tue 23/07/2024

DVD: Paris, Texas | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Paris, Texas

DVD: Paris, Texas

The two families of Wim Wenders' American masterpiece

Doomed to wander: Harry Dean Stanton in 'Paris, Texas'Road Movies Filmproduktion

An aerial shot gliding over red-streaked buttes in the Southwestern American desert picks out a man striding across the blasted terrain some miles away. He halts and the camera comes close for a montage. We see that he is middle-aged, bony, and unshaven and wears a jacket, tie and red baseball cap.

He drains his water bottle and a hungry hawk settles on a rock nearby. Each unforgiving twang of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar on the soundtrack signals a crisis, but the man has only a vaguely worried expression on his face. He hasn’t realized that tramping across this death valley is bringing him no closer to the woman he seeks.

Thus, the epochal opening of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), which has recently been issued on DVD by the Criterion Collection, following the company’s release last November of Wenders' subsequent feature, Wings of Desire (1987). Both editions are the ones to own because of the high-definition digital transfers and the sumptuous extras. The most beautiful extra on the Paris, Texas double-disk set is an extended version of the silent 8mm home movie that’s shown to the protagonist, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), after his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) has rescued him from his amnesiacal wanderings and brought him home to suburban Los Angeles.

The home movie in the film shows Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément), Travis and his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), and their son Hunter as a three-year-old goofing around on an idyllic day at the beach. But the extended version also includes the wonderful child actor Hunter Carson, who played Hunter at seven; as important as the home movie is in inspiring the rehabilitated Travis to resume his search for Jane and to take the boy with him, the actual shooting of it was clearly a bonding session for the actors, hence Carson’s presence.

Stockwell smiles, drives, and enjoys a huge stogie. Clément is all warmth. Stanton, who identified with Travis’s incommunicativeness, clearly has as much fun as the others. Kinski, effulgent and unfettered, does a perfect cartwheel, mugs for the camera, hugs Stanton and Carson, and joins Stanton and the toddler Carson in their dance on a jetty.

The DVD thus offers two temporary happy families: the one in the story that was shattered by Travis’s all-consuming possessiveness some four years before the main action, and the cast that Wenders put together to play it. The family of actors we see – Kinski was on location for just a week – is as moving to watch as the one it plays and lends to the aura of myth that surrounds Wenders’ Palme d’Or-winning road movie and his alchemical collaboration with Sam Shepard on the script.

The directors Claire Denis and Allison Anders, who respectively worked as an assistant director and a production assistant on Paris, Texas, add to this myth with their reminiscences in interviews. They tell of the shoot being imperiled by a lack of funds, of the Teamsters Union hijacking the camera truck. It was Anders, Denis says, who “tamed” Stanton.

Wenders recalls in an interview how Shepard had to leave when the script was only half-written to work on a film in Wisconsin. He agreed to write the two peep show dialogues between Travis and Jane, however, and – there being no fax machines – dictated them to Wenders on the phone overnight. Kinski kept Stanton awake for 48 hours teaching him his lines for these scenes.

Wenders admits that his seven-year sojourn in the United States, much of it spent on the under-appreciated Hammett, would have been a failure had he never made Paris, Texas. Inspired by the mood and ambience of Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, a slim volume of poems and short stories, and specifically of “the demonic attachment of a man for his only woman,” the film is the most poetic and bittersweet love letter sent by a European filmmaker to the American West. (In contrast, Bruno Dumont’s brutal 2003 desert odyssey Twentynine Palms is akin to hate mail.)

Wenders says he had John Ford in mind when he was making the film but that he didn’t want to make a Fordian film. Notwithstanding this, Paris, Texas constantly engages with Ford's The Searchers, in which Ethan (John Wayne) spends years seeking his niece in the Southwest before turning away into the desert after he has restored her to friends. A similarly redemptive figure, Travis has hopes for himself, Jane, and Hunter but, like Ethan, he is doomed to live outside society.

Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) commented bitterly on the process by which the West was turned from a wilderness into a garden. In Paris, Texas a hundred years later, the gardening has amounted to faceless cities like Houston emerging from the dust. The empty lot on which Travis hoped to build a home for his family is the location of a damaged man’s pipedream, nothing more.

But Wenders found a rueful beauty in the signage, neon and bright colors of motels and eateries that punctuate the desert roads; a wrecked yellow pickup truck which marks Travis and Walt's starting point one morning is a grace note. His affection for this roadside Americana is consistent with his love of his characters, which comes across in his intimate narration not just of the movie but of the priceless string of scenes, included as an extra on the DVD, that were left on the cutting room floor.

Wenders says he had John Ford in mind but that he didn’t want to make a Fordian film

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters