80’s Flashback: Romancing the Stone

Joan Wilder: You’re the best time I’ve ever had.
Jack Colton: I’ve never been anybody’s best time.

romancing the stone poster

Romancing the Stone Elevator Pitch

Romance novelist fish-out-of-waters through the Columbian wilds as she attempts to ransom her sister from smalltime schemesters by delivering the map to a jewel called El Corazon, meets Indiana Jungle Jones and winds up afoul of not only the schemesters but a faction of the Colombian army — all hell bent on taking the jewel for themselves.

Those Were Italian!

Few movies sew those nostalgic oats quite like Romancing the Stone. The movie implanted one of my earliest moviegoing memories that didn’t involve Star Wars. Robert Zemeckis’ 1984 adventurer wasn’t my very first theatrical live action film experience, it often feels like it. An early moment in the film indirectly reminds me what it was like to be six years old and staring up at the big screen in wonder.

Jack grows tired of Kathleen Turner’s romance novelist hobbling around the South American jungle. He takes his machete and chops the heels off her shoes.

Joan Wilder: Those were Italian.
Jack Colton: Now they’re practical.

What did I know about women’s shoes? Not a thing. I probably wore velcro Kangaroos with the little pockets to the theater. Still, 6yo me marked that down as hilarious. I remember using that “Those were Italian!” line in many different circumstances. I might accidentally break something and exclaim “Those were Italian!” like a catch-all expletive. You get the picture. I never succeeded in making “Those were Italian!” my own personal catchphrase, but the scene itself acts as a time capsule. I’m instantly granted the gift a piece of me as I was in 1984.

Nostalgia’s a wonderful thing in moderation. We can never go home again, but cinematic moments like these, the ones we latch onto for whatever reason, grant us a fleeting reprieve from the bustle of adulthood.

romancing the stone kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner Overdrive

After reading Kathleen Turner’s nuclear interview by David Marchese of Vulture, my wife and I began winding through Turner’s filmography. I started with a first-time viewing of The War of the Roses (1988) and then returned to the beginning of the Douglas/Turner/DeVito era with a Romancing the Stone refresher.

Over the years, Stone has become comfort food for this 80’s soul. Unfortunately it seems that younger viewers don’t appreciate the simplicity of Stone‘s form and function. My observations come purely from casual browsing of Letterboxd.com, so please don’t @ me with demographic studies that show most women aged 18-25 rate Romancing the Stone four stars or higher (unless of course those demographic studies support my remedial investigation).

war of the roses

Turner just goes for it. In every film. That was never more apparent than in The War of the Roses where she gives an absolutely savage performance. I’ve always felt that Romancing the Stone was a Michael Douglas movie — the charmer, the expat vigilante treasure hunter. I had it all wrong. Turner’s romance novelist makes the journey from a fainting woman of words to an action hero. Without Turner’s commitment to both sides of Joan Wilder, the scripted character could have remained nothing more than a distressed damsel. She made more of the character than was on the page.

 Misplaced Treasure of Classic Cinema

While Romancing the Stone proffers a style of entertainment rooted in the trends of the 1980’s, it also recalls screwball films and swashbuckling action/adventurers of the 1930’s. Michael Douglas’ Jack Colton character might be a less studious Indiana Jones, but he’s, at heart, an amalgamation of many matinee idols. Gary Cooper or Johnny Weissmuller without the patina of glossy perfection. And it’s hardly a stretch to imagine Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn as Jack Colton and Joan Wilder slashing through a soundstage populated by ferns and palms and verbal barbs.

the philadelphia story
Take Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and just add jungle.

The Grant/Hepburn substitution feels natural. Robert Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone with the pretense of propping up the charisma of his stars as the main attraction, a decidedly old school filmmaking methodology. Stone sells the pretense of action and stuntwork, but the focus remains small and the danger never feels entirely real (owing to the cartoonish pursuit by the hyperbolic DeVito) and his megalomaniacal-ish cousin Ira (Zack Norman). Though the stunts occur in regular beats, none of them take the form of a centerpiece — except perhaps the escape from Juan’s compound. Even that, however, stands out as a result of the comedic talents of the great character actor Alfonso Arau.

romancing the stone alfonso arau

It’s entirely understandable hen someone says that Romancing the Stone didn’t live up to their expectations. Stone retains its status as a certified 80s classic. As a result viewers’ expectations likely skew bigger and broader. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the standard-bearer for 1980’s adventure cinema, casts a long shadow over other similar films of the era.

Character and Spectacle, Take 2

Best known for the Back to the Future films, Robert Zemeckis makes character-driven narratives within the modern iteration of the Hollywood dream machine. At its most basic component, behind the flash and spectacle of a time-traveling DeLorean, Back to the Future, like Romancing the Stone, is high concept narrative buoyed by the establishment and development of character.

romancing the stone

I’ll forgive first-time viewers that didn’t have their expectations met, but I’ll also suggest they go back for a second ride once their initial disappointment has evaporated. Focus on the interplay between Douglas and Turner. Focus on how their screwball banter and evolves beyond the idol worship of shadowy matinee man of action and romance. Consider how Romancing the Stone and Douglas then undermine the notion of the soft-focus man meat that inhabits Joan Wilder’s romance novels.

If all else fails, just give it another chance to appreciate Hollywood’s discovery of Kathleen Turner, superstar. She’s the real gem here, not the costume jewelry macguffin Joan and Jack rescue from a cave.

romancing the stone

On the next episode of 80’s Flashback, I’ll exorcise some demons and discuss my disappointment with The Jewel of the Nile.

Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Google+
http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/romancing-the-stone/
YouTube
Instagram
Follow by Email

Gene’s Picks, Netflix, and the War on Physical Media

I’ve been thinking about the war on physical media lately. And usually that’s trouble. I’ve been writing blog posts based on Netflix DVD arrivals. These are posts I’d have written normally, but because I feel indebted to physical media in some capacity I make sure to point out that I held the movie I watched in my hand before placing it in my region-free Blu-ray player and viewing it on my television.

Netflix and DVD and the war on physical media

I’ve taken part in their push to maintain physical media relevancy in 2018 at the age of 20. I’ve indulged in their nostalgia and tried to get into the headspace of the 27-year-old me who made The Lake House (2006) his first ever Netflix DVD-by-mail rental. (Who am I kidding? I liked it. No guilt. It’s gonzo romance starring two of my favorite beautiful humans.)

the lake house netflix

I can’t help but think that they’re mocking me, however, with that ‘Nice choice!” crack. I see you Netflix. I know what you’re doing. I’ll see your smarmy judgment and order the movie on SwapaDVD.com. I’ve got extra credits I can spare on statement purchases. I’m not bluffing! Here’s proof.

Still, I couldn’t have recalled that information on my own. The Lake House came as a bit of shock. I would have guessed Series 2 of Red Dwarf, something that would have predated 2006.

Red Dwarf is something you should rent, maybe from Netflix.

As I was saying before The Lake House derailed logical thought (as it tends to do because it’s about a magic mailbox!), I’ve been thinking about the necessity of physical media in this digital age. How the shifting methods of viewing movies have ushered in a world where otherwise sane humans find it perfectly normal to watch entire movies on their phone… when they’re not even on an airplane or at the gym! They choose this method.

The war on physical media is part of a systemic degradation of the film viewing experience — from the cheapening of theatrical exhibition to the general unavailability of films made before 2000 on streaming media. (FilmStruck excepted, of course.)

Dozens of streaming services have popped up, hooking viewers with the promise of unlimited entertainment at their fingertips. Netflix streaming, in fact, would probably have to stand up as the most prominent perpetuator of this myth. And the “everything available all the time” promise of streaming is indeed a myth. You could subscribe to every service imaginable — Netflix, FilmStruck, Shudder, HBOGo, Hulu, etc, etc. — and still barely scratch the service.

Check out the info graphic below and see if you can come out of that experience sober.

The demise of the brick and mortar video store (likely by the hand of Netflix DVD delivery, so that’s a little slice of irony for this meditation) has left a kind of void for moviewatchers of a certain age, those of us old enough to remember the unlimited possibility of the video store.

heroes in the war on physical media
Seattle’s still-thriving Scarecrow Video, a hero in the war on physical media

Streaming services, by and large, require pre-existing notions from viewers. Netflix streaming likes to tell us “Because you watched Glow,” here are twenty other Netflix shows you’ll want to watch. It’s the algorithmic replacement for “Gene’s picks” at our local video store, only Gene didn’t have a financial stake in the number of eyes that watched Weekend at Bernie’s II. Gene placed Weekend at Bernie’s II on that shelf because he liked Weekend at Bernie’s II. Full stop.

When I walked into my local video store, I often didn’t have any idea what I wanted to rent. Sure I had ideas, but I certainly couldn’t guarantee any of those dreams would be in stock. You had no idea what kind of movie would walk out of that video store with you. I browsed the new releases and then wandered the shelves. Some of my most profoundly affecting movie experiences happened as a result of chance rentals.

My first viewing of Suspiria, for example, was inspired by an impulse viewing after seeing the VHS cover at my video store. I rented movies based on VHS covers. I rented movies because “how the hell did this get made?” I rented movies because I was there, and they were there, and because what else was I going to do?

heroes in the war on physical media
Gene’s still alright by me, also a hero in the war on physical media.

It was the golden age of discovery, the video store culture, Gene’s picks, chatting up folks who worked as local programmers, tossing rarities on TV/VCR combos behind the counter. It was the age of absurd home video artwork slapped on top of low-budget, direct-to-video offerings clamoring for your attention. We’ve lost all this and for a not insignificant number of movie fans, the near extinction of the local video store felt like a death in the family.

(A vivid memory is the week my wife and I became obsessed with Freaks & Geeks right when it hit first DVD and trying three different video stores to find the third disc because there was a “short wait” from Netflix. I will not wait, thank you very much!)

The “Long Wait” and “Very Long Wait” clocks are indeed very distressing.

Mail-to-home DVD services might have been the beginning of the end of mom-and-pop video, but it wasn’t until the proliferation of streaming services that people decided, once and for all, that it was just easier to stay in their pajamas and watch whatever was digitally available — whatever the gatekeepers chose to make available at that particular moment in time.

Some of this gatekeeping took place during the video store-era when Blockbuster made it store policy to not stock unrated or NC-17 films to preserve their family-friendly pretense. This resulted in a de facto censorship practice that prevented many innocent films from finding an audience, undermined the relevance of NC-17 and unfairly discriminated against non-pornographic sexual content. But I digress.

The common and wrongheaded idea that the method of watching movies is not important has made life for physical media increasingly difficult in 2018. The quality of streaming differs wildly and is based on factors far outside the control of the original filmmakers. Pixellation, compressed audio. When studios determine that it’s fiscally prudent to eliminate physical media based on your closely tracked digital moviewatching habits, DVDs will go the way of the Laserdisc.

Go ahead. Watch that on your phone. I’m sure it’s the same experience.

I don’t intend to state the obvious, but some people need to hear it, The impact of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 on your phone is not the same was viewing it in 70mm on an IMAX screen. People have said this very thing to me. My argument isn’t based on opinion. It’s 100% fact that your emotional and psychological proximity to the screen is less distant when there are no distractions and the screen extends beyond your standard field of vision. You can say you’ve watched a movie on your phone, but you won’t have felt that film. You won’t have identified with that film on any level beyond the activity of holding your phone and being a click away from your next Snapchat session.

As far as home video is concerned, physical media such as DVDs and Blu-rays and UHDs provide the best experience and broadest catalog of available films. Due to the nature of film rights and distribution, no streaming service could ever compare. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy how streaming can supplement my ever-increasing home library, but it will never be my main source of entertainment. My stand in the war on physical media will end when you pry these cases out of my cold dead hands.

dvd library
A slice of my library.

This is why it’s still important to support physical media in all of its forms, whether its through a Netflix DVD-by-mail service, by renting locally (if you’re lucky enough to have such a store still available to you) or by purchasing new Blu-rays and DVDs from distributors that give a goddamn. Special mention goes out to the fine folks at Criterion, Warner Archive, Kino Lorber, Twilight Time, Olive Films, Arrow, Shout Factory, and Mondo Macabro and Eureka and Indicator in the UK among many others who still restore and release important films for purchase.

I can have this beloved copy of Little Murders (1971). I can hold it in my hand and put it on my shelf to view whenever the need arises. (Side note: Watch Alan Arkin’s Little Murders.)

little murders

So even though I wish Netflix expanded their available catalog (it stops well short of including releases from many of the above-mentioned niche distributors), it’s still a service worth supporting because they are, by sending out thousands of little red envelopes, fighting on the side of good in the war on physical media.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Google+
http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/the-war-on-physical-media/
YouTube
Instagram
Follow by Email

Shoot to Kill (1988)

Shoot to Kill 1988

Everybody else up here acts like they’ve never seen a black man before. Why should the bear be different? –Sidney Poitier as FBI Agent Warren Stantin in Shoot to Kill (1988)

As I aim to fill in some of the fleeting gaps in my 80’s moviewatching resume, I’ll report on my progress in this general space. I believe I owe this viewing to a recommendation from Brian Saur of Rupert Pupkin Speaks and the Pure Cinema Podcast. His thoughts on Shoot to Kill prompted me to adjust my Netflix  queue accordingly.

Shoot to Kill Elevator Pitch:

A black FBI agent teams up with a grizzled white woodsman/tracker to hunt down a murderer who’s assumed the identity of a hiker and joined a group of weekend hikers in the Pacific Northwest and taken Kirstie Alley (she’s on a break from Cheers) hostage. It’s the bizarro 48 Hrs.!

Shoot to Kill lobby card

It’s Tom Berenger’s World After All

But this 1988 thriller has another claim to fame. Shoot to Kill boasts Sidney Poitier’s first big screen appearance in 11 years. After 1977’s A Piece of the Action (which he also directed), Poitier went behind the camera for his next three movies. During this time period Poitier directed Stir Crazy (1980), Hanky Panky (1982) and the dance battle flick Fast Forward (1985).

Meanwhile Berenger’s star had reached it’s zenith at the tail end of the decade after starring in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1985) and Ridley Scott’s underrated (and steamy) thriller Someone to Watch Over Me (1987).

Who couldn’t love a face like that?

The buddy cop premise, a reliable holdover from 1970’s cinema, held strong throughout the 80’s. Tossing two mismatched characters together on a quest to achieve a common goal often creates instant tension and comedy. The concept done well results in entertainers like the aforementioned 48 Hrs. (1982), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Midnight Run (1989). Also, I’d like to throw out a special mention for the The Nice Guys (2016) just because it’s always worth the keystrokes.

Race Relations of the 1980s

Racial tension regularly figures into these scenarios, and Roger Spottiswoode’s Shoot to Kill offers its share of quips about a black man lost in the woods. Spottiswoode’s film never turns Poitier into a racial caricature because it already established Poitier’s FBI agent as hardboiled and utterly capable of navigating urbanity. He’s just city folk, and Knox (Tom Berenger) is a reclusive woodsman whose irascible personality has earned him few friends where there were already few friends to earn.

Though I do take a small issue with the film’s comical insistence on making FBI agent Warren Stantin an action hero. Poitier, who was in his 60’s by this point, hurdles over police cars (when running around them would have clearly been faster) and spends large portions of the film sliding and leaping and running. Even though I know the legendary actor’s still with us, I legitimately felt concern for his retrospective health. It’s not that Poitier’s giving a bad performance here — it’s just that he seems constantly uncomfortable handling the required and sometimes unnecessary physicality.

Humor comes easy between the actors. I’ve always felt that Berenger had a natural gift for understated drollness. As the two are forced to pursue the murderer (the always terrific Clancy Brown) and his hostage through remote wilderness, the isolation brings out the dramatic and comedic best in both.

Shoot to Kill Verdict:

As a genre film, Shoot to Kill excels at expeditiously delivering its premise. The mismatched heroes begrudgingly work together for the moral good and come to respect each other during the process. Ruminate too hard and you’ll expose plenty of questionable narrative decisions. Filling the gaps likely would have killed the film’s momentum. (Can a handgun kill underwater? Wouldn’t Sidney have broken a hip with a leap onto a departing ferry? Why don’t we have more FBI agents on this case?)

Rides like Spottiswoode’s Shoot to Kill don’t need airtight logic; they just require charismatic leads navigating escalating tension with a few laughs about their incompatibility. In that respect, anyone looking back to 1988 with any eye on “a bandanna-clad Tom Berenger hauling 61-year-old Sir Sidney through the woods” thriller won’t be disappointed.

Fine genre entertainment, even beyond those of us who wax nostalgic for the days when Tom Berenger headlined action thrillers.

Shoot to Kill (1988) is available on a ragged 2003 DVD from Amazon. It is at the very least anamorphic, but the print could use significant cleanup. Considering it was released by Touchstone Pictures (Disney), I don’t have much hope that this will reach Blu-ray anytime soon.

 

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been movies. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

shoot to kill netflix

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Google+
http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/shoot-to-kill-1988/
YouTube
Instagram
Follow by Email

Rambo: First Blood Part II: Cinema Shame

I’m constantly a step behind my own Cinema Shame prompts. I see no reason to start now as I watched Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) for the July summer blockbuster Shame prompt. I scanned numerous lists of the biggest and best “summer blockbusters” and I came away with one movie — the only movie on any of the “best of” lists I’d not seen. First Blood Part II shot to the top of my Netflix queue. (Yes. I still rent physical media.)

first blood part II

I attribute the non-watch to the proliferation of Rambo parody. Beyond First Blood, the reputation for John Rambo’s exploits have become infamous. I’m a fan of the first. I’ve seen Hot Shots Part Deux and the UHF Rampo sketch. What more would I need to know about First Blood Part II than Weird Al’s fakey pectorals?

Nothing. Not a damn thing.

The parodies of Rambo: First Blood Part II don’t expend any creative energy in elevating the original film into the realm of spoof. It’s all right there in glorious, over-the-top 1985 action spectacle and mindless explosions. Did I mention mindless explosions? Because you’ve never seen explosions quite this mindless.

Let’s go to the tape. Get it? Mindless?

If you didn’t know any better, *that’s* the parody. Obviously.

Rambo: First Blood Part II offers nothing even resembling the gravitas of the original First Blood, which has a purpose and reason for existing. It highlights the disillusionment and perverse treatment of our returning Vietnam veterans while providing a few action/thriller beats.

Of course, Part II still treats us to gripping Stallone monologues about being unwanted at home, about being one of “the expendables.” (SPOILER ALERT FOR FUTURE MOVIE FRANCHISE.) That’s just lip service lending a sliver of credibility to the impossible one-man cinematic demolition crew that is Rambo. Richard Crenna also returns as the inconsequential voice of reason, but nobody ever listens to him.

first blood part II
Rambo not listening to Richard Crenna’s Trautman.

The First Blood Part II Mission

In order to justify the extreme violence you’ve got to motivate your unhinged protagonist by giving them targets of the most inarguably egregious personage. This time Rambo journeys to Vietnam to find potential POWs. He’s plucked from a prison camp to do one last job for his country.

Not only does he get to extract vengeance against the Vietcong, but also the Russians (!) because they’re propping up the communist regime with weapons and masochism and then they kill his new Vietnamese girlfriend/contact (they had such a quaint meet-cute) as they’re trying to escape. OH NO THEY DIDN’T.

It’s like the 1970’s and 1980’s got together and manufactured the most despicable enemy imaginable (and cast the reliable Steven Berkoff as the main baddie). Rambo’s not done, however, because it turns out his own country sent him there to  corroborate the politically convenient story that they’re not leaving hundreds of POWs behind enemy lines. (Of course they are.)

And we all know what Rambo gets like when he’s angry.

The First Blood Part II Stupidity

The absurdity doesn’t stop with the action on screen, however. Everything about this movie skews absurd. Vietnam is apparently only the size of a couple of city blocks because Rambo just keeps bumping into everyone he knows ALL THE TIME. I’m also quite fond of this observation written by Vincent Canby in the New York Times:

Rambo, as personified by Mr. Stallone, isn’t a man who needs the love of others. He loves himself quite enough. There’s also the comforting presence of the camera, which behaves like someone obsessed. It caresses Mr. Stallone’s face and body with an abandon not seen on the screen since Josef von Sternberg made movies with Marlene Dietrich.

Rewatch First Blood Part II with the von Sternberg/Dietrich comparison in mind. You’re taken to entirely transcendent levels of cinema. The notion that Stallone was responsible for filming himself a la the way Josef von Sternberg fetishized Marlene Dietrich will make your brain melt. (The directorial credit goes to George P. Cosmatos, but come on, folks, we all know he’s just a puppet regime.)

The screenplay by Stallone and James Cameron can’t be bothered with subtleties when there’s more communists around to make puddles of goo. Let me give you a sample of this entirely scripted dialogue. Rambo and his guide Co are on a boat headed back from the “non-existent” POW camp with a wounded POW in tow to share on show and tell day back at the base. One thing leads to another and the boat explodes. Rambo swims to shore and Co says, “Rambo, you made it!”

Let me be clear, it’s not like Rambo just popped up and surprised her on shore. She watched him swim from the boat to the shore, a good fifteen seconds of observing, only to exclaim, with much enthusiasm, that Rambo had indeed “made it!”

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. First Blood Part II is incredibly stupid, but stupid in a way that recalls B-movies with production budgets (and talent) much lesser than their aspirations. And it’s certainly not that Stallone had any mind towards making a parody of the original. Don’t think for a second this has any of the self-awareness Joe Dante used when he brilliantly parodied Gremlins with Gremlins 2.

Stallone plays First Blood Part II 100% straight. Therein lies the blunt-force beauty of this almost tone-deaf orgy of explosions and insensitivity. Gleefully preposterous and mindlessly entertaining. I hated it and I couldn’t help but be entertained. I’ll let you reconcile whatever happened in between.

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!
Heaven Can Wait

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West / Heaven Can Wait
May Prompt: Shame Swap
June Prompt: Musicals! 
July Prompt: Summer Blockbusters
August Prompt: Ebert Brings the Love/Hate

James David Patrick is a writer. He written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been all about movies. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because having physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Google+
http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/rambo-first-blood-part-ii-cinema-shame/
YouTube
Instagram
Follow by Email

Paris, Texas: Cinema Shame

To spice up my 2018 Cinema Shame proceedings I turned to my savvy Twitter feed. I asked anyone listening to share a list of their favorite movies so I could choose one that I hadn’t seen. One such suggestion came from @emily_dawn who heartily recommended Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Another guy who happened to be a big fan of this one? Roger Ebert. It’s convenient when one of my scheduled watches overlaps a Shame Prompt. 

Also, I love when I receive a Criterion disc in the mail from Netflix. Something about it restores a sliver of my faith in humanity.

Cinema Shame: Paris, Texas

I’ll even admit that my limited exposure to Wim Wenders could be considered shameful in its own right. Unless you count his body of work with U2 (music videos and documentaries) I’d only seen Wings of Desire (1987) and even that was only given audience because I had to witness the supposed greatness behind the mind-numbing remake City of Angels (1998).

By the way, I highly recommend the beautiful, dreamlike video for U2’s “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” which also happens to reunite Wenders with Paris, Texas‘ Natassja Kinski.

In these Cinema Shame confessions of mine (and especially in the Cinema Shame podcast), I like to discuss the reasons for which a movie like this (a movie adrift in my Watchlist for so long that it grew barnacles) had remained unwatched. Commitment. I just couldn’t commit. I knew too much without knowing anything at all. I’d even had conversations about the film with friends who’d called to talk about Paris, Texas because they’d just watched this “brilliant” film and assumed that I’d seen it, too.

I’m coming clean. My relative silence on the topic wasn’t introspection, but ignorance. I couldn’t admit I’d never seen Paris, Texas. I’m usually pretty candid about the movies I haven’t watched? So what was so special about this one? I hate to kill a party before it even gets going, but I’m not sure I have an answer.

Instead, let’s talk about color.

paris texas nastassja kinski

How the Color of Paris, Texas directs our reading of the film

Paris, Texas isn’t so much a narrative film, but a glimpse into the irreparable connection between three lost souls. Shot like an elegy and languid in all the right places, Wenders tells a story of fractured humans, nothing more. It’s as simple as it is insightful about the capacity for regret and forgiveness and the remote possibility of redemption.

Wim Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepherd set out to make a truly American film — one that prominently features the American west. Wenders said it was an opportunity to explore the realm of John Ford in one of his own films.

Having watched the interview with Wenders included on the Criterion Collection disc in which he discusses his motivation for making the film I had to go back for a rewatch specific scenes. I didn’t have time for a full redux (perhaps because my first viewing rendered me a puddle of emotions); I just wanted to see Robbie Müller’s use of color one more time.

harry dean stanton paris, texas

Travis’ Introduction

The opening sequence depicts Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering the desert in a red hat with an empty gallon jug of water (cap, blue). He finishes the last of his water, discards the jug, continues walking. The red cap stands out against the brilliant, towering blue sky, white clouds and desert landscape.

It’s the distinctive red cap that directs our reading of the  introduction to Wenders’ American film. It’s up to us to figure out what the director and his beloved American screenwriter (national treasure?) want to say about this idea. What is it to experience “America”? 

Throughout its 147 minutes, Wenders’ color palette says as much about the inner lives of these characters as their actions. Paris, Texas reflects the declarative that film is first a visual medium, and that dialogue is merely a collection of words on a page until it’s placed into visual context.

Meticulously shot by cinematographer Robbie Müller, it’s almost incomprehensible to consider that, as Wenders confesses, the cast and crew arrived on location without any specific plans about what they were to shoot. Wenders waited until he’d rehearsed the scene on location before choosing how or what to shoot. The director resisted the urge to storyboard anything.

The Breach of “Reality”

After the silent, four-minute sequence of Travis walking through the desert, the dehydrated traveller enters a bar and collapses. When he wakes up, he’s laying in a doctor’s office shrouded in green. The American dream wears red, white and blue. The truth behind the dream is sickening and gangrenous. At the same time, however, the way Wenders uses green appears otherwordly, like something out of stylized science fiction.

The viewer begins their interpretation of Paris, Texas as a film that reflects something honest about the American spirit of pride and resilience — the red, white and blue color palette, the vistas and wide open spaces of the American west. Wenders then goes about subverting this assumption.

paris, texas 1984 green

Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) arrives to shepherd his brother back to Los Angeles. Travis refuses to talk, refusing to put into words the path that led him to this moment. The audience knows nothing, yet they assume the best of Travis. Much of this has to do with cinematic convention. The amnesiac wanderer as been reborn as a kind of Christian saint, absolved of his sins, baptized by his spiritual journey.

Walt can’t coerce Travis onto an airplane back to L.A. Wenders portrays Travis’ eccentricities — refusing to fly or to talk, demanding to find the same rental car to complete their journey back “home” — as a quirky, spiritual lightness. As a result the audience again sides with Travis and becomes aggrieved by the reasonable frustration that wells up in Walt. The two then embark on a road trip, a distinctly American cinematic trope that arose from the country’s car culture and expansiveness.

It’s no surprise then that the palette once again skews red, white and blue. Pay attention to the obvious choices made by the director. Recalling the Travis’ red cap, there’s the bright red pants worn by the rental car agent. The uniform blue of all of the rental cars. An American Airlines plane that lingers in the background.

Collision of Complexity

Even the good old American road trip can’t escape the creeping terror. Green invades the idyllic palette whenever there’s a breach in the artificial American ideal. A rift between the brothers, any kind of stagnation on Travis’ road to redemption. A phone call home to Walt’s (French) wife at a gas station, for example. She presents a threat as the guardian to Travis’ abandoned son.

Red, white and blue has not been usurped, but rather contextually muddied. The audience, too, begins to witness the rift between the brothers as we learn that the catalyst for Travis’ disappearance may not be so easily cleansed.

Green appears whenever the rigors of reality blemish the pretense. This can be read within the context of the story but also as a commentary on American film industry during the 1980’s itself. Having emerged from the New Hollywood of the 1970’s, the cinema of the 1980’s presented a glossy brand of reality disconnected from Reagan-era trickle-down prosperity, disconnected from the fundamental experience of an average human living in the America of the 1980’s.

The Establishment of Home

Eventually the pair of brothers return to Walt’s home in Los Angeles. Travis reunites with the son he’d abandoned under cloudy circumstances four years ago. The son became the charge of Walt and his wife. When we first meet Walt’s Parisian wife, she’s standing on a green carpet — a transgression from unfettered Americana. The home and its family, however, displays red, white and blue all over.

The boy wears a red and white shirt beneath blue denim overalls. A white house with red window curtains. Blue bedspreads. The boy pretends to drive a red Volkswagen while retreating from his unfamiliar biological father. Travis’ eccentricities once again emerge as he polishes and arranges the family’s shoes outside on a stone wall and they are, not surprisingly, red, white and blue (and cowboy).

paris, texas shoes

Walt shows some old 8mm home movies of Travis with his wife. Desaturated red, whites and blue — Travis wears a green jacket. We’re conditioned by this point in the film, whether we know it or not, to recognize that the green acts as a specter, lording over happiness, over idealism. Even in these happy “memories,” the end has already been written.

paris, texas color

Only a thesis-length project could adequately explore the Wenders strikingly surgical use of color in Paris, Texas. I’ve lost my traditional way, it seems, in this Cinema Shame essay, but I was so struck by the look of Paris, Texas that I can’t stop replaying individual moments on a loop.

In Seeking of Honesty, a Schism

I’d like to fast forward a bit. We’ve not yet learned the hows or the whys of Travis’ earlier disappearance. He soon endears himself to the boy through a series of events that humanize him in the eyes of his son. He plays a gentle and willing submissive, allowing the boy’s grudge to play out. And then he suggests a trip to find his ex-wife, the boys’ mother.

Wenders punctuates the suggestion and plan of action with color, of course. What could be more American than a Carhartt jacket, red shirts, blue jeans, red sneakers and a blue truck parked underneath a series of Los Angeles overpasses. Note, however, the green camouflage pants.

Green once again commandeers Paris, Texas when Travis forces Hunter to call “home” to explain their disappearance, thereby indefinitely severing ties with his adopted parents. This gut punch of a scene lingers, well after the gangrene dissipates because the conflict, the wayward trajectory of these narrative never sees resolution. The boy doesn’t contact Walt or Anne again.

It’s partially narrative convenience. It’s not their story. But it’s also an effective way to increase the stakes of their plan. Travis is unhinged and not entirely fit to shepherd this boy along on a trip with no certain terminus.

Travis locates the peep-show club at which his former lover works. Even in this dilapidated neighborhood where dreams have gone to die, Wenders still dots the tarnished landscape with red white and blue. Blue car, blue wall mural. Red sign. A muted and eroded American dream.

paris texas houston

The Confrontation(s)

Inside, when he finally locates Jane (Nastassja Kinski), she’s wearing a red sweater, bathed in light from a led lampshade. The couch, the curtains, the table, the telephone all red. Even though he can see her, she cannot see him. Travis wants to talk, but refuses to admit his identity or say the things he’s come to say. He tentatively indulges the fantasy for awhile before dropping the phone connecting him to the woman in the peep-show booth and escaping the painful artificiality. He is unable to breach the facade.

Does he merely want to experience her one last time through the guise of the rose-colored memories that pre-date the still unknown inciting event?

A night of drink and slumber in a laundromat brings about a shift in determination and a shift in color palette. Travis drinks in a dimly lit bar. Red shirt flanked by dark brown and black, reds and blues beyond in the exterior beyond the bar.

Travis leaves Hunter at a hotel to wait for his mother’s return. In the hotel listening to the message Travis recorded explaining his actions, Hunter’s clad in black, dark jeans. Despite the red socks, the frame has also shifted to blacks and whites. You’ll still note the purposeful placement of a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the TV behind the boy.

paris, texas hunter

Travis, meanwhile returns to the peep show to confront Jane, finally, with the truth — a brilliantly composed and staged conversation between two broken individuals. Travis struggles. He cannot look at her while he speaks because he’s not strong enough to see her as he relives his transgressions and lays his soul bare. Travis, too, has undergone a transformation — his sense of purpose, his steely, focused gaze emerge from behind the guise of the lovable, witless eccentric.

And Finally, Truth

Color has disappeared entirely. Jane wears a striking black sweater, foregrounded against white. Travis, shrouded in black and shadows, holds a white phone. Every detail, every morsel of set direction has been managed to support Wenders’ vision.

As an audience we too feel a cathartic exposure to the truth as Travis usurps our expectations. Surely, we thought, whatever he did couldn’t have been all that bad. On the contrary, Wenders asserts, as he pulls the mangled rabbit from his hat.

In direct correlation with the new greyscale color palette, the conversation — Travis’ story — is cold and clinical. He’s turned the peep-show booth into a confessional. He can’t look at Jane while he details every transgression that shattered their life together. The seeing of truth versus the acceptance of shallow falsehoods becomes never more apparent during this climactic exchange.

A transparent wall literally separates the two in the booth. He can see her, but chooses not to. She cannot see him even though she desperately tries to orient herself by playing with light and shadow in order to see his face. As she tries, coming closer to the window and turning out the lights it’s not her face we see anymore. It’s the face of Travis reflected in the window.

She has him offered some forgiveness and solace even though he cannot forgive himself. Then the dynamic shifts. She bares her soul and cannot look at him. Wenders then shoots the scene with her facing away from the window. We finally see her reality — an unfinished wall, sheets of insulation and also another comment, perhaps, on the artificiality of this business of making movies.

Denouement and Quiet Anarchy

Without a shot-by-shot analysis of this scene I’m not prepared to dissect it any further. It’s meditation captured on film. Silence and breath being as important as the words on the page. At the conclusion, we’re exhausted, almost relieved to have been released from the scene’s grasp.

Jane reunites with her son in the hotel while Travis watches from the parking lot below. The color returns. I have no doubt by this point that you’ll guess the dominant color as Travis views the mother-son reunion.

Don’t overlook, however, the blue of the night’s sky and the traces of orange/red on the horizon. This is another collision of emotion and subtext told through color.

The reunion of Jane and Hunter represents a schism in the American norm. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for Walt and Anne, Hunter’s actual caregivers? We’re given no clues as to how this plays out from this moment. By confronting truth and seeking redemption, Travis has thrown the notion of the nuclear family in Paris, Texas — even the pretense of one — into chaos.

Thank you @emily_dawn for finally giving me the impetus and courage to sit down and watch the unforgettable Paris, Texas. 

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!
Heaven Can Wait

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West / Heaven Can Wait
May Prompt: Shame Swap
June Prompt: Musicals! 
July Prompt: Summer Blockbusters
August Prompt: Ebert Brings the Love/Hate

James David Patrick is a writer. He written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been all about movies. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because having physical media is important. The notion of “everything available all the time” with streaming is a myth. We are our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

 

Please follow and like us:
RSS
Facebook
Facebook
Google+
http://thirtyhertzrumble.com/paris-texas-cinema-shame/
YouTube
Instagram
Follow by Email

A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick