Paris, Texas. Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Wim Wenders. Road Movies (Berlin) and Argos Films (Paris).
There really is a Paris, Texas. It’s a town in the northeast part of the state, near the Oklahoma border. But to Travis Henderson, seated in the back of a rented car and staring bemusedly at a frayed photo of a piece of wasteland with a sale sign on it, Paris, Texas means salvation.
Travis has recently been a near-catatonic derelict. Four years before the beginning of the movie, his wife, Janet, left their child, Hunter, on the doorstep of Travis’ brother, Walt. Then both Jane and Travis disappeared, apparently in different directions. Now, Travis, stumbling over the border from Mexico, where he’s been living in the gutter, has been picked up by his brother and is being driven to the latter’s house to be reunited with his son. But he’s still emotionally numb and unable to communicate. The long-suffering Walt complains of his brother’s refusal to speak. Travis traces his finger over a road map and comes upon the name of a little town. And now he speaks for the first time: “Paris”—and takes the photo out of his pocket.
Why the hell would you want to buy a vacant lot in Paris, Texas, for Christ’s sake?
But later he remembers:
Well, Momma once told me that that’s where she and Daddy first made love… I figured that’s where I began. Me, Travis Clay Henderson. They named me that. I started out there.
And Travis wants to get back there, too. Since it was his first start, it will be his fresh start, a renovation of his identity: “Me, Travis Clay Henderson.”
But Travis doesn’t want to go to Paris, Texas alone. Some catastrophe deprived him of his wife and child, and now he wants them back. In this film, spiritual quest is predicated on physical journeying: from Texas to California to reclaim a son; from California back to Texas to court a wife.
The creators of this movie form an auspicious team: Wim Wenders, the most talented of the young German filmmakers, and Sam Shepard, the most interesting American playwright since Tennessee Williams. Since Wenders likes to make movies about male buddies escaping the confines of civilization by hitting the road and/or launching a life of crime, and because Shepard usually writes of interfamily warfare (with coyotes howling on the edges of the old farmstead), I wasn’t exactly expecting this movie to turn into a hip variant of I Remember Mama.
So the big surprise, of Paris, Texas is how touching and tender a domestic drama it is. And the big disappointment of this film lies in how its makers freeze that tenderness not through seeking harsh truths but by failing to follow through on the dramatic logic of the story. In Paris, Texas, fashionable anomie undermines genuine drama.
Travis is an oddly methodical man. Discovering that he’s out of water while staggering through the desert, he neatly screws the cap on his canteen before flinging it away. Succoured by his brother’s family, he insists on earning his keep by spit-polishing every shoe in the house and neatly arranging them on a little wall in the back yard. Whenever someone gingerly steps out in his or her bare feet to reclaim a pair, Travis rearranges the ones left so that they form an orderly row again. When he decides to regain the affections of his little boy, he determines to look like a father first and searches through magazines to find a middle class image on which to model himself. (The delightful thing about this scene is the way the family’s Mexican maid joins forces with Travis to rehearse his new middle class walk: “No, con respeto. Con dignidad! Uhuh! You got it!”) Travis goes to his son’s school to walk him home. The seven year old is amused but unconvinced. He walks on the other side of the street, parallel to his father, but imitating his movements. Two males skipping. Two males walking backwards. Two males staggering. Two males walking together, on the same side of the street, father and son. The scene is not unworthy of Chaplin.
Travis and Hunter, enthusiastically united in their quest to put the family together, track Jane to her workplace in Houston. Leaving Hunter outside, Travis enters the building. It’s a strange kind of brothel cum theater. The women dress in the uniforms of various turn-on occupations (nurses, stewardesses, etc.) and disport themselves in cubicles cheaply assembled to look like motel or hospital rooms so that fantasizing males in darkened adjacent booths can sit in anonymity and watch the girls through one-way mirrors, talking to them only on telephones. Testing Jane by posing as a stranger, Travis offers her money to sleep with him. But voyeurism is as far as Jane goes; she tries to fob him off on one of the other girls. Nevertheless, Travis explodes in a jealous rage and screams at her. When she starts fearfully to retreat, he pleads with her to stay, and, feeling pity and curiosity, she complies. When he himself leaves a moment later, we sense that he will be back in his own identity.
This happens, but first there are two scenes in which Travis seems to foreswear the whole dream of family happiness and Paris, Texas. In a bar, he swills beer to his son’s disgust and tears up the photo of his plot of land. Then he leaves Hunter in a hotel room with a recorded message in which he confesses that his dream of reunion was a self-deluding fantasy and that the best he can do is unite mother with son.
Now why is this? This despair flies in the face of the witty resourcefulness Travis has shown in the earlier part of the movie. More bewilderingly, nothing in the first interview justifies this setback. Of course, Travis is confronting his old jealousy again, the jealousy that we subsequently learn wrecked his marriage. But considering how much both he and his little son feel the need to reestablish the family, and considering that Jane has retained at least a modicum of chastity and (more important) dignity amid very sordid surroundings, and considering that Travis still needs and desires her, one wonders what precisely is blocking him. We await that second interview for some light to be shed and for events to take a new turn.
And a little light is shed, but only on the past. In a boring, twelve minute monologue, Travis reveals to Jane who he is by laboriously recounting the details of their breakup. This is written in Shepard’s worst vein: a monotonous litany of marital disasters, in which declarative sentence dutifully trudges after declarative sentence. To this monologue Jane replies with her own, declaring that she has been unable to shake off the memory of her husband, and that the voice of every man she listens to becomes his. This seems to be a declaration of love and, perhaps, a chance for reconciliation. But Travis gets up, tells her the number of the hotel room where he’s stowed Hunter and… leaves. At this point Travis seems like a walking embodiment of the tattoo on a convict’s arm: BORN TO LOSE.
Joseph Kerman, complaining about the ending of an opera he otherwise loves, The Rake’s Progress, made this point about the forced, unhappy denouement W.H. Auden created for his libretto: “The ending… seems not to illuminate or to resolve, but to mask; the destination of the Rake’s progress is quite unclear. It may be a necessary characteristic of Auden’s modern pilgrim to find affirmation impossible. But unhappily this is a state of mind that cannot be allowed to the dramatist, however anxious the age.”
Kerman’s point is sound. The dramatic artist may be pessimistic; he may even despair. But he must not be blank. He must not be either a knee-jerk pessimist or optimist. But both the German Wenders and the native Shepard are attracted to the romantic, uniquely American image of the benevolent drifter who performs one last good deed and then rides off into the sunset. This drifter may be the golden Shane riding his horse, or gaunt, bedraggled Travis driving his Ranchero into Houston traffic, but the effect is the same: a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do and then he’s gotta get out. I done my bit. Now let the womenfolk tend to the young ‘uns. The horizon beckons.
This is fine for Shane, but Paris, Texas needed something else. The father-son relationship awoke something vital within Wenders and Shepard, and made the first two-thirds of this film spontaneous and funny. But their allegiance to the drifter mystique, the easy rider who is now a bummed-out stumbler (somewhere beyond the sunset is a flophouse) makes them freeze the character of Travis just at the moment when it must be fluid. Consequently, we get a stilted monologue instead of a truly dramatic dialogue.
Paris, Texas is worth complaining about. Wenders directs with an eye for both the impersonality of America’s public places and the instant familiarity of its citizens. Robby Muller’s photography makes the red taillights of cars as hauntingly beautiful as the blue sky and mocha sands of Big Bend, Texas. As the boy, Hunter Carson gives an enchantingly unaffected performance. As Jane, Nastassia Kinski manages her first recognizably human apparition and even achieves an honorable Texas accent. Until he gets mired in the last monologue, Harry Dean Stanton makes of Travis a fine, hangdog study. And, until he wrote that last monologue, Shepard showed a flair for the kind of plain language that can break your heart:
But see… you’ve been gone a long time, Tray.
How long have I been gone? Do you know?
Is four years a long time?
Well, it is for a little boy. It’s half of his life.
Half a boy’s life!
The makers of this movie take us, physically and emotionally, to some pretty strange and intimate places. But I wish they had taken us to Paris, Texas.