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The Criterion Completist – Paris, Texas (1984)

December 8, 2012

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written by: Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson

produced by: Anatole Dauman

directed by: Wim Wenders

rating: R

runtime: 147 min.

U.S. release date: May 19, 1984 (Cannes) and November 9, 1984 (limited) 

DVD/Blu-ray release date: December 14, 2004

 

Some movies leap from the screen and grab you by the throat, while some you’ve forgotten about before they are even over.  And some films manage to linger on through the years, as if the characters existed before it came out, and are now still walking around today in some unwatched cinematic world, the film itself a brief snapshot of their lives.  Wim Wender’s “Paris, Texas is one such film, a haunting, meditative examination of the loneliness of modern American life, and the struggles we go through to find meaningful connections with people in our lives.

Opening on a staggeringly beautiful and desolate vista of the Mojave Desert, the camera zooms in on an unusual sight, a man in a suit and red baseball cap wandering the scorched wasteland.  This is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a quiet drifter who has wandered back into society since being missing for the last four years, having walked out on his wife and son.  After collapsing in a bar, he ends up in a small hospital in a tiny Texas town.  The doctor calls his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and Travis’ son Hunter (Hunter Carson), abandoned at their door by Travis all those years ago.

 

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Walt comes down to get his brother, but after Travis has a freak out on the plane, they are forced to drive all the way back to LA.  The first half of the film acts almost as a road movie, as Walt and Travis attempt to reconcile their own relationship, and Walt tries to piece together the mystery of what happened to Travis and why he left.  German director Wim Wenders uses this as an opportunity to explore the vast emptiness and beauty of the America southwest, the endless state highways, the small towns and motels and gas stations, and the barren landscapes crossed with railroad tracks that stretch to the horizon.  These images reflect the distance between the brothers, and the long journey they face, both literally and emotionally.

Once they are in LA, Travis’ reconciliation with his son Hunter is rocky at first, but they start to warm to one another, complicated only by the fact that Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) have cared for his son for all this time, and have now grown attached to him.  Travis senses this, and realizes that he can’t stay with his brother, so he takes Hunter on another long road trip back to Houston, to find his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), all ending in a long, emotionally charged scene in a peep show theater.

 

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While the concept and “plot” of “Paris, Texas” is exceedingly simple, the themes and imagery are much more complex and open to interpretation.  Wenders based his movie on a collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, and many of the scenes and much of the dialogue have a theatrical quality to them, which places a heavy burden on the actors.  The acting is superb throughout, starting with a spellbinding turn by one of my personal favorite actors, Harry Dean Stanton, who puts in the performance of his career as Travis.  No actor out there has that haunted, soul-crushing look of despair better than Stanton, his eyes constantly searching the horizon for some answer to an unsolvable question.  Stockwell, who never seems to get the credit he deserves, is great as the frustrated uncle who is trying to help his brother, but can’t fathom the horrors he has endured. And even Kinski, who manages a passable Texan drawl, is fantastic as the estranged wife in the film’s final third.

Leave it to a German director like Wim Wenders to make the great American road movie, but here it is, and its influence can be spotted in everything from Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny to David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” to even recent fare like Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place”And while Paris, Texascan be called timeless, it is also somewhat of a time capsule of American life, a desolate lonely place where someone can disappear to lose themselves, or explore to find themselves.  It was a place free of Wal-Marts and strip malls, a wide-open landscape of the soul that could give you the time and space to face up to the problems of the past, and perhaps find the courage to face the future.

Criterion has released “Paris, Texas” both in one disc Blu-ray and two-disc DVD editions, both chock full of special features, including interviews and commentary with Wenders, deleted scenes, and a video of musician Ry Cooder working on the film’s spare, mesmerizing score.  And finally, in an illuminating interview with French filmmaker Claire Denis, who worked as an assistant director on the film, she describes a moment where Texas Teamsters stole their camera truck to hold for a ransom, that Wenders ended up winning back in a poker game!  “Paris, Texas” is currently streaming instantly on Hulu Plus and available for rent or download on iTunes.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

 

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