Monday, February 15, 2016

Paris, Texas

PARIS, TEXAS                          A-                   
France  Germany  Great Britain  (147 mi)  1984  d:  Wim Wenders

is it a rooster
or some woman screaming in the distance

is it black sky
or about to turn deep blue

is it a motel room
or someone’s house

is it the body of me alive
or dead

is it Texas
or West Berlin

what time is it

what thoughts
can I call allies 

I pray for a break
from all thought

a clean break
in blank space

let me hit the road

just once

I’m not begging

I’m not getting down on my knees 

I’m in no condition to fight

3:30 am, from Motel Chronicles, by Sam Shepard, December 9, 1980, Fredericksburg, Texas, Motel Chronicles - Page 20 - Google Books Result

Winner of the Palme d’Or (1st prize) as well as a FIPRESCI award and Ecumenical Jury prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, this joint French-German co-production has always been viewed as a bridge between European and American sensibilities, making it one of the few European films to succeed on American soil, where Europeans always regarded this film with greater affection, literally bringing tears to the receptive audience at Cannes, while Americans tended to diminish its significance, curiously less able to see themselves through the lens of a European director.  While Europe is a collection of neighbors living in close proximity to one another, where they’re used to directors like Roberto Rossellini filming the devastated ruins of postwar Berlin in GERMANY YEAR ZERO (1948), America prefers their own stamp of individualism, perhaps better known for their wide open spaces.  Following on the success of his mid-70’s “road movies” like Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) Road Trilogy Pt. 3 (1976), which echoes an American tradition, the film continues Wenders’s theme of overall rootlessness, filled with anxiety-ridden characters exiled from home and community, who instead wander the ends of the earth seeking small comforts, where the road is often their only friend.  Wenders himself was in a particularly restless state, having left his home in Germany to make films in America during the 80’s, making new contacts while searching for a creative mark of distinction that might jumpstart his career.  Originally adapted from Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, a collection of poems, short stories, rants, and general observations, this mood of life on the run could all be traced back to Kerouac’s epic American novel of the 50’s, On the Road, a defining work of the budding curiosity behind a postwar generation that simply refused to be confined to the suffocating conformism of suburban sprawl and Eisenhower era conservatism.  The postwar generation of Wenders’ Germany was undergoing their own identity crisis, drawn to American cinema and the European art film as a model, where the alienation and modern angst of Antonioni, perhaps best exemplified by L’AVVENTURA (1960) and RED DESERT (1964), led to intimate portraits of restless, deeply haunted characters wandering through bleak but beautiful landscapes, often expressed within a vague and nearly non-existent narrative structure. 

Certainly one of the loneliest films ever written, a film that literally aches from the extent of the looming distance between characters, reflected by the vast panoramic vistas of the American West that stretch out into the horizon, suggesting this extraordinary amount of space is simply impossible to fill, that humans are miniscule players on a much grander scale, where it’s easy to get lost in the sheer immensity of it all.  With a backdrop of faded ghost towns in Texas that have literally dropped off the face of the earth, like Terlingua (population 58) and Marathon (pop. 430), small communities of barely populated houses huddled together, with old broken down piles of junk littering the landscape, where perhaps there’s a bar or a breakfast café to be found, but more than likely it’s a mere speck on the map, where it’s a wonder that anything could survive in this dry and desolate territory in the middle of a desert where there’s no water to be found as far as the eye can see.  After driving the length of the entire Mexican-American border, a distance of 1,500 miles, Wenders decided to shoot in an area of Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert that extends southwards into Mexico, specifically in an area known as the Devil’s Graveyard, which he describes as a “gigantic, abstract dream landscape.”  Wenders emulates the mythical qualities of John Ford in his opening sequence, setting his lead character smack dab in the middle of an unending desert with no conceivable signs of civilization, literally walking across a dry, scorchingly hot wasteland that resembles the path Mexican immigrants must have followed while following their dreams to America.  Accompanying this lone figure in the wilderness is an astonishing bottleneck slide guitar improvisation by Ry Cooder modelled after the Blind Willie Johnson song from 1927, “Dark Was the Night,” Blind Willie Johnson - Dark was the night... - YouTube (3:21), heard here in a video montage tribute to Route 66, Ry Cooder Paris, Texas - YouTube (5:01), which Cooder describes as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.”  While only a dot on the screen, dwarfed by the endless expanse, Harry Dean Stanton is Travis, dressed in a worn out suit, wearing a red trucker’s cap, carrying the last sips of water in a plastic jug, he is a man literally returning from nowhere, seemingly with no past and no future, just drifting through the eternity of existence.   

While Stanton got his start working in various television shows of the 50’s and 60’s, working with Monte Hellman in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and COCKFIGHTER (1974), and Sam Peckinpah in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), after having worked together on so many TV westerns, appearing in over 100 films, but he never had a starring role until this film, always associated as a character actor for the unique look that he brings, gaunt, world-weary and weather-beaten, as if he’s been out in the cold too long.  It was Shepard that chose him for the role, where he doesn’t utter a word for the first 26-minutes of the film, a stubborn, catatonic stranger that comes out of nowhere, a lost soul who vanished off the face of the earth 4 years ago who is now suddenly placed in a position to put his life back together again and reunite with his estranged family.  Wandering into an unmarked bar and roadside café, Travis passes out, where from a phone number in his pocket, his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) is called to come pick him up from Los Angeles.  By the time he arrives, however, Travis has already disappeared again, wandering back out into the abyss, where he has to track him down following the railroad tracks.  Initially Travis doesn’t even recognize him, where there’s a degree of discomfort and disorientation that exists between them for an extended duration, where the viewer can’t really sort it out either, but Walt fills him in that his 7-year old son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the son of actress Karen Black and L.M. Kit Carson, one of the co-writers of the film and director of Dennis Hopper’s 1971 The American Dreamer), has been living with he and his wife Anne (French actress Aurore Clément) since he’s been gone, that when mentioned sends a jolt through his soul.  When it becomes apparent that Travis refuses to fly, they’re forced to rent a car and drive back to LA, becoming an extended road trip that couldn’t be more gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Robby Müller, who shot every Wenders film since SUMMER IN THE CITY (1970), where every landscape is utter perfection and every wayside stop resembles a Walker Evans photograph, where the peculiarly beautiful red sky actually exists, given a pastel neon green accompaniment, creating surreal images, including a shot through the windshield of an orange horizon as a storm approaches casting a fluorescent glow on a desolate hotel in an empty street of some nameless town.  Wenders often waited around for a train that would come by once a day and frame a shot around it, continually creating enormous space and distance between them that parallels the seemingly unbridgeable communication gap.  Out of nowhere Travis finally utters a word, “Paris,” eventually explaining it’s a small town in Texas where he believes he was conceived, showing his brother a photograph of an empty lot that he purchased, perhaps hoping one day to build something on it.   

By the time they get to LA, Travis remains shy and reticent, matching Hunter’s initial feelings as well, where they may as well be strangers, though Anne showers them both with affection, speaking through a thick, foreign accent, but her warmness and sincerity shines through, obviously wanting what’s best for both of them, but just what that is hasn’t materialized yet.  The location of the home is exquisite, on a small hill overlooking the Burbank airport, where Travis loves to position himself in the garden with a pair of binoculars watching the planes come in and out.  While it’s slow going at first, Travis reaches out to his son, offering to walk him home after school, but Hunter finds this a lame idea, as “nobody walks in LA” (paraphrasing a 1982 song by Missing Persons), traveling everywhere by car.  Nonetheless, they slowly grow on each other, accentuated by a short clip of Super 8 home movies that shows Travis and a much younger version of Hunter with his mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) on the beach in Galveston, Texas with Walt and Anne, a very bright and colorful glimpse that resembles a fantasy of pure joy and happiness, with plenty of affection and smiles, exactly what’s missing in the present.  This footage has a special charm, as it’s the first time we see Jane, who appears indescribably happy, but it also works as a flashback, where the idea of a whole other life is suggested, literally planting the seed in the sketches of a narrative that may “want” to come full circle.  This is precisely the effect it has on Travis, suddenly asking about Jane, discovering from Anne that she continues to send money on the 5th of every month from a bank in Houston, Texas.  When Travis picks up his son after school in a car where the rear end has been converted to a truck, he’s a man on a mission, with plans to find his mother in Houston, which intrigues Hunter as well, where on the spot they both hit the road back to Texas.  From the director’s perspective, the film hits a lull until they arrive in Houston, as Sam Shepard wrote a script only up to this point, thinking once the shoot started, they’d figure out the rest on the fly, which simply wasn’t the case.  Shepard was involved with actress Jessica Lange, and the two of them were on location in Iowa shooting the film COUNTRY (1984), leaving Wenders, with the help of Hunter’s father Kit Carson, to figure out the rest.  The film was actually delayed several times when they ran out of money, which gave Wenders some wiggling room.  It’s important to note that he was working with Claire Denis at the time as his assistant director, also Allison Anders as a UCLA film school production assistant, both of whom had yet to shoot their first films, also Agnès Godard as the assistant cinematographer, while at the same time he was calling Shepard on a regular basis discussing ideas.  This small circle of friends, not to mention Robby Müller, is quite formidable, showing an unusual breadth of artistic talent, so from the viewer’s perspective, there may be no distinguishing difference in this interim, though it’s quite clear the powerhouse ending, which is in effect a one-act play, was written by Sam Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.     

Much like Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1  (1974) a decade earlier, both films deal with a single mother leaving their child with someone else, which is a story in itself rarely depicted in American films.  In KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), an Academy Award winning picture that depicted the ugly impact of a contentious custody battle in a divorce, the country was in an uproar when Meryl Streep, the mother, leaves their son with Dustin Hoffman, the child’s father.  In this film, Jane left Hunter with his uncle’s family, with no background information provided whatsoever in the story until the very end, while in ALICE the child is left with a total stranger.  It’s intriguing to consider the effects in each instance from differing cultures, where the idea of viewing Wenders from a feminist perspective imposes values that aren’t inherent in the film, with the same being said from a religious perspective.  Wenders’s films largely take place in an existential void somewhere on the road, far away from any family or home, where characters are lonely and adrift, much like Wenders himself on his American odyssey, where he’s caught in a no man’s land somewhere between Europe and the United States.  What’s uniquely different about this film is how the mysterious wanderer Travis tries to restore his family by aligning himself with the innocence of a 7-year old child, regaining his confidence and perspective through this union, which is a severe psychological shift from the opening.  Only with this restored balance can Travis play the final card, which he does by discovering Jane working in a strange, subterranean peep-show that has sexual overtones, but nothing explicit is ever shown, only suggested.  Instead it’s a twisted fantasy playland for lonely men who wish to tell their troubles to pretty young girls while they basically listen through a one-way mirror where the men can see the girls but the girls can’t see the men, where it’s all talk, no touching, though John Lurie plays an owner or pimp that suggests other business arrangements can be made.  Whether these places actually exist somewhere is open to question, but it works perfectly for what Shepard has in mind, very similar to Robert Altman’s adaptation of his play Fool for Love (1985), featuring long, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies of damaged and tortured souls.  Both are among the most dramatically intense films made by either director, culminating with brilliantly written, spectacularly conceived scenes, where Nastassja Kinski, listening to a long-winded monologue from Harry Dean Stanton, gives the performance of her career, where the camera literally fixates on her as she slowly begins to realize who’s on the other side of the mirror.  These scenes are so acutely sad and theatrically powerful that it takes awhile for the viewer to recover afterwards, as Travis, once again escaping from the reconstructed family he doesn’t think he deserves, disappears into the existential murk of another surreal neon-lit landscape.          

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