Twenty-two years ago, German director Wim Wenders and American playwright Sam Shepard collaborated on the film Paris, Texas, a muted, contemplative meditation on loss, identity and familial responsibility set in the picturesquely lonely expanses of the American Southwest. The film won the Cannes Palme d'Or, gave Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski the roles of their careers and would emerge as one of the best, most-resonant films of the 1980s.
The film was suffused with both men's love of the American West, their fascination with its vastness and its iconography. Although Wenders and Shepard continued to explore similar themes in their work, two decades passed before they collaborated again. When they finally did work together, it was on a film that suggests a whole new relationship with the region - and the mythology surrounding it.
Don't Come Knocking, now playing at the Charles Theatre, centers on aging Western-movie star Howard Spence, an unregenerate party animal and arrested adolescent who, in Wenders' words, "comes to terms with his ridiculous life.
"Spence is leaving the world of fiction: that [of the] myth that he clearly believed in his entire life, this fake promise of freedom that the Western always jiggled in front of our eyes, like a carrot," Wenders says. "And we realize from the beginning, from the outset, that this freedom was basically a lack of responsibility, a lack of commitment. The man was never committed to anything, except to his own fun."
Neither he nor Shepard was anxious to work together again, Wenders says. "It's not like we made the conscious decision, but we had an unwritten pact after Paris, Texas, because it was so perfect, not to touch it. You can only ruin a great experience by trying to repeat it."
That reticence began to change about eight years ago, after a chance meeting in New York at a Lou Reed concert. Eventually, they decided it was safe to try again. And one of the first things the men discovered was that their earlier film wasn't nearly the 500-pound gorilla they feared it would be.
"The shadow of Paris, Texas, didn't loom over our collaboration," says Wenders, sounding more relieved than surprised.
Both films focus on once-absent fathers, men struggling to figure out who they are and what role they should be playing within their families. Paris was something of a Shakespearean tragedy. Harry Dean Stanton's Travis Henderson, after wandering alone in the desert, reunites with his young son and, tentatively, his wife. He's staring into an abyss he's created for himself, struggling to re-establish the family that his selfishness and immaturity tore apart.
Knocking, in contrast, is more of a black comedy. Tired of the fantasy life he's been leading, Spence (played by Shepard) decides to see whether there's anything real for him out there. He discovers he has a family, including a son who wants no part of him, and quickly learns that reality isn't all it's cracked up to be.
For Wenders, who grew up idolizing the American West, the new film represents a shift, maybe a maturation, in his views. The 60-year-old director is far removed from the young boy who grew up reading the Wild West novels of German author Karl May, filled with tales of cowboys and Indians and wide-open prairies that promised never-ending adventures.
Perhaps there's something of Wim Wenders in Spence? Are both he and Shepard, in whose work the West has also loomed large, taking stock of their own lives?
The director smiles wryly before answering. "The irony the film has toward that myth is also self-irony on behalf of the filmmaker," he acknowledges. "That's why, 20 years ago, neither Sam nor I ... would have dared to write anything like that. There's a certain self-reflection in the film. The movies that we leave behind are also, in a strange way, the world that we both left behind in the course of our lives."
Maybe Don't Come Knocking is Wenders' and Shepard's version of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a tale of deception that ends with the famous line, "This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Wenders perhaps would be uncomfortable with comparisons with a movie legend such as Ford, but it's not a stretch to suggest the two directors had similar thoughts in mind.
"Every now and then," Wenders acknowledges, "a movie comes that asks the question: 'Do we believe in the stories that we tell, or do we believe in first-hand experience?'"