Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wim Wenders | Paris, Texas

the romanticization of the us west


Europeans in general, so it appears, love the ideas imbued in and the visual scenes and landscapes of the US West, particularly concerning those spaces in the Southwest and eastern California where life seems nearly unlivable, but where, nonetheless, lonely truckers, gas station attendants, and motel owners live our lives of hardship in shacks and trailers. The Germans, in particular, seem taken with this vision of American life, two film examples of which I have written about below.     

     The French, on the other hand, seem more fascinated by the commercial spaces of the reconstructed vision of international paradise that might define Las Vegas.

     Although there is certainly much of visual interest, and even more of natural beauty, in these locations, the idea that I might be able to live in these isolated worlds is entirely unthinkable. Living in these spaces would be a life of exile for me—despite a shared language—as deep as that I have just finished reading about concerning the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who, with his wife Lotte, committed suicide in Brazil. I might be able to imagine a life in Brazil, but cannot imagine living in Western Texas or Newberry Springs California in the Mojave Desert.

     What interests me is trying to discern what attracted German directors Wim Wenders or Percy Aldon to these almost uninhabitable locations. Wenders was working with a script by American playwright Sam Shepard as adapted into a screenplay by L. M. Kit Carson. Percy Aldon assured me that his film begin when he and his wife encountered during a trip through the region, with the strange lights in the sky of which the film shows through the paintings of its character Rudi Cox. Yet there is something about both of these films, their strong use of color and sky, with foreground objects set against them, and the haunting musical scores by Bob Telson in Bagdad Café and Ry Cooder’s slide-guitar score in Paris, Texas, that transform these otherwise rather modest works into something far more memorable, and, one suspects, personal, than one might have imagined.


always running

by Douglas Messerli

L. M. Kit Carson (screenplay, based on a play by Sam Shepard), Wim Wenders (director) Paris, Texas / 1984

Out of nowhere, a bearded man shows up in the middle of a South Texas desert, a parched land of no
water, the man himself clearly also suffering from dehydration, as, upon swallowing a handful of ice cubs in a desert bar, he suddenly falls into a coma. A doctor is called, but the patient, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) refuses to speak. The shady doctor finds a telephone number among his possessions and calls the number, which turns out to be the phone of Travis’s brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who lives in the Los Angeles suburbs. Walt agrees to retrieve his brother, but when, after an air flight and a long car drive to the isolated location, he discovers his brother has disappeared. Travis’ few possessions are returned to him—after the doctor shakes him down for money—and Walt proceeds, discovering his brother a few miles away. At first Travis will barely recognize him, but soon gets into the car, as his younger brother moves forward, stopping for the night by a nearby motel. Hardly has he had the time to pick up some necessary groceries and a change of clothes for his grubby sibling, than Travis has escaped again. This time, when he catches up with Travis, Walt demands some communication, some explanation. But Travis remains silent until finally, with a small photo in hand, he speaks one word: “Paris.” Startled, Walt attempts to grasp what Travis means, but is again faced with the one word Paris: Can we go to Paris? asks Travis. That would sort of be out the way, Walt answers, until he discovers that his brother does not mean Paris, France, but Paris, Texas, a place where, so his father has suggested, Travis was conceived. Years earlier Travis has brought a plot of land in Paris, hoping to one day go there and establish a home.


The pair move forward in a space in which, through its garish colors and camera focus on various elements takes us quickly from the physiological interplay of the two figures into what I have described as a kind of romanticized world of American detritus, things destroyed, leftover, reconstituted; the Wikipedia page on the film nicely summarizes the images of this first quarter of the film:   


The first shot is a bird's eye-view of the desert, a bleak, dry, alien landscape.

Shots follow of old advertisement billboards, placards, graffiti, rusty iron

carcasses, old railway lines, neon signs, motels, seemingly never-ending roads.


     Although, at certain point in the voyage, Walt attempts to catch another plane with Travis back home, before it has even gotten off the ground, the two are seen exciting. Like a child, Travis cannot abide a flight, and when they attempt to rent another car, he insists that they have the very same car as before.


    When they finally reach the Henderson home, Travis is invited into the family, introduced to his own son, Hunter (Hunter Carson)—who they have adopted now for four years—as his true father, and graciously accepted by Walt’s French-wife, Anne (Aurore Clément) with gentle hugs and kisses. At first, nonetheless, everything is quite uncomfortable. Travis does not sleep at nights and eats little; the child, even if somewhat interested in this “second” father, is clearly annoyed by his presence; and the couple is fearful of what Travis’ return may mean to their own lives, particularly since they have completely bonded with and love their “son.”

      Although their home, in a fairly wealthy suburb, is quite pleasant, Wenders poses Travis as a night wanderer crossing freeway bridges underneath which the traffic rushes in and out of the great city nearby. Although he occasionally contemplates the natural beauty of the house and its neighborhood, it is also clear that Travis’ mind is busy contemplating more travels, a wandering that might never end.

      Gradually, we begin to uncover some brief elements of Travis’ past, including his deep love with his wife, Hunter’s mother, Jane (the always stunning Nastassja Kinski). We see Travis, Jane, Hunter, Walt and Anne enjoying a day together at a beach in an old, home-made movie, which Walt forces upon Hunter so that he might remember Travis better. But we still cannot comprehend the clearly horrific ending of that relationship which sends Travis to Mexico and Jane into disappearance, with the only the child finding a new anchor.

       The vagueness and secrecy of at least the first half of this rather long movie, tends to keep its audience away from the characters themselves—they are simply too fragmented and unknowable to allow us entry—and to once more posit meaning in the physical world around them. Exotic plants, cars, schools, buses, billboards (significantly, Walt is a billboard designer) seem to matter more than the characters themselves, which, despite the specificity of the objects, turns Wenders film increasingly into a kind of abstract study of the relationship between lonely people and the space they inhabit, which also further takes his film into the territory of a romance—almost like a cowboy version of Tristan and Isolde, except that here eros has already arrived, destroyed, and left, leaving behind only a vortex of nostalgia and, perhaps, a possibility of rectifying elements of that violent disruption.

      Without clear explication, Wenders and Shepard draw the characters closer, particularly Travis and his son, so that the boy soon agrees to return to the maelstrom with his father to seek out the boy’s mother, whom Anne has told him has opened a savings account in a Houston bank in Hunter’s name.

     The voyage back, accordingly, becomes a kind a mythic journey by Orpheus into Hades to bring back Eurydice, only here the Orpheusian figures, Travis and Hunter, play no instruments except a walkie-talkie in which they humorously communicate only a few feet from one another. They track-down Eurydice (Jane) in downtown Houston as she makes a drive-in deposit, following her through heavy traffic to her real Hades, a large striptease club. Here she sits in a room, unable to see her customers, as they tell her their stories, demand theatrical sexual and sometimes nude performances of her. But Eros clearly has nothing to do with these interchanges; the management strictly forbids any real-life encounter with the customers.

     Leaving Hunter in the truck, Travis enters this suburban Texas Hell, as he learns the “ropes,” so to speak, perceiving that the performers cannot see him, and discovering that he will be permitted to simply talk instead of engaging in sexual theatricalities. Checking into a downtown Houston hotel, where he leaves Hunter with a pre-corded tape telling him of his love for him but also about his soon-to-be disappearance, Travis returns to the club, asking for Jane, and, turning away from her, just as the myth requires, retells the story of their love, his growing jealousy, alcoholism, and the increasing violence of their relationship that finally explodes into a fire which she has set before escaping him with Hunter. In part, it is Travis’ long tale that represents his musical talents, the carefully voiced tale of love, joy, failure, and self-destruction.

     Jane, in turn, demands that she see him, as she explains how, long after they had broken up, she had continued speaking with him, conversing with him even in his absence, until finally, as she puts it, “Then... it slowly faded. I couldn't picture you anymore. I tried to talk out loud to you like I used to, but there was nothing there. I couldn't hear you. Then...I just gave it up. Everything stopped. You just... disappeared. And now I'm working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice


     By becoming “everyone,” of course, Travis has become a no one, the fact which, were he attempt to return to Jane he knows would ultimately destroy both him and her. Accordingly, he tells her where to find Hunter, and leaves the club, only to watch from a long distance as the two come together, hug, and bond as mother and son, sharing the same texture and color of hair, hug within the frame of window.

      Below Travis drags himself away, perhaps to be ripped to pieces as the Orpheus of the myth, but at least knowing that he has sacrificed his own desires for the protection and love of his son, even if, as he states in the film, he will be “always running.”

      The only problem with Wenders film is that it leaves as many uneasy questions as engaging solutions. Although Jane has, so she claims, left Hunter because she knew she could not “give him what he needed,” can she now, as a tawdry strip-tease artist offer him a meaningful home life? Mightn’t he be better off with the loving Walt and Anne, even though, given Walt’s intense-living chain-smoking lifestyle, we can foresee problems ahead?  What can she now offer Hunter from her Hades-bound rock that she might have not been able to earlier? And from this perspective, the last scene of the film seems more filled with sentiment that with true resolution.

      Finally, it is hard to imagine, at times, that such a well-adjusted and beautiful child such as Hunter, particularly given his tempestuous background, might even exist. Oh well, Wenders’ work, after all, is a romance. Such a “happy” ending perhaps is necessary.

      Certainly Hunter, the son of actress Karen Black and the screenplay writer of this film, L. M. Kit Carson, is one of the wonders of Wenders’ film, a charming figure who quite literarily helps all of the film’s figures cohere. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Hunter has gone on to direct films.


Los Angeles, May 6, 2014

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