I didn’t grow up in the sort of dusty nowhere in which Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas begins, but I didn’t grow up in the sort of place where a lot of people talked about Wim Wenders movies, either. Dayton, Ohio had, and still has, an arthouse theater, but it wasn’t always easy to get to from the suburbs, especially in the years before I drove. I don’t think it was open when Paris, Texas played in 1984. (I was 11, anyway, and more interested in Temple Of Doom.) I’m guessing the theater played Wings Of Desire in ’87, but I didn’t see it then, and Wenders’ movies weren’t of the sort likely to show up at local video stores, even those with a “Foreign” section that stocked the inevitable copies of The Seventh Seal and Therese And Isabelle. Paris, Texas and Wings Of Desire burnished Wenders’ international reputation—a reputation first made as part of the New German cinema in the ’70s—and turned him into one of the signature directors of the ’80s, but the decade passed without me seeing either.
I caught up with a handful of Wenders’ movies during my ’90s tenure at Madison, Wisconsin’s finest video store, and another handful for our DVD section. But for some reason, I never got around to watching Paris, Texas, in spite of its sterling reputation and my admiration for Wenders’ other films. (Well, most of them.) It was one of those movies always on my I-should-see-that-someday list and never on my I-have-to-see-it-today list. But moving items from one column to the next is part of what this feature is all about. (The other part: Inviting “What do you mean you haven’t seen/read/listened to that?” mockery from the readers.)
From the first shot, I was glad I picked it. Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller open on a man in a landscape. He’s a loner with a familiar face—unmistakable character actor Harry Dean Stanton, taking a rare lead role—wandering through an unkind land. And while the basic language of the image belongs to a long tradition of American Westerns, the Germans bring their own accent to it. We won’t be long in the wilderness, but Wenders and Müller bring a sense of alien awe to their chosen portions of America throughout the film, whether capturing long stretches of open road, drive-by glimpses of a land defined by the unwelcoming glow of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, or a Los Angeles in which advertisements for Evian and Barbra Streisand movies dwarf the human population. It’s a vision of America defined by fear and awe, and given an unexpected sense of beauty.
Stanton doesn’t make it too far before collapsing, prompting what I’m guessing is the only German doctor in south Texas to contact his brother, a Los Angeles-based billboard creator played by Dean Stockwell. After Stockwell travels to Texas to retrieve Stanton, the film starts to fill in the backstory, a task hindered by Stanton’s unwillingness, or inability, to talk or recall what brought him there. We learn later that he’s been missing for four years after a split with his wife, Nastassja Kinski. She’s disappeared as well, leaving Stockwell and wife Aurore Clément to raise their son (Hunter Henderson) as their own. This information comes slowly, as Stockwell and Stanton make the long journey from Texas to Los Angeles. Along the way, we also learn the source of the film’s title: Stanton owns a desolate piece of land in the town of Paris, Texas. It’s his mother’s hometown, the place of his conception, and, he reckoned at one point, a locus of future happiness. But for all the time the film spends on the road, it never gets to Paris.
By 1984, Wenders had come to specialize in road movies, even naming his production company “Road Movies.” My favorite Wenders film, Kings Of The Road (which, like a lot of Wenders movies, is long overdue for a DVD release in this part of the world), consists of little more than three hours of two men driving up and down the border dividing West and East Germany. One repairs projectors in crumbling movie theaters. The other reflects, usually to himself, on a failed suicide. They bond over their love of The Kinks and this shared affliction: “I cannot live with a woman, and I cannot live without one.” They do, however, have the road.
It’s a commonplace belief that road movies aren’t about destinations so much as journeys, but that’s only partly true. Destinations define journeys, after all. Where characters are trying to go says a lot about who they are and who they want to be, even when the films themselves have a different route planned for them. Really, road movies have only two destinations: home and death. Sometimes they let those two get tangled up; the Easy Rider boys try for a new home and find death instead because their path was always leading them there, and not to a cocaine-sponsored Florida retirement. Sometimes road films are about pointing characters down roads whose ends we can see even if they can’t; the guys in Two-Lane Blacktop never run out of road, but the film around them reaches a dead end and bubbles away. Other times, they’re about destinations imagined but never reached.
Essentially a dual road movie with an interlude, Paris, Texas begins as a trip home, but ultimately falls into that last camp. In the first part, Stockwell and Stanton travel to Los Angeles as Stanton puts himself back together. There he reunites with, and slowly wins over, his son. He’s with his family again, but he isn’t home, not in any way that counts. Stanton eats little and sleeps less. At night, he wanders L.A., listening to street lunatics and watching cars pass under bridges. Following a tip provided by Clément, he returns to Texas, son in tow, in search of Kinski. When he finds her, that isn’t home either.
I knew only a little bit about Paris, Texas before seeing it, and I never really knew where it was going. Wenders, Sam Shepard (who’s credited with the screenplay) and L.M. Kit Carson (the Texas writer credited with “adaptation,” and whose other, varied work includes the screenplay to the underrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and a producing credit on Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket) might not have known either, as Wenders claims he began filming before they had a finished screenplay. Maybe they wouldn’t have come up with the final segment had they ended up working only on paper in a room far away from the outskirts of Houston, where Stanton eventually traces Kinski.
He finds her working in what can politely be called a gentleman’s club, albeit a peculiar kind. There’s no dance floor—at least not one we see—only a hallway of peepshow booths, each home to a different setting. Customers can talk to the woman of their choice and watch her behind one-way glass, without being observed. We see three such booths. In the first, one of Kinski’s colleagues attempts to entice Stanton while dressed as a nurse and hanging out, incongruously, at a poolside setting. In the second, Kinski and Stanton talk haltingly as Kinski walks around a hotel-room set. Whatever he needs to tell her, he can’t bring himself to say, and any hope of a reconciliation fades as he leaves the room.
It’s a cutting scene, and yet it’s mostly there to set the stage for a more devastating sequence to come. Returning to see Kinski the next day, after planning to leave his son with her and fade away, Stanton reveals himself to her by easing into a dialogue about their time together and his many failings as a husband and father. Wenders gives the scene’s every uncomfortable instant room to breathe. Stanton began the film as a man who could remember little and express less. Now he can’t stop expressing himself, and his newfound eloquence is simultaneously moving and a little horrifying. Wenders only changes angles a few times in the long scene, but each cut finds new ways to emphasize the intimacy and the distance between Kinski and Stanton. These are two people who share a deep connection they can’t sustain. It’s a moment filled with elegant cinematic tricks that play with shadows, reflections, and the all-business underside of Kinski’s workplace fantasyland. But it has the uncomfortable feel of an overheard conversation.
After later watching Kinski and their son reunite from the distance of a nearby parking garage, Stanton drives away. It’s clear that there’s nothing waiting for him down the road. Though I’m reluctant to suggest a supernatural reading of this film, I also can’t think of any way Stanton would have behaved differently if he’d been a ghost. Here is a man removed from life, unable to rejoin, at least for long, the people he loves, and all-too-aware that he might destroy them if he did. He may not be dead, but he isn’t fully alive either, and there isn’t much living ahead of him. Ry Cooder’s great score takes its theme from the death-haunted, wordless, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by Texas gospel-blues great Blind Willie Johnson, and that’s no accident.
I don’t know how I would have responded to this film in 1984 at 11. Or how, for that matter, at 21. In a way, I’m glad I waited to watch it. There’s something to be said for withheld pleasures—I’m happy that there are more Hitchcock films still waiting for me, for instance—but since getting married, I’ve found that movies about marriage move me in ways they didn’t before. Stanton’s monologue describes a chemistry that works until it turns explosive, and it’s easier to understand the tragedy now that I know firsthand how much he’s lost. I first understood what I wanted from marriage when I read Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion” in college, in which he writes about marriage being a place of protection from the world, a shelter “from feare of perrill and foule horror free.” (And, reading on, also free of witches and hobgoblins.) I’ve been lucky, blessed even, to get that. But where do you go when the shelter itself becomes a horror? Worse still, what do you do with yourself when the horror is of your own making?
Kurt Cobain named Paris, Texas his favorite movie of all time, and Elliott Smith expressed an admiration for it in an online chat with NME.com. “It's one of the few movies without a bad guy,” Smith wrote. “You don't need a bad guy to create […] tension.” He also mentioned identifying with Stanton’s character. That those two doomed souls would be drawn to Wenders’ film makes all the sense in the world to me. They lived in a way that let them see the life they wanted, but something inside kept them from touching it. They were doomed to drift, but maybe, watching Paris, Texas, maybe they felt some passing, awful comfort in recognizing that someone else knew how they felt.