Until this past week, the only Wim Wenders film I had ever seen was “The Million Dollar Hotel.” That one was a fascinating motion picture which dragged at times but still had moments that held me in a grasp few other filmmakers could ever hold me in. When all is said and done, the one thing we can all agree on is that it had a terrific soundtrack by U2, and that Mel Gibson should have kept his mouth shut during the film’s press day when he was caught saying it was “boring as a dog’s ass.” This proved to be one of the many times Gibson was obligated to apologize for saying something he never should have said.
But whether you consider “The Million Dollar Hotel” one of Wenders’ best or worst, films, you have to admit “Paris, Texas” shows him working at his filmmaking best. I caught a screening of it at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles as this was a film crying out for me to watch it not at home, but on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. Knowing of its reputation as a Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and having a beautifully subdued music score by the great Ry Cooder, I knew I was in for quite a unique cinematic treat.
We open on the driest of deserts in West Texas to find a drifter named Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering aimlessly while trying to find some water to drink. After passing out in a nearly empty saloon, he awakens in a clinic where a German doctor cannot get a single word out of him. Frustrated, the doctor calls a phone number Travis just happens to have on him, and it is answered by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who lives out in Los Angeles. It turns out Tavis disappeared without a trace four years ago, leaving behind his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and their son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Why did Travis just up and leave? Well, much of “Paris, Texas” is dedicated to figuring this out, and the answers are never made easy to come by.
The first thing I have to say about “Paris, Texas” was how amazing and mesmerizing it was. Not once could I take my eyes off the screen as Wenders captured a Texas which was at once beautiful and haunted by a past its characters want to, but cannot, recapture or escaoe. It is also an unforgettable time capsule of life in the 1980’s in America as the story takes place in a time when you needed maps instead of GPS to find your way from one place to another, smoking was allowed on airplanes, and regular unleaded gasoline was only $1.07 a gallon (shit). But while things have changed a lot since then, the themes this film deals with still have a lot of resonance in this day and age.
For a moment, I thought Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell would go on the same kind of road trip Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman went on in “Rain Man,” and this was especially the case after we see their characters suddenly get off a commercial airplane and instead travel back to Los Angeles by car. “Paris, Texas,” however, speeds things up and has the two arriving in Los Angeles where Stanton’s character slowly starts to acclimate to civilization and his new environment while trying to reintroduce himself into his son’s life.
Stanton has gone on record in saying “Paris, Texas” is his favorite film out of all the ones he has done, and his performance as Travis may very well be the best of his career outside of “Repo Man.” His face is like a well-trodden landscape which says so much, and it is important to note this as Stanton does not say a single word for the first 26 minutes. It is fascinating to watch him act in a childlike manner as he sits in the backyard of Walt’s home while watching the airplanes fly in and out of Burbank Airport with a pair of binoculars. I also loved the interaction between him and Hunter as he slowly gains the trust of a long-lost son who, very understandably, is not quick to connect with him.
Dean Stockwell was on the verge of quitting acting and going into real estate when he got cast in “Paris, Texas,” and his performance shows how lucky we were that his talents were not robbed from us. What a shame it would have been if we did not get his Oscar-nominated performance in “Married to the Mob” or his co-starring role in the television series “Quantum Leap” had he not appeared here.In this film, he is the audience surrogate as, like him, we are desperate to figure out what Travis has been through in the four years he has been missing. Moreover, Walt must figure out how to deal with how he and his wife Anne (played by Aurore Clément) consider themselves the real parents to Hunter while trying to help Travis make a connection with someone whose life he was always supposed be a part of.
As for Hunter Carson, the son of this film’s co-writer, L.M. Kit Carson, he is perfect for something like this. “Paris, Texas” is a film which demands its actors inhabit their roles naturally rather than act or perform them, and Hunter is a kid who was clearly not brought up by stage parents thank goodness. He simply exists here as any other young child would which makes his scenes with the other actors even more authentic and moving, and this is especially the case in this film’s final moments which are as emotionally moving as one would expect them to be.
But the scenes which had me mesmerized the most were the ones between Stanton and Nastassja Kinski where Cooder’s score was not needed as their acting with one another via a one-way mirror and a telephone proved to be as subtle and intense as any onscreen acting I have ever witnessed. It is always a gift to be held at attention by two wonderful actors who give their roles every ounce of their being, and this is no mere exception in the slightest.
And when it comes to Kinski, who looks so much different than she did in “Cat People,” we do not see her appear onscreen until 53 minutes into this film. And yet somehow, her character Jane’s presence is felt deeply throughout. It is said Kinski wrote a diary for Jane, and it shows how deep into this character she got as her first appearance shows us someone who has lived a long beyond her years, and she was still quite young when “Paris, Texas” was filmed. Watching her react to what Stanton is telling her proved to be utterly enthralling as I wanted Jane to realize something which was right in front of her, and it makes Kinski’s performance all the more inspired.
Now on one hand, I am tempted to say how shameful it is that I did not watch “Paris, Texas” years ago. By that, I do not mean when it came out in 1984 as I was only nine years old back then and not about to take in the impact the Ronald Reagan Presidential years had on the world at large. I am thinking more of when I was in college and watching “A Clockwork Orange,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Taxi Driver” which took my moviegoing to a whole other enthralling level. “Paris, Texas” is a motion picture that does not play by any cinematic rules as it keeps you waiting and longing for certain things to happen, and in a good way. It also dares to leave story threads hanging in an ambiguous fashion which, while some will feel frustrated by this, will make the more adventurous viewers think deeply about what they just saw.
As for myself, I have a lot of Wim Wenders films to catch up on like “Wings of Desire,” “Pina,” “Buena Vista Social Club” and “Until the End of the World.” For what it is worth, I have seen the American remake of “Wings of Desire” which is called “City of Angels,” and it came out in 1998 and starred Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. That remake broke my heart, and it makes me wonder if the original will do the same. Perhaps I am afraid to find out.
* * * * out of * * * *