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Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)


    In his Palm D’Or winning drama Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders explores, and largely debunks, the macho cowboy myth that powers great Westerns like The Searchers while updating it to a contemporary milieu. As the film opens, we watch an unnamed man (Harry Dean Stanton) in blue jeans wandering out of the expansive desert and back into civilization. Before long, we discover his name, Travis, and that, for the previous four years, he’s dropped out of society. Wenders, at least at first, presents Travis as a romanticized figure by casting him against epic backdrops and giving his past a distinct air of mystery, but each shred of information that’s revealed about him seems to deflate that myth somewhat. The process through which the audience and the characters on screen guess at his interior thoughts provides much of the tension in the first half of the movie. As the people that Travis has left behind become more firmly defined and the pain he’s running from becomes more evident, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the heroic individualism that makes the man some sort of living legend. By the end of Paris, Texas, Wenders has made Travis achingly human. His flaws and his failures are made clear, and his story takes on tragic, yet intimate, dimensions.


    The great achievement of Paris, Texas is the way that it so thoroughly demonstrates how one can regress to a point where direct communication becomes impossible. This is a movie is filled with arresting observations about the ways that emotions contradict each other. Take, for example, the coy game in which Travis’ estranged son mimics his father’s actions from across the street. The boy’s tentative stance toward his dad is played against his desire to reach out to him, resulting in a tense interaction that avoids feel-good simplicity. In their relationship, we’re always aware of the dangerous yet necessary influence that the father has upon the boy. The mix of idolatry and reservation that exists in their scenes together is palpable, and their entire road trip to find the boy’s mother is filled with both the sense of romantic adventure that the wide-open backdrops instill and uneasy fear that the boy might be following in his father’s footsteps. When Travis finally reaches his destination, the two perfectly modulated scenes that ensue are stomach-churning exhibitions of what happens when the hurt hurts too much to allow one to reestablish an emotional connection. From the wide open blue skies of Paris, Texas’ opening shots, the film promises a potential escape from the heartache, baggage and claustrophobia of the modern world. As skyscrapers begin to dominate the frame in the second half of the movie, it instead presents a crushing reality that few Westerns were willing to face head on.




Jeremy Heilman