Film discussion

Paris, Texas (1984) – Cinema from the year I was born

Sometimes we get so caught up in what’s coming out next at the cinema that we forget to look back at what we might have missed. We got thinking about this, and our reviewers decided to examine some cinema from the year that they were born.

How do you write about a film that breaks your heart? What do you do to give the text the weight and cadence you believe the film deserves? This was one of the first thoughts running through my mind after rewatching my choice for this series. 1984 is a marked year for movies with a rich glut of well-known blockbusters for a film fan to choose from. The year of my birth gave us Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Temple of Doom, Beverly Hills Cop, Romancing the Stone, and Gremlins. The likes of Footloose and Police Academy found themselves comfortably in the top ten of the highest-grossing films of that year. It was the year Freddy Krueger haunted our dreams. For me, I felt I needed to pick something that would go beyond the usual response I would obtain from the keenly enjoyed popular movies of the year. I chose a rewatch of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Why go for comfort when you can go for pain and loss?

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I found writing about Paris, Texas to be something of a difficult undertaking. Part enigmatic road movie, part intimate family drama, it’s a film in which plays out in such a quiet yet haunting elegance, that it’s hard to realise how the mood of the film can take a person. Striking from the first image, we are introduced to a bearded man in a faded red hat and a dirty, cheap suit. He holds a gallon of water for sustenance. He is in the middle of the West Texas Desert and this blank-faced traveller wanders into view like a lost tourist. The imagery this man is set in is so unmistakably American, it feels like he’s been dropped from the sky into the middle of a revisionist western, his mere presence demanding questions. Who is this guy? How did he get here?

The gentleman is named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and where he’s come from we never know. After being picked up by his long-suffering brother (Dean Stockwell), we’re slowly given clues about where he might want to head. A plot of land in Paris, Texas, brought by Travis for him and his family. A family markedly not found with him in the desert. His son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), lives in Las Vegas with his brother. His wife (Nastassja Kinski)? Locating her whereabouts becomes the key to the second half of the film.

From the wide-open Texan vistas to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, director Wim Wenders creates a vast canvas capturing a deep emotional poignancy that resides within these characters. Working with cinematographer Robbie Muller, Wenders paints a picture that is steeped in a rich colour scheme of reds, whites, and blues. Colours which help illustrate a sense of Americana. The film then contrasts this by often bathing Travis in eerie, near otherworldly greens, which seem to emphasise a sense of displacement and a protagonist who is not only lost but is no longer even sure what he is hoping for.

The film delicately balances American iconography with the unhurried rhythms of European Art-House Cinema. The desolate landscape of small-town America leaps towards the eye-watering tall buildings of the urban city, yet both combine with the type of longing and pause that so much American cinema would care to forget. But the true beauty of Paris, Texas, even with its rich visuals and Ry Cooder’s haunting score, is how its cast communicate the type of hurt and regret that such settings as they inhabit are often so keen to hide. The heart of the film resides in an extended scene within a peep-show club, where what should be a location of carnal pleasures in fact becomes a bittersweet scene of moving confessional.

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As Travis moves from desolation slowly towards civilisation while his own sense of personal identity remains fleeting, I found myself once again profoundly struck by Paris, Texas. It’s a film that holds an ability to stir feelings of loss in a way that many other films don’t even try to aim for. In this revisit, I tried to nail down what exactly what about the film does it for me. Perhaps it is the softness in nearly every performer’s voice. The way they sound to the ear, penetrating deep in a way that the louder films of the same year simply could not. Maybe it is the way it manages to meld revisionist western with the road movie; two sub-genres I admire, but rarely give as much attention as I should. But then, with deeper thought, I feel it may be the fact that the film is just the whole package. It’s warm without being saccharine. The performances feel so personal and intimate. I love how the imagery captures that Hopper-like feeling of loneliness within the modernist landscape. Paris, Texas is all these things to me. It was made the year I was born and filled with thoughts and feelings that may stay with me for longer than my 36 years.

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