Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Origin Story

      Paris, Texas begins with an enigma. What is the gaunt figure stumbling thru the desert looking for? By the end of the film you'll have to decide if he's found it. And maybe you'll question if his search parallels one of your own.

     The first scene is of a landscape so vast that it could easily swallow all the traumas, failures and losses that blow thru our lives like tumbleweeds. But in that vastness there is also the possibility of atonement and redemption. Images and music create a sense of emptiness and longing. The camera looks down railroad tracks that seem to stretch to infinity while a character wonders, "What's out there?"

     The mute wanderer's name is Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton in the performance of a lifetime. The story follows him in an arc from lost to found, from running away to accepting responsibility. He has to acknowledge his mistakes and rise above them for the sake of those he loves.

     We follow Travis on two neon-bathed road trips thru the Southwest. First with his brother Walt to Los Angeles and then with his son Hunter to Houston. There are scenes of trains, planes and automobiles. We see California's tangled highway overpasses and the stark high rises of Houston. There is a restless, relentless coming and going but you see few faces, few people. Everyone is encased in their steel shells and the sense of isolation is palpable.

     The broken family at the center of the picture, Travis and Jane and their son Hunter, need to know where they've come from to find a way forward.There's a revealing scene with seven year old Hunter telling his father about the Big Bang and the creation of the universe: "There was an explosion and ... pfttt ... sparks everywhere ... " There's father and son looking at family albums and home movies of happy times gone by. There's Paris, Texas (a real city by the way) that here functions more as a symbol than a setting. It's where Travis believes he began and where he wants to return to. Where he wants to put down roots, even if, as Hunter points out "We're going to live on dirt?" And finally, in the emotional heart of the film, there's Travis recounting their origin story to Jane as they both must transcend the past for the sake of their son's future.

     Paris, Texas won the Palme d' Or at Cannes in 1984. It's a great example of the collaborative nature of cinema. Wim Wenders directed a core group of five actors from a screenplay that was itself a combined effort of Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. Cinematographer Robby Müller created the mesmerizing visual look of the picture and slide guitarist Ry Cooder contributed music that matches the landscape and emotions to perfection.

Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski and Wim Wenders

Ry Cooder

     Although the film is held in high regard by critics and industry professionals it was never a big box-office success. No shoot-outs or sex scenes and only one slow motion car chase. Wenders, who is German, also received some push-back from American audiences. "What does this foreigner know about our culture and landscape " type of stuff. Watch Paris, Texas and I think you'll agree, he knows quite a bit.  

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