There’s something kinda funny about Paris, Texas, the best American road movie ever made, coming from a West German filmmaker named Wim Wenders. I finally watched the movie just over a decade ago after years of people telling me I should. Having been the cultural stranger in places like West Texas, where Paris, Texas is set, and having traveled as much as I had when I saw the movie in 2012, I was not prepared for the emotional response the film would generate. Among its many qualities and themes, Paris, Texas speaks to the kind of restlessness that can drive some people to genuine, stilting madness.
Your experience may differ. That’s true of all movies technically, but Paris, Texas and its story of a man named Travis (One of the best ever in Harry Dean Stanton), wandering the desert for reasons initially unclear to us. It doesn’t help that Travis doesn’t speak, affording Stanton, one of my favorite actors, to do some of the best acting of his long and brilliant career. Eventually Travis collapses in a gas station in Terlingua, Texas, delirious, scruffy (more than usual for Stanton) and wearing tattered, filthy clothes. An eccentric European doctor examines Travis, finds a card with a phone, and is connected to Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell). A stunned Walt gets to Travis from Los Angeles, and begins the long, arduous task of bringing his brother back to reunite him with his young son Hunter.
There’s a lot more to Paris, Texas than what I’ve outlined above. Travis struggles to reconnect with a son he clearly loves, who also reminds him of the agonizing, sometimes abusive relationship Travis had with Hunter’s mother Jane (an affecting, unforgettable Nastassja Kinski). We learn about these things on the road, covering hundreds of miles of the kind of southwestern and western landscapes that make America at least interesting. We learn over a gradual, sometimes painful story of forgiveness. One which touches on that theme and explores in a way I’ve never seen from any other film.
Paris, Texas is a masterpiece simply for keeping us fascinated by Travis, and what we learn about his life before the start of the film. We follow him on this journey that soon includes his young son, another, different kind of road trip than the one that started the film, and the plan to meet with Jane at least one more time. Where we find Jane all on its own is kind of shocking, delivering the quiet emotional devastation of the unhappy lives these characters have sometimes experienced.
Paris, Texas has everything expected in a great, decidedly cinematic story (the stunning minimalism of cinematographer Robby Müller). It’s one of the most surprising movie watching experiences I think you’ll ever have, as there’s nothing that uses narrative and the importance of where that narrative is set quite like Paris, Texas. It’s one of the best films of the 80s, and its themes of reconciliation and redemption are easy to appreciate from any angle or in any decade.
These complex notions, which are presented starkly enough that they will inevitably draw you into your own memories, simply occur to you as you’re watching Paris, Texas. That’s the beauty of the film. So much is occurring as you’re also watching one of the most richly absorbing movies of all time. I watch this movie to remember a landscape that no longer exists quite as it did back then, and to remember my own restlessness that consumed my need to constantly move and see different things. I watch Paris, Texas when I’m curiously nostalgic for the type of loneliness you can feel under the vibrant and the expansive, seemingly endless Texas sky.
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