Paris Texas Wim Wenders; script Sam Shepard (1984, USA) Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski
viewed Tyneside Cinema 8th Aug 2022; ticket £4.95
voice recognition technology
In structure Wenders’ ‘Paris Texas’ has much in common with Wenders’ ‘Alice in the Cities’. Both films develop as road movies featuring a child accompanied by an adult engaged in a quest. The quests in both movies have an absurd element at the heart of their structure, involving the tracking down a place or a person on the basis of a minimal amount of information, so that the basis of the pursuit is grounded in something of a joke. The difference between these two quest themed movies is that ‘Alice’ transmits a lightness of touch, a refreshing naivety of relations that does not take itself over seriously. ‘Paris Texas’ in contrast is self consciously primed as a heavy duty emotional rap trying through its self conscious Sam Shepherd script to say something about America in words, whereas for the most part Wender’s cinematic imagery is sufficient unto itself to relay its message about contemporary America.
Wenders opens ‘Paris Texas’ with a shot of Monument Valley. In this sequence we see the lone figure of protagonist Travis meandering at high noon through this symbolic landscape, location of so many Hollywood westerns. Monument Valley as a hostile natural environment is the default home of John Wayne, the all American rugged individualistic cowboy and his cinematic poet, John Ford. In contrast Travis is not at home in Monument Valley. He’s sick fatigued barely able to walk, finally he collapses and has to be rescued. He can’t make it; he’s unable to survive in this primal filmic environment.
Opening in big sky country, Wenders ends ‘Paris Texas’ with Travis’ night time flight from the claustrophobic interior of a maybe-whore house to the equally claustrophobic interior of his truck which he drives off down the containing parallel marked lanes of the highway. Both the cowboy and Travis are characterised by their movement and in their isolation: both are men set apart. The cowboy moves through an exteriority: horse, desert, mountain, river pool. Travis, the contemporary equivalent moves through an interiority: house, truck, motel, diner, highway. The American psyche has moved ‘home’, moved away from the natural environment into the artificial world of man made structures.
Initially like the Cowboy, Travis is a man of few words – an isolate – spending so much time alone talk has become unhabituated inhibited unnecessary. But Travis as Shepard’s script develops becomes more talkative and his increasing willingness to speak reflects Shepard’s background as playwright, his need to generate words for his lead player. But Shepard’s writing doesn’t work well as film dialogue. It tends to lean towards the theatrical or as in the penultimate scene, drives straight at the front row of the stalls. As ‘meaning’ rather than ‘situation’ drives utterance, line delivery becomes increasingly arch and the theatrically tempered dialogue induces the players into wooden and/or overemphasised phrasing.
Starting from Monument Valley Wenders’ movie reaches its destination in the scenes set client meet-room of the maybe-whore house where Travis’s ex, Jane works. Travis is travelling with his seven year old son Hunter (named for another filmic reference to the pioneer days of the American West) whom after some four years of separation, he wants to re-unite with Jane his mother.
There are two scenes between Travis and Jane in the client-meet room of the maybe- whore house (it seems odd that no money seems to change hands in the maybe-whore house. After all ‘talk’ is expensive whether with a prostitute or a therapist (some whores claim to be therapists). ‘Time’ doesn’t seem to be ‘Money’ in this establishment which in ‘people’ business is unusual) The key feature of the room is that it is divided into two sections partitioned by a one way mirror set up. Both parties can speak to and hear each other; but only Travis can see Jane; she can’t see him. Wenders has designed this set so that it functions as a spacial analogy to characteristic psychological features of ‘cowboy’ or ‘male’ dominant marital relationships. The couple are isolated, each in their own ‘space’; they speak and hear across psychic dividers, they can’t touch and they can’t actually see each other as equals.
The Wenders/Shepard’s client meet-room device works effectively on Travis’ first visit to see Jane. The set works to concentrate certain features of Travis’ attempts to communicate to establish a relationship to Jane: hesitancy, inarticulacy, inadequacy, deference, confusion. All traits intrinsic to the male cowboy type.
If the film had ended at this point, it would have rendered an impressionist take on contemporary America, expressing qualities of diffuseness of intent, indeterminacy and dispersal. A feeling that cowboy Travis had attempted something beyond the capacity of his personal resources. An honourable failure. A failure in the traditional mode of the cowboy.
Instead Wenders /Shepard opt for a finale that’s a slam dunk piece de theatre. The client-meet room is turned into a Catholic truth-booth. The playwright gives his protagonist words of self explanation, self justification, as ‘Paris Texas’ transposes in form from film into declamatory theatre. Shepard kits out Travis with a long durational monologue, archly disguised as a story about someone else. This displaced confession amounts to an account of how his uncontrollable jealousy had pushed him to abuse the object of his ‘love’, tie her up not let her out of the house. Shepard’s writing at this point articulates an indulgent sentimentality. With Jane’s response and her sudden ‘realisation’ that she’s been talking to her ex-husband all this time, ‘Paris Texas’ has been shaped up so that Wenders can sign off with a banality, a genre conforming reconciliation and plot resolution. Hunter is re-united with his mum through the good offices of cowboy Travis, who drives off into the traditional distance.
Wenders choses an easylistening ending in a world where there are no longer easy endings. Today’s American cowboys have to live not with certainty and permanence but with indeterminacy and ambiguity. Wenders’ forensic shots of contemporary America, are a context within which we can see directly the shape America has taken: the shots of LA from the home of Travis’ brother contrast with the rugged masses of Monument Valley, the silence of the cowboy contrasts with the screaming of the man on the bridge over the freeway. The nature of the land leaves its mark on the people. Perhaps Wenders wanted to make a movie that was act of homage to Wayne and Ford, but mere imitation of their genre of film making is surely a lesser achievement than following the impulses instincts that define the current times.
after thought….On viewing ‘Paris Texas’ it seemed strange that the central scene in Paris Texas, Travis’ storified confession to Jane, had to viewed with a particular suspension of belief!
I mean Jane had lived with Travis. according to the script for at least some 6 years – perhaps more. During that time he’d loved, fucked and abused her. His voice would have seared itself into her memory as he accused her, berated her humiliated her. You don’t forget the voice of your long time tormentor. Whilst people’s faces may change (and of course in the one way mirror set up Jane cannot see Travis) people’s voices remain very constant. I found I had to ‘suspend belief’ that in the course of two sessions with him at the maybe-whore house, Jane does not recognise his voice. Of course movies always demand suspension of belief from the audience, usually in relation to plot development – that’s part of the fun. But filmmakers are pushing their luck when it comes to suspending belief in relation to features that lie at the heart of emotional relationships.