle-class household and left with a mother who is no doubt still poor, still single, and still emotionally stunted as far as we can tell, since she’s now been reduced to sex work to make ends meet. Supposedly Travis has righted his former wrongs and restored order to their lives, but seen in another light, this ending seems like more pain for everyone involved on top of everything they’ve already been through.

It isn’t clear to me if this ending is intentionally unhappy or not, but it definitely left me unsettled. It particularly bothered me since Hunter is not allowed to even say goodbye to the only parents he remembered up to that point. Perhaps such a scene would have disrupted the arc of the film’s emotional tension, but to me it felt too distortive of reality. For Travis’ character to deprive his brother and sister-in-law of at least a goodbye after having raised him for the past 4 years, he would have to be not just ungrateful, but almost totally heartless. Harry Dean Stanton portrayal of the character really draws on your sympathies up to this point and this moment of cruelty felt unnecessary and out of place.

Overall, I found Paris, Texas very compelling and definitely worth seeing, but not quite the magnum opus that some people seem to think it is. I’m aware that aside from the close analysis that can be done of the film’s plot, the movie is also meant to be a broader allegory about what it really means to love someone, to be a good husband and father, and to be an American after waking up on the wrong side of the American dream. I think part of the failure of the movie is that it takes itself far too seriously and seeing the answers to the questions it raises as being deeper or more ground-breaking than they really are. I feel like Wings of Desire suffers from exactly the same problem. In a weird way, the understated tone overemphasizes its subject matter and it doesn’t quite feel right.

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