Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Paris (Texas) When It Sizzles

 I’ve discovered that there really is a place called Paris, Texas. It’s in the northeast east of the state, just spitting distance from the Oklahoma border, and in 2020 its population was 24,000 souls. But in Wim Wenders’1984  film—financed and shot by an international consortium—Paris, Texas is more of a state of mind. It’s one of the first phrases uttered (well, sort of) by a down-and-out drifter to the brother who’s come to rescue him after a four-year absence. And it’s a closely-guarded snapshot of a patch of desert scrub that looks to be in the middle of nowhere. Paris, Texas, eventually, takes on the aura of a dream-state in which nostalgia fuses with a joyous sense of love and connection and future promise, at least for some.

 Wenders’ movie never literally takes the viewer to Paris, Texas. But his European camera-eye (highlighting the work of the brilliant Dutch cinematographer Robby Mūller) deeply loves the state’s wide-open spaces, using natural light to capture them in all their glory. The road-trip aspect of the narrative allows Wenders and Mūller to explore tumble-down towns, seedy motels, and the desert itself. But big cities are part of their vision too. Los Angeles, the end of the road for some aspects of the story, has never looked so beautiful, with its hillside suburban homes basking in the hazy west coast sunlight. And the skyscrapers of Downtown Houston glow in the urban dusk.

 Because Wenders’ canon was largely unknown to me, I expected Paris, Texas to be arty, mostly a feat of cinematography, with human relationships getting short shrift. How wrong I was! The raggedy man painfully inching his way across the desert in the opening frames turns out to have a complex and deeply moving backstory. Some two hours later, we finally find out what’s troubling him, and all the pieces of an emotional storyline click into place. The drifter, a native Texan named Travis, is played by classic Hollywood character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a bravura performance that allows him to register all the emotions: pain, anger, whimsy, gratitude, regret. Others in the international cast include Dean Stockwell as Travis’s good-hearted brother, Aurore Clêment as that brother’s deeply maternal wife, and eight-year-old Hunter Carson (son of actress Karen Black and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson) in a movingly natural portrayal of a boy abandoned by his birth parents years before. Late in the film there’s an important appearance by Nastassja Kinski as a fragile-looking blonde in a peepshow booth. For a while her Texas drawl, belying her German roots, had me completely fooled. But the key scenes in which Travis shares his story  with her from the far side of the glass have a visual and emotional power I will not soon forget.

 The filmmakers involved with this project are an impressive bunch. Second unit was shot by France’s Claire Denis, who went on to become a film director of note. Allison Anders, another significant director in the making (see Gas Food Lodging), served as a production assistant. The original screenplay is by Sam Shepard, the Oscar-nominated actor who as a playwright can be considered a poet of wide open spaces. (L.M. Kit Carson is credited with the adaptation.)

 All in all, this is a motion picture worth seeing and savoring, for its sensitive performances as well as its visual beauty. I’ll give the last word to a fan who posted on IMDB: “Perhaps each person has a film -- usually a masterpiece -- which affects him or her so strongly that it is beyond description. This is mine.”   



No comments:

Post a Comment