PARIS, TEXAS: Wim Wenders’s American Myth

|Greg Hunter|

Paris, Texas begins with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) in a kind of walking catatonia. He has spent years away from his family––most of them on foot, for all viewers know––and only reconnects with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) after collapsing in a small West Texas town. Despite these odd circumstances, director Wim Wenders avoids outright surrealism in the film’s early scenes, favoring a grounded, naturalistic approach. And yet Paris, Texas suggests that a literal-minded understanding of Travis’s affliction­­––a specific medical diagnosis––is beside the point. For Wenders, Stanton, and screenwriters Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, what Travis’s condition is matters less than what it means. Their film’s title, evoking two places at once, is a signpost––we’re in the realm of metaphor, however dusty and sun-bleached it appears to be.

Once Walt takes charge of his brother, Travis slowly becomes more animated, more articulate––the closer he gets, viewers realize, to reckoning with his past. The film’s design is simple in this respect. Paris, Texas unfolds like a folktale, a transformation story with a distinctly American myth underneath it: that anyone can start anew. Travis begins his journey apart from his own personhood, and we watch him remake himself. His story resembles an archetypal American fable, one that begins with a person in a state of destitution, persecution, or simple dissatisfaction and ends with the person reaching self-reliance, wholeness, even reinvention.

Wenders’s suitability for Paris, Texas begins in his youth in postwar Germany, where he encountered America almost exclusively through its pop-culture exports and thus almost exclusively in terms of American myth making. The story marks a major shift for the director. The Wrong Move (1975), a study of the psychic conditions of Wenders’s home country, features sweeping overhead shots of trains in motion and long takes of characters conversing in front of massive hills, but the film’s atmosphere is one of unease, even paranoia, not unlocked potential. Kings of the Road (1976) is, well, a road picture, but its characters’ movements across Germany play, from the start, like indications of existential malaise, not the pursuit of a dream. The American Friend (1977) depicts a collision between European and American sensibilities, with its “cowboy in Hamburg,” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley, disrupting the life of a German artisan (Bruno Ganz), but the movie is a story of transformation only en route to despair. Not until Paris, Texas, and the opportunity to film the wide-open landscapes and sprawling cities of the American West, does Wenders allow optimism equal to the American dream into his films.

But if Paris, Texas is about an American regeneration, it’s also about the magnitude of regret. By the film’s end, we have an explanation for Travis’s extreme stoicism in earlier scenes: a consciousness of guilt so severe that it nearly destroyed his larger consciousness. When Travis’s quest for atonement leads him to his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski), he elaborates:

He knew she had to be stopped or she’d leave him forever. So he tied a cowbell to her ankle so he could hear her at night if she tried to get out of bed. But she learned how to muffle the bell by stuffing a sock into it, and inching her way out of the bed and into the night. He caught her one night when the sock fell out and he heard her trying to run to the highway. He caught her and dragged her back to the trailer, and tied her to the stove with his belt. He just left her there and went back to bed and lay there listening to her scream.

With these lines, Paris, Texas complicates its mythic underpinnings. Travis may have started the story primed to begin anew, but only as a result of his own abusive behavior. His distressed circumstances are wholly his own fault. (This is perhaps the most American thing about the movie—the jarring reality from which a myth emerges.) And yet Wenders, Shepard, and Carson don’t interrogate this myth to the point of deconstructing or abandoning it. Instead, the film suggests that Travis’s reflection on his past actions—after a break from awareness of them—completes his transformation.

Viewers could credibly dismiss the film on those grounds. One take on Paris, Texas––and a justifiable one––is that the film suggests a person can get away with anything if they apologize with the gravity of Harry Dean Stanton. (Near the movie’s end, Travis once again exits the lives of his family members, but in the manner of a ghost that has settled its unfinished business.) But another is that the film’s empathy extends that far, even to someone whose actions it condemns. Wenders, Stanton, Shepard and Carson are certainly aware of the wrongness in Travis’s past––it’s the context for everything we see. Paris, Texas implies that, to the extent Travis can exist apart from his past, he can do so only after he fully accounts for that wrongness. Notably, the film focuses on tracking this shift rather than contriving a display of forgiveness from Kinski. People can change, Paris, Texas says, but that change isn’t easy, automatic, or—in Travis’s case—the responsibility of anyone other than himself.

This is maybe why Stanton’s climactic words are so well remembered. Stanton played Travis after decades of supporting parts, and the lines he delivers to Kinski are a gift from Wenders and the film’s screenwriters to a journeyperson actor in his first lead role. And while the material serves Stanton, he serves the material just as well. The scene is fraught, but a viewer, sufficiently moved, believes both in the weight of Travis’s wrongs and in the transformation Paris, Texas thinks possible. We see Stanton take on a myth that’s compelling but also troubling, and commit to the part worth keeping.

Part of the Trylon’s “Volunteer Programmers” series, Paris, Texas was chosen by Greg Hunter, box office volunteer since 2011. Hunter is an arts writer and a graphic novel editor based in Minneapolis. He is kind to animals, serious about breakfast, and a fan of any movie starring Toshiro Mifune or (naturally) Harry Dean Stanton.

Paris, Texas screens at the Trylon on Thursday, December 19 at 7 pm. Purchase tickets and learn more about our Volunteer Programmers series here.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

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