The Most Beautiful Fraud: Paris, Texas

It took Nixon to go to China, and it took a German to make the ultimate American road picture.

Wim Wenders’ career has had plenty of highs and lows, but his obsession with, and near mastery of, the road movie is impossible to dispute.  Many of his greatest movies, including his legendary trilogy of the mid-70s of Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road, have stemmed from his peculiar fascination with the natural grandeur and emotional possibilities of traveling through vast open spaces; the fascination is even reflected in the name of his production company.  Though there’s much to speculate in why he might have acquired this particular passion, and especially its manifestation in the physical and cultural landscape of America, let’s leave the couch-front psychologizing alone for the moment and turn to Paris, Texas.

With a small cast, a remarkably skillful crew (the key elements being writers Sam Shepherd and L.M. Kit Carson, cinematographer Robby Müller, and editor Peter Przygodda), and a simple idea, Wenders delivered, in 1984, the most beautiful, most moving, and most effective of road pictures.  Lured by the striking landscapes of Texas, he begins with one of the most indelible images in cinema history:  a bird of prey menacingly vaulting through the sky, cagily assessing the potential of a gaunt, crag-faced man in a dusty old suit and a ridiculous red hat, wandering through the arid stonescapes of south Texas.  He takes long swigs out of a gallon jug of water until it is expended; he walks until he can walk no more; and finally, in a ruined Terlingua market, he shocks his system by wolfing down ice and collapses to the floor.  As the man, played with almost inexpressible sadness and wounded dignity by the great Harry Dean Stanton, is destitute, his brother — a more successful family man from the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles — is sent for.  Slowly, the man’s tragic history, and that of the wife he drove away and the child she left behind, is revealed, and we watch as he struggles to make a decision, knowing nothing open to him is exactly the right thing to do.

That’s about all there is to it, and yet Paris, Texas contains more meaning and more weight than a dozen more densely packed melodramas.  It is a film of spectacular beauty and sadness.  The beauty comes partly from Wenders’ great desire to capture the endlessly compelling empty places and in-betweens of western America (and Müller’s uncanny eye for realizing that desire); few directors outside of John Ford and Terrence Malick are capable of so perfectly portraying both the majestic sweep of the barren west and the odd broken-down beauty of its bars, motels, fast food joints, and gas stations.  There is something about these inherently inhospitable, inhuman landscapes that challenges us to make them hospitable and human, and Wenders sees that with stunning clarity.  But the beauty also comes in the sadness — in the realization of a man that he can neither correct the mistakes of his past nor ever truly escape the, in the realization of a woman that she still loves a man she destroyed her family to escape, in the realization of a couple that helping a shattered man with nowhere else to turn might come at the expense of jeopardizing their relationship with a child they love beyond words — and from the other emotions, both bold and quiet, that run through the film, as stark and bright as any of the colors of the endless sky.

There is much more than sadness here, of course.  There is good humor, a natural and playful fraternal love, greed, venality, and grace; there is love of every kind; there is desperation, and redemption, and the trace of hope.  The relationship between Travis Henderson (Stanton) and his son, Hunter (Hunter Carlson), as well as between Hunter and Travis’ brother and sister-in-law, who have raised them as their own, is complex, lovely, and astonishingly real; Carlson is that rarity, a child actor who is both competent and ordinary, playing an actual child and not a mere symbol, a stand-in for an adult, or a precocious fantasy.  The story manages to build breathtaking suspense and tension despite having no obvious consequence or stakes beyond the happiness of its principals; when Hunter is finally reunited with his mother (Nastassja Kinsi, who is simply amazing), the purity of the moment comes entirely from an absolutely relatable moment of life, and not from some arbitrary menace or threat.

But more than anything else, Paris, Texas is a story about the road, about traveling for the sake of travel, about moving because stopping means a kind of dying.  Travis hits the road because his hatred of his own behavior makes him want to go where there is no one to remind him of what he has done and what he has lost; his brother Walt (a deeply appealing performance by Dean Stockwell) travels across the country because his obligation to the family he thought he had lost overcomes his obligation to the one that he thought he had built; Kinski’s Jane runs away because the great unknown of the road was preferable to the stifling punishment her home had become.  While the journey has traditionally meant freedom, Wenders reminds us that this freedom comes at a tremendous cost:  it can lead to desperation and degradation, it can mean losing everything you’ve worked for, or it can mean the freedom to be lonely instead of the freedom to be alone.

In the end, Paris, Texas is a film about love, but it is a love that does not conquer all.  Travis learns that most valuable but horrible lesson:  that you can get what you want and still not be happy.  He manages to rekindle a love that was long thought lost, but it is not the love he thought it would be, and he must face up to the fact that no matter how much you try to change, some things can never be undone.  But there is one thing that will always accept him, that will always take him back no matter what he has done, and it is to that thing he ultimately returns:  the road.  Always there is the road.


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