The road movie is not an American invention, but it is surely the natural home for them. There's more open road and more empty expanse in America than in most other countries, with an ubiquitous car culture like no other. So it should be no surprise that a German director who became famous for directing a series of deeply thoughtful, existential road movies should make his greatest one set in America.
It's always fascinating to see America through the eyes of a foreign director, and Wim Wenders offers a particularly memorable view. "Paris, Texas" presents an America that is so vast that a man can lose himself there wholly. The protagonist, Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton, wanders into view at the beginning of the movie from out of an endless desert, his memory lost and his past a mystery. Silent and unresponsive, it's not clear if he's all there. Travis's return to civilization is only the beginning of a long, eventful journey to find and try to reconnect to members of his family. He spends most of the film in transit, on foot and by car, traversing great distances both mentally and physically.
Robby Müller's cinematography here is legendary, not only for the bleak landscape shots of the American West, but the eye-popping neon-lit night scenes, and the separation and merging of two people's faces through a pane of glass. With such sparse dialogue, much of the story is told through the framing and interactions of the characters. Objects, places, and characters are color-coded to help chart the progression of Travis's journey, emotionally heightening many scenes. What we're not shown and not told is often as important as what we are. Harry Dean Stanton's performance is another key element. Travis spends the early part of the film nearly catatonic, seemingly lost in his own world as he stumbles through the desert. Looking as weathered and wild as the wilderness he emerges from, he's an intriguing, mysterious presence. And when his personality and emotions begin to resurface, he also proves a deeply compelling one. Stanton's scenes with Nastassja Kinski in particular are haunting, and it's here that Travis is finally revealed to be a tragic, elegeic figure.
"Paris, Texas" follows the form of Wenders' previous trilogy of road movies, "Alice in the Cities," "The Wrong Move," and "Kings of the Road," which were all set in and around European locales. However the story here, loosely based on the work of Sam Shepard, represents a clear shift in tone and content. The characters' journeys in the German trilogy were generally aimless, and represented a disorienting, but also freeing break from the established order, mirroring the changing times. In "Paris, Texas," Travis is trying to return to a former state of being, represented by his efforts to reunify his scattered family. Regret and nostalgic yearning drive him, rather than a more amorphous search for meaning and purpose. And ultimately, this journey ends when he has to face the reality that he no longer has a place in the lives of his loved ones.
The movie has been called Wenders' love letter to the vanishing American west, and can be classified as one of his many homages to American cinema. Prior to "Paris, Texas," he directed American-influenced gangster and crime films, even casting some of his favorite American directors as lowlifes in "The American Friend." Wenders has become as famous for his documentaries about other artists around the world as he is for his narrative features. He claims that his propensity for globetrotting started with his preparation for "Paris, Texas." The characters criss-cross America, so Wenders went on his own road trip through the Midwest, taking the first series of photographs that would begin his "Pictures from the Surface of the Earth" project that now spans many countries and continents.
So it's very tempting to want to connect the journey of Wim Wenders with that of his main character, searching for a bygone America that perhaps only existed in old movies. Wenders, however, didn't fade away into obsolescence, but has continued making beloved, acclaimed films to this day. I suspect it's because he never really got off the road, even after he stopped making his road movies.
What I've Seen - Wim Wenders
Alice in the Cities (1974)
The Wrong Move (1975)
Kings of the Road (1976)
The American Friend (1977)
The State of Things (1982)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Wings of Desire (1987)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
The Salt of the Earth (2014)