America: In Paris, Texas, German-born auteur Wim Wenders’ indulges an aesthetic fascination with America’s landscape. His characters here wander less than any of his previous, but still, they wander against the backdrop of vast unforgiving desserts, suburban neighborhoods, busy winding highways, broken back alleys. Behind the human drama, the camera feels as if it’s exploring, in search of something specific. It finds what it seeks in the film’s harshest, most illustrated landscape: carved by desolation, familiar with immense emptiness, Harry Dean Stanton’s face exhibits its own complex and haunting history. In the narrow jawline, the forlorn eyes, and the downward pull of his cheeks. He steps in frame donning a dusty baseball cap, suit and tie, and battered tennis shoes. A thousand years from now, when historians are asked to draw someone from our civilization, they may unknowingly sketch Stanton’s character Travis, decorated in these telling relics.
The Universe: While his eye is trained on America, Wenders’ story has a more far-reaching ambition, as evidenced by the movie’s title, which references a real life town in Texas with seemingly special meaning to Travis. Paris. Texas. Two iconic locales, central and significant not just to their countries, but their continents. Travis’s brother has married a French woman whose European charm and accent illuminate her every gesture. On a routine stroll, Travis encounters a paranoid doomsday shouter on a bridge, who, with his nonsense, contextualizes all things within the temporality of our existence. When Travis leaves to find his wife in Houston, his son Hunter (Hunter Carson in one of film’s great child performances) comes along and the two discuss the Big Bang Theory, the film’s attention moving infinitely outward.
The Human Condition: And at the heart of it all, there is human loneliness. Wenders is building from a script written by the legendary Sam Shepherd, a poet drawn to loneliness, anger, all the dark turns that baseline the human soul. There is an obvious question hiding under every scene, one the movie never explores, but the script begs us to consider: Why did Travis leave? I posit that there is only one clue, a line offered in the film’s early moments of humor: “There is no in between; you’d either be a rich father, or a poor one.” Travis, as his story later reveals, was a man consumed by jealousy, rage, despair, self-loathing; a man so trained by the expectation of losing and being lost that his instinct instructed him to leave. We never see him fully connect. On the ride to Houston, the closest he gets to bonding with his son occurs with a walkie-talkie, a window between them. When he finds his younger, beautiful wife (played with devastating emotional stillness by Natassjia Kinski) working at an adult sex show, he does not introduce himself as he speaks to her on a phone through a one-way mirror. On his second visit, he turns his back and shares the violent story of their failed marriage. When he finishes, she replies with her own monologue, concluding, “I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice.” Film-goers and critics alike are often quick to say of poignant, unsettling circumstances: “I can imagine what that felt like.” But not here. Not this moment. We can’t imagine. Because none of us have faced this form of hopeless loneliness as head-on as Travis.