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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.

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