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.)
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.
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.
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.