Wim Wenders’ quiet western Paris, Texas isn’t all that narratively complex but it makes up for that in emotional density. We focus on a man who we soon learn to be Travis Henderson (the great Harry Dean Stanton) wandering through the desert, directionless and sporting a suit a red cap with a jug of water. Deep in thought and numb to his surroundings, Travis eventually winds up in civilization, when his brother (Dean Stockwell) is contacted to bring him home.
Travis is a man of few words, carrying with him the guilt and sorrow more than verbal thoughts and ideas. In fact, he is without any words when Walt picks him up after collapsing in a small town, reuniting after four years of exile. Pondering what he could change even though correcting his mistakes for the future becomes his goal after wallowing in what is set in the past. It’s a contemplative state of being rarely explored in cinema to carry a story, let alone celebrated.
Once Travis and Walt return to Walt’s wife, Anne (Aurore Clement), it’s then that Travis attempts to make amends with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Hunter was no longer a toddler when Travis abandoned him, seeing Walt and Anne as surrogate paternal figures as opposed to being left up to foster care. Wim Wenders plays into memory in regard to this relationship—how Travis remembers Hunter as a small child and if Hunter can remember his dad at all. There’s a scene where Walt, Anne, Hunter, and Travis gather around a projector to view some old super 8 home movies of when Jane (Nastassja Kinski) was still in the picture. It’s a beautiful moment of nostalgia for not just the characters, but also the audience. Reliving the memories that now belong to the past, only furthering Travis’ journey to save his family.
The journey to find Jane is both visual and emotional. With Wim Wenders being no stranger to the road trip format, pioneering it nine years earlier in Kings of the Road, he now gets to write the journey with even more meaning. The screenplay by Sam Shepard has the car in the film mean more than just transportation, and how it informs Travis’ departure from Exile, giving this feeling that this is his one shot to repair something long gone.
Not only do the final scenes with Jane and Travis strike us as emotionally powerful to build idiosyncrasies, but also Robby Müller’s (Dead Man, Breaking The Waves) stunning cinematography and choice of color. Deciding to make the reds of Travis’ hat and piercing blues of the sky in the beginning pop and contrast with the neon green soaked parking lot and the pink of Jane’s sweater feel even more sophisticated at the very end. If a film is fifty percent what we see and fifty percent what we hear, Müller, (for me) goes to lengths for composing some of the most unforgettable images I’ve ever seen. After all, if the work of Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier, and Jim Jarmusch (whom Müller has shot for) taught me anything, they all remain visually striking as much as they do emotionally intimate with how they choose to move the camera.
Wenders’ strength has always been to focus on those on the outskirts of society. Defining his career to be oriented on shining a spotlight who don’t receive attention, or have become resistant to it. Travis in Paris, Texas is a prime example, but also Jonathon in The American Friend and Damiel in Wings of Desire (both played by the indelible, late Bruno Ganz). With Jonathon, dying of cancer is brought in to be rewarded money for his family after he dies to become a hit man and angel Damiel, experiencing the world from the sky, admiring those below him but unable to connect to one living being. Like any masterful filmmaker, what ideas wrestle inside them appear in different places in their work, but looking at their filmography as a whole, a new meaning comes to light.
If there is any genre that Paris, Texas—a film begging to be un-categorized and boundless to genre conventions—can be placed with, it has to be westerns. Not just the landscapes in the opening sequence, but how much Wenders is infatuated with the idea of redemption. How can one man be redeemed if his torture comes from his inside demons? Never to visualized, but merely expressed, Travis is a man who can’t admit his reasoning to others when he can’t admit them to himself.
Casting director Gary Chason (Brewster McCloud, Paper Moon) choosing Harry Dean Stanton is inspired and perfect. Harry Dean, whom we lost only two years ago, is a presence like no other here. The luxury of being a known character actor, and not a charismatic leading man, is to not have the added baggage being forced upon you when taking on something this quiet. Equal parts contemplative and grouchy, Harry Dean and Travis are interchangeable by definition. It’s a career spanning fifty years, yet he made the most of every role. He was a person born to be put on screen.
Stanton’s last role, John Carroll Lynch’s (another character actor with an idiosyncratic presence) directorial debut Lucky acts as his goodbye to cinema. Similar but separated enough from Paris, Texas, Lucky strives to celebrate Harry Dean not only as an actor but as a person. He was enigmatic, but told you exactly what he was thinking, never trying to cover anything up on the screen or pretending to be someone else.