Paris, Texas

Playing at the Charles Theater Oct. 11, 13, and 16

Often when Continental artists come to America, they aren't taken with New York or Los Angeles or others of our great metropolises, instead they are drawn to the vast, alien nothingness: Think Louis Malle in "God's Country," or Werner Herzog's "Stroszek." Here, too, we have New German cinema populist Wim Wenders' 1984 masterpiece. From a script penned by L.M. Kit Carson and playwright and creative polymath Sam Shepard, "Paris, Texas" is replete with the West's big skies and wide-open spaces, with occasional splashes of modernist architecture and brutalist freeway interchanges, and the woozy pathos of the best sort of country song.

The movie is concerned with the battered and broken lives of Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), his erstwhile wife Jane (Natassja Kinski), and their young son Hunter (Hunter Carson). As the film opens, a shabbily bearded Travis is seen traipsing through an anonymous wilderness, his gait somehow both purposeful and aimlessly mechanical, dressed in a dusty, brown polyester suit and a bright red baseball cap. After wandering into a forlorn saloon and collapsing on the floor, he is taken to a bizarre medical outpost, where Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) is summoned to come and collect him. For now, Travis does not speak.
We learn from Walt’s one-sided conversation with his brother that Travis has been missing for four years, during which time Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) have assumed the care of his son. We know something significant and possibly tragic has transpired, we just have no idea what it was, and most of the rest of the movie’s roughly 150 minutes, as the forgotten man reacquaints himself with his son, trying to help the boy make sense of the sudden and prolonged disappearance of both of his birth parents, is a gradual accretion of the details Travis’ last few, dissociative years.
Shepard’s participation gives the movie a distinctly theatrical feel: the blocking and performances are exaggerated and expressionistic, the dialogue unnaturally precise. And the movie is suffused with saturated color schemes: sickening neon green, deep, cerulean blue and that ever-present, lurid blood red, portending the awful passionate tragedy underlying the film’s devastating mystery. “Paris, Texas” is a weird anti-movie sort of movie, which is to say it picks up at a point some time after the events that would be depicted in a typical movie. Whereas most filmmakers might have lingered on the domestic tragedy itself, Wenders relegates this to the past, and we only learn the details when Travis tracks down his wife at a peep show in Houston.
The scene of their reunion and the recapitulation of the details of their split is one of the most devastating in all of cinema. Travis sits on one side of a two-way mirror, his back turned to his wife, as Jane, unseeing and unaware, listens as the man on the other side recounts the story of a couple. Kinski evokes Maria Falconetti in the “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by way of Anna Karina in “Vivre Sa Vie” in this scene: the camera holds on her face relentlessly as Travis recounts the tale, his wife’s growing awareness evidenced by the precipitous tears growing in her profoundly expressive eyes. The tale that he tells is sickeningly violent, yet suffused with the sort of explosive intimacy that is a hallmark of many of Shepard’s great plays. So this is the paradox of America in Wenders’s eyes: beautifully, breathtakingly expansive, to be sure, but something of a house of cards filled with people living empty, mediated, alienated lives.