A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas has so much going for it: the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell, the dialogue by Sam Shepard, the cinematography of Robby Müller, the music by Ry Cooder. It won every major award at Cannes. So why do I feel like it's an unsatisfying film? It's not that I demand resolution from a work of art: That's a criterion long absent from modern and postmodern criticism. Life doesn't resolve itself, so why should art? I think it's partly that Paris, Texas resolves too much -- namely, its initial mystery: Why is Travis Henderson (Stanton) wandering in the desert, speechless and amnesiac? But the film doesn't make the explanation resonate with anything other than the failure of a marriage -- or perhaps two, since the marriage of Walt (Stockwell) and Anne (Aurore Clément) seems to be held together only by Travis's son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), whom they have been raising since his disappearance. It's as if L'Avventura (Michelangelo
Antonioni, 1960) had concluded with an explanation for Anna's disappearance, when in fact that unresolved disappearance is the whole point of the film: a catalyst for the experiences of Claudia and Sandro. Are we supposed to feel that the reunion of Jane (Nastassja Kinski) with Hunter -- a sex worker and an uprooted child -- is a kind of closure? It was Jane, after all, who gave up Hunter to Walt and Anne after Travis's first disappearance. For me, the first half of Paris, Texas is brilliant moviemaking: among other things in its superb use of landscape -- both the bleakness of Texas and the freeway- and airport-choked Southern California -- as a correlative for the lives of Travis and Walt. It's when Travis takes Hunter on the road in a needle-in-a-haystack search for Jane that the film falls apart. Wenders had already made a film about this kind of search: Alice in the Cities (1974), which seems to me a more satisfying film than Paris, Texas because it doesn't overreach itself, it doesn't complicate things with too many backstories and too much striving toward significance. It comes as no surprise to learn that the film was only half-written when it was begun, and that Shepard, who had been called away to work on another film, literally phoned in the climactic narrative in which Travis explains his disappearance. Though it's a tribute to the brilliance of both Shepard and Stanton that the scene comes off as well as it does, it plays as a set piece, and not as an organic part of what has gone before.