From its hazily Southwestern skyscraper surfaces to its barren, prickly bush and junk car-pocked bedrock, there’s something slightly off-kilter about the America of Paris, Texas. The central masculine cast is nothing if not indigenous—when the sun-punched Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) first stumbles into frame, his uncultivated, hirsute face and dusty red cap seem like natural geological formations that have been patiently waiting, cragged and craterous, for us to anticlimactically discover them—and the relationship-oriented, plot-shunning dialog by western playwright Sam Shepherd taps into dialectal heartbrokenness without a shred of disassociating local lingo. But there are tellingly alien factors: How did both Henderson brothers wind up with women who drip sophisticated European sex appeal from their ripe lips and honey hair? And why does every truck stop along highway 10 emit the same sickly green aura that glows like a clumsy, wistful metaphor against the ferociously red sunset? And how do aridly panoramic, sneeringly and smokily man-made L.A. skylines upstage the parched siltstone and yucca tree of God’s creation in a film with Texas in the title?
Perhaps we’ve forgotten already that “Paris” is in the title, too, and it comes first. It’s meant to be an ironic juxtaposition, of course; none of the movie takes place in the actual city of Paris, Texas, and the lot of stagnant tumbleweeds Travis purchased there years ago on a subsequently fizzled whim provide little more than a conventional objective correlative onto which we can project Stanton’s subdued patriarchal anguish. But the angular name pairing additionally and eloquently encapsulates the film’s primary tension—that between the hopelessly foreign and the unforgivingly familiar.
Just as Ry Cooder’s soundtrack of plaintively metallic glissandos can ultimately only be appreciated only as a white academic’s soulful dissertation on authentic black pain, the tenderly talented look and feel of Paris, Texas provided by director Wim Wenders (a German) and cinematographer Robby Müller (a Dutchman) elides spiritual resonance for human curiosity at every possible turn. This means the camera’s persistent hunt for beauty can adopt the detached yet voracious reverence of tourism, but in the film’s most memorable scenes this tendency infuses the talkative inaction with heart-halting anticipation. Wenders and Müller stage the torturously two-way mirrored, putative peep show conversations between Travis and his estranged, wayward wife Jane (Nastassia Kinski) under sullen blue lights that reminds us of soon-to-be-closing supermarkets, framing the ex-lovers as if they’ve never heard two Americans speaking so honestly with one another before about their mutual history or their feelings. The punctiliously wide-eyed wonder infects even those of us who are weary of trailer park tragedies with an empathic impatience for how the loose ends will tie up or simply slacken through the conversation.
Where Wenders attempts to find his common, stabilizing ground—his personal identification with the international material—is in the paradoxical fusion of family cohesion and the search for independence, a tug-of-war embedded not only his languid “Road” trilogy (also shot by Müller), but also in domestic influences on Paris, Texas such as Robert Altman’s opiatic ode to California 3 Women. As with the warped, often menacing faux-sisterhood binding Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall in that remarkably American movie, the unorthodox bond between Travis and his abandoned son Hunter (Hunter Carson) rests tenuously on a foundation of bewildering regret and the irrepressible lamentations of a shamanic id. Travis’s transformation throughout his roundtrip trek from low desert to high and back again is subtle enough to entirely ignore—though he does go from refusing to speak to haplessly responsible brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) to embracing a newfound fluency in the language of imperfect reconciliation by the film’s end—but Wenders’s emphasis, as usual, is on the volatile mutation of the journey rather than its lasting effects on the journeyman. Unlike the characters in Jim Jarmusch’s travelogues, we don’t fantasize Travis or Jane as autonomous beings with lives that assert themselves past the end credits. We instead think back on winding dirt roads exhaling furious clouds, the gray concrete of freeways caught in an impromptu firmament with a disinterested sky, and multi-layered, nocturnal rainbows of meretricious neon.
Paris, Texas may be missing a crucial piece of authentic Americana, but it still evokes an America most Americans yearn to gaze on. An America as thorny and carnivorous as a hawk talon, as raw and smug as a downtown mural, and as sweetly enigmatic as a vacant lot that doesn’t—that can’t—exist.