A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. Today, we close the series with a look at the American poetry of Paris, Texas.
In his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote of his belief that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” It’s not hard to see the logic, particularly when you measure Whitman’s democratic poetic operation—a poet who sought truth in the masses, whose poetry showcased a zealous interest in the multitudes and the electricity and space between individuals.
To understand the comparison, one need only start with Whitman’s pluralized verb. Are, not is. Our country, like poetry, is a malleable whole always shifting with its singular and sometimes figurative parts. Not just states, but particles even smaller.
And the subsequent century and a half of American poetry’s fixation on American identity and American history has only served to underscore Whitman’s assertion.
It’s probably not incidental that culturally it’s as difficult as ever to concretely define both America and poetry as broad ideas. While the impossibility of finalizing a definition of either concept adds elasticity and interpretation, it also demands a stern evaluation of any attempt. So it would perhaps make sense if some students of poetry might reject the notion that cinema itself is a sort of poetic form, but it is somehow more acceptable to categorize Paris, Texas, a single 1984 film written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, as one of the great American poems.
It’s not as if the latter assertion is anything new. The distinction was being made even before the film was edited into existence. In the Criterion Collection supplement to the DVD release of Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton explains that Wenders instructed him and Nastassja Kinski to approach Sam Shepard’s script counter-intuitively: “Don’t act the lines. You just say them, like poetry…. Just be simple, because all that needs to be said is in the writing.”
That certainly sounds like poetry.
In a recent interview on Hyperallergic, poet Anselm Berrigan explained poetry thusly: “You have to engage both the language on the page and the language in the air to get the fullness of the work.”
Just like a poet to be careful with his words, Berrigan’s decision to say “language” instead of “words” is so important here. There are so many languages.
While a sign hanging on a wall next to aimless and confused Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) in the film’s opening might best be read as an epigraph encompassing all of the film’s forthcoming themes (“The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through or whatever.”) in Paris, Texas, everything else is also a language, every sensory element meant for communication. Even the absence of words is a form of poetic sub-language here, the quiet pre-amble lead-in to Wenders longer epic.
Among the non-verbal languages are imagery symbols both timeless (the traditional business suit covered in dust) and living (the red baseball cap feels so much heavier with interpretive meaning in the post-Trump era). The flat and static desert through which Travis tepidly walks is exactly what we imagine he must have imagined when later in the film he explains his departure as a wish to go to a “place without language.”
When Travis walks past his brother Walt’s (Dean Stockwell) car and turns to look in confused non-recognition or when he sits in the backseat instead of the front when he gets into the car, it feels as though Travis is creating line breaks and stanza shape as much as personal space.
When he escapes yet again, Walt catches up to him on a set of train tracks. The Texas land is now flat and green, the sky wide and blue. An engine hollers back from a horizon we can’t see or forward from an industrial history we can only remember or read about. Walt puts an arm on Travis’ shoulder as the two stand looking out toward America, in the direction of the train pushing out into America, pushing out to build a better America. “There’s nothing out there,” Walt says, and then they head together out into that nothing.
The opening act of Paris, Texas unfolds like a quiet scavenger hunt of prop American iconography, including Ry Cooder’s Western film-influenced score. As Walt seeks to bring Travis to his home in Los Angeles from the seedy doctor’s office in south Texas, the brothers pass unobtrusively along the circulatory system of America, stopping at hotels and diners, through airports and gas stations, along highways and railroads. Travis stays essentially mute throughout this journey, ignoring his brother’s increasingly frustrated inquiries, the character’s quietness, as explained by the actor in the aforementioned Criterion-printed interview, a large part of the initial appeal of the role. “I liked the type: He didn’t talk…,” Stanton explains, “Everybody talks too much.”
But, just as Walt threatens him with counter-silence, Travis finally speaks. “Paris,” he says.
He then asks if the two of them might go to Paris, which Walt at first reasonably interprets as a request to travel to France, but we see that Travis is looking at the town Paris, Texas on a map. And thus begins a verse of geographic wordplay repeated through Wenders’ and Shepard’s poetic verse. As the film’s title and its thematic beat, Paris, Texas operates the same way that it operated for Travis and Walt’s father in an anecdote he told about their mother. Paris, Texas was their mother’s hometown, so their father would introduce her as being from Paris, pause for a reaction, and then interject the state. It’s a game of verbal manipulation, in which the name most associated with a very non-American city is then inverted by the application of a hyper-American locale. Contextualized against the rest of the film’s material, the title itself might be its own short poem, a poetic exploration of good and bad Americanism occurring in the space between two words, a space so dense with conceptions of what America is and isn’t that, according to Travis’ memory, it drove their father somewhat mad with disappointment. His wife didn’t possess the exotic eloquence of a fabled city, but was just an American. Every telling was a reminder that she wasn’t there, as imagined by the joke, but she was here, in reality. The same dichotomy is played out more literally in the comparison of Walt’s factual logic to his French wife Anne’s (Aurore Clément) affectionate touchiness.
When Travis finally remembers why he is carrying the map and a picture of that plot of land—because he purchased it in the mail after remembering that his parents first made love there, presumably, to reclaim his conception and the start of his existence—he has taken over driving the car, taken control of his direction and language again. But he’s framed in this sequence as wholly alienated and detached from all reality, his eyes stuck in the rearview mirror, his mind fixated on a past that physics dictates will never happen again, and the windshield pushing forward into another empty American horizon.
Suspended in some sort of existential animation outside of the past and future, between reality and imagination, Travis functions as a philosophical two-way mirror placed at the center of the already reflective nothingness of the American existence, a single and simple textual deconstruction of culture, society, time, and, to a degree, even scientific knowledge.
From start to finish, Paris, Texas is a film about the hollowness of American performance, where what everything is can only be understood by what it isn’t. Walt’s maid explains to Travis that a dad is either a rich dad or a poor dad, and each is defined by not being the other. There are places you take classy women and places that are not good enough for classy women, Travis explains to his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). When Travis finds out that his brother owns a company that makes billboards, he replies “Oh, you’re the one that makes those? Some of those are beautiful.” Walt dejectedly replies,”I’m not the only one that makes them, Travis.” There’s a sense of Walt’s being disheartened here, as if Travis’ misunderstanding is still true enough to remove the purpose from his career.
If everyone is doing the same thing differently, after all, and the value is determined by comparison, then the value of all things must average out to zero.
It’s this hollow equation which initially drove Travis into his pilgrimage of self-imposed oblivion in the first place, we learn as he hunts down Jane (Kinski), his wife and Hunter’s mother in Houston. During their journey, Hunter’s innocent meanderings about space and light speed underline the proceedings with a second layer of smallness and futility before the two arrive at Jane’s place of employment. We learn quickly that Jane works in an adult club, entertaining patrons on the other side of a two way mirror in erotic and sensual performance that takes the shape of a more standard and stock life. Sometimes she’s a nurse, sometimes she’s a teacher. But she’s never really any of those things.
And when Travis finally reveals his return to her by sharing a third person story told with his back to the window displaying his former lover, he speaks of them sorrowfully as failed performers, driven apart by being unfit for their roles. He could never make enough money for himself to feel secure in her security. She struggled with postpartum depression after having been made to be a mother too early in life. They struggled to pretend a household in their trailer, at first forcing the other to play the role they imagined a partner should be then developing disdain for the other’s failure to perform in that role. Money, happiness, family. All of it failed them.
As the monologue becomes dialogue, Travis turns back to face her, the dividing mirror imposing their faces onto one another in a symbolic expression of their former forcible roleplay. “Every man has your voice,” Jane explains of having missed her husband, of every man who’s visited her place of work for years. It’s a heartbreakingly poignant line in a narrative and character sense, but it’s also a repetition of every theme that came before. All voices are the same and yet each individual voice is defined by not being the others. An average of nothing.
Nothing, that’s the space of poetry.
America is nothing. That’s what all the poets know. It’s what they explore with the gymnastics of their athletic vocabularies shifting within the spaces between our mythologized abstracts like mist tickling air.
“America was never America to me,” wrote Langston Hughes.
“America I have given you all and I am nothing,” wrote Allen Ginsberg.
“Her proud declarations/ are leaves on the wind,” wrote Maya Angelou.
Paris, Texas stands as another confirmation of poetry’s American discovery.
In spite of all of the patriotic bluster that fuels us forward from our history into the future we desperately frame as hopeful, life in America is the same as anywhere else: random, vulnerable, assigned to an arbitrary cultural rule set. At its best, a billion small kindnesses sometimes line up into a more fortunate life. Poets know that there isn’t just one big democracy making America, but an infinity of democracies, each set to fail or succeed at the whim of good and bad luck, personal interest, or compassionate mercy.
A month ago, we started publishing articles about films that represent individual writers’ experiences as Americans or hopeful Americans, and each of those pieces, without planning or discussion, all make mention of the American Dream, the greatest abstract perhaps since early religions and yet the largest part of our national identity. A big formless idea. Our series has discussed pursuing the American dream, hoping for the American Dream, being lied to by the American Dream, having it taken away, manipulated, sensing its defeat. No one spoke of finding, possessing, or living the American dream.
How do you catch an idea?
“That’s not her,” Hunter explains when he watches old footage of his mother from a projector, “That’s only her in a movie. A long time ago.”
And so it is that we, the poets and critics, have been discussing America, a nation made of lots of land, millions of people, their big ideas, their young history, their idealistic political philosophies, and their complex cultural mechanisms, but all of that sitting on abstraction and fog, glued only by a contract of good faith. It’s a lonely and scary way of thinking, particularly, framed by the poetry of Wenders and Shepard in Paris, Texas. The idea that everything we know, all the structures we have built in pursuit of love and happiness may have been built atop emptiness, is an uncomfortable one. But it’s also somewhat liberating. If we have not really found her yet, if perhaps we never really possessed her in any concrete way, then maybe we still can. And maybe when we do, we can somehow give her a better ending than the one we have been pretending.
Featured Image: Road Movies