Wim Wenders's Paris, TX begins with a striking image: from the empty depths of the Texan/Mexican desert emerges a lone man. Amongst the hot sun and dry sand, he is wearing a black suit. He is also, however, wearing a red baseball cap. The suit and his shoes are in tatters, but he still wears his blazer, and his necktie is still firmly tied. He is civilized and savage, respectable and wild all at the same time.
The image doesn't provide any answers, and the film that follows doesn't offer many either.
The man is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and he's been walking for a long time in search of something we never quite understand. He carries a photobooth picture of himself with a young woman and a child and a tattered photo of an empty lot for sale in Paris, Texas. Maybe he's searching for his sanity, maybe for a new beginning, or maybe for the truth behind his past. He is confused and mute, and when he lands himself in a tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere, he wanders off before his long-estranged brother is able to retrieve him.
His brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) is a normal man with a normal wife (the terrible actress Aurore Clement, one of the worst elements of this film) and a regular job as a billboard designer who lives in Los Angeles. He's been raising Travis's son Hunter (Hunter Carson) for four years, ever since Travis and his wife disappeared without a trace. Hunter, now eight-years-old, has naturally come to think of Walt and his wife as his parents; he's a happy, precocious kid with a good life, and their home is stable and calm until Travis suddenly reemerges from nowhere.
Trying to get Travis to speak at all is a difficult chore for Walt, and trying to get him to explain what's been happening for the past four years is an impossibility. Travis is far removed from the basic functions of humanity. Eating, sleeping, and talking come only with great trouble, and so the more complicated actions of raising a family, loving a person, and taking responsibility for life seem like far-fetched goals. Nonetheless, Travis begins the nearly impossible task of regaining the trust of the young boy who is practically a stranger, at one point consulting magazines, borrowing his brother's suit, and consulting the advice of a Mexican housekeeper in order to learn how to behave like a good father. His dream of somehow rekindling a father-son relationship with his brother's adopted child seems futile, but his earnest face, docile words, and sympathetic eyes make us root for him. Walt is a good father, but he's boring and square. There's something special about Travis, though, something sad and essentially human that we connect with, and we want to see him rise above himself.
But Travis has problems with fatherhood and relationships, as we slowly, enigmatically learn throughout the film. His father had a sickness in his mind which in the end consumed him. A Texan, he gradually convinced himself that his half-Mexican wife was something more than she was--a Parisian belle. She was from Paris, Texas, but he told new friends that she was from Paris, a statement that began as a joke but eventually turned into a deception that even he believed. His commitment to the illusion was an embarrassment that ate at her, turning her into something that she wasn't comfortable with, and in the end--we assume--the schizophrenic belief ate away at the family.
Travis inherited a similar inability to connect with his wife, the young, exuberant woman who bore his child, and we find ourselves hoping that young Hunter won't also succumb to the sins of his fathers. For Travis, the sickness he inherited was a twisted blend of obsession, jealousy, and possessiveness, and the end of the film follows his trek to make amends with his errs, to right his wrongs.
Following a lead from Walt's wife, Travis tracks his wife down to Dallas, where she works as a sexual performer behind a two-way mirror, presenting herself to paying men who issue commands to her through a speaker phone but whom she can never see. The setup of their final confrontation mimics the emotional and psychological distance that has always estranged them. On the dark side of the mirror, Travis can see his wife as she performs various roles in superficial stage set-ups, but he can't see himself and she can only see her reflection. They can never see each other head on at the same time; she's in a fantasy room with the fourth wall (the wall he can't see) covered in exposed fiberglass insulation, and he's in a director's chair, issuing orders through a telephone. They confess their regrets and apologies, detailing the separate, lone journeys they've traveled in the past four years, but the distance between them remains as thick as the trick glass.
In the end, we begin to see the possibility of reconciliation. The attempt at one, as well as the earnest desire for one, is proof positive enough. We've watched Travis develop from a mute, tattered shell in the desert into an honest, sincere, and compassionate father, and the reunion between father, mother, and son doesn't seem like too much to ask.
The disappointment that comes at the end is a heartbreaking bummer, but it isn't unrealistic. We see Travis's potential, but he doesn't himself. We have hope for him, but he's long abandoned such fancies, lost himself in a world without language or love. When at the end of the film he once again disappears into the great beyond, to continue his endless quest for whatever he's looking for out in the desert, it's anger-inducing and heart-breaking, but we understand it and hope that in time he'll take the needed steps to become the regular guy he wants to be and the loving father we know is buried deep within him.
Paris, TX is a difficult and unsatisfying film, as complicated as any father-son relationship. With its beautiful photography and award-worthy performance by Harry Dean Stanton, it deserves a look or two. It's not an uplifting film, but somehow it manages to maintain a smidgen of optimism. When Walt tells Travis he's been gone for four years, Travis asks if that's a long time. It is for an eight-year-old, Walt says. That's half his life. And Travis seems to process this without quite understanding it. With a life as long and tortuous as Travis's, four years isn't nearly so much time, and we leave the film feeling that if it takes him another four years to get his life together, they will have flown even faster and been time well spent.
Paris, TX is #313 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list, which compiles critics' lists to rank the thousand greatest films of all time. To see my reviews of other films on this list, click the TSPDT? tag.
d: Wim Wenders w: Sam Shepard
(Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell)