I have been going to press screenings at the Cannes Film Festival for more than twenty-five years, but only twice have I been absolutely sure—blindingly, heart-racingly certain—that I have just seen the future winner of the Palme d’Or. Cannes is a distorting lens that can give an undeserved boost to an ambitious but flawed film, just as it can smother a smaller or more conservative one. But on those occasions, there was no room for doubt; it was like falling in love.
My first such love affair was with Paris, Texas, shown in 1984 (the second was with Emir Kusturica’s Underground, a decade later). The festival jury, which that year included the veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would go on to shoot Wings of Desire for Wim Wenders, duly awarded it the Palme d’Or; it even garnered the affection of a far more persnickety group, winning the International Critics Prize. The awards were all the more surprising in that the film is an unabashed love letter to America, coming halfway through the Reagan era, when Europe in general, and filmmakers in particular, were anything but pro-American. Of course, one might argue that Paris, Texas is in love with a certain idea of America. But in truth, Wenders would probably not have concerned himself with that distinction: the personal always trumps the political in his films.
The plot of Paris, Texas is disarmingly simple, focusing on the dramatic after-effects of a marriage’s breakdown on young Hunter (played by Hunter Carson, son of writer L. M. Kit Carson and actress Karen Black); his father, Travis (a name that still had sinister resonance eight years after Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and played with shell-shocked intensity by Harry Dean Stanton); and his mother, Jane, a plain name almost willfully ill suited to the fragile, feral character embodied in the film by Nastassja Kinski. Travis is found wandering in the desert by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), is reunited with Hunter, sets off with Hunter to find Jane, finds her, and disappears again. That’s about it. What turns this fairly ordinary-sounding family drama into something on the edge of epic is its use of landscape and setting—the desert Southwest, California’s San Fernando Valley (also the setting for Wenders’s 1997 The End of Violence), and the concrete canyons of Houston—reinforced by the stunning cinematography of regular early collaborator Robby Müller and a plangent slide-guitar score by Ry Cooder (with whom Wenders would later make the Oscar-winning documentary Buena Vista Social Club).
A lot of the action takes place on the road, long a staple of American culture, as much in the novel as on the screen. Think of Rabbit Angstrom’s overnight drive south as he “runs” in the first of Updike’s Rabbit novels; or, earlier, of Kerouac’s generation-defining classic On the Road; or, earlier still, of the Joad family’s doomed westward odyssey in The Grapes of Wrath. But the road is a theme that, for obvious reasons, works better in cinema than in literature, and came into its own in such iconic works of the 1960s and 1970s as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Five Easy Pieces. The American road is as much a state of mind as a highway: an almost infinite strip of possibilities that helps the traveler reach—or (as in Easy Rider) fail to reach—the heart of America.
Highways have been central to Wenders’s films almost from the start. He christened his first production company Road Movies, and nearly all his films are about movement: most of them are on the road to somewhere; not all of them arrive—by which I mean that the characters’ journeys are incomplete rather than that the films fail. In 1975, a decade before Paris, Texas, Wenders made Falsche Bewegung, about whose English title no one seems able to agree. Released in the UK as The Wrong Move and in the U.S. as The Wrong Movement, it translates literally as “False Movement”—a much better rendering and a title that could apply to most of Wenders’s films, with the proviso that movement, however false it may be, is the only option available. This is as true of his early masterpiece Kings of the Road (1976)—about two loners thrown together on a drive northward through what was then the border region of West Germany—as it is of his most recent feature, Palermo Shooting (2008), about a German fashion photographer rather too obviously pursuing love and death to and through the Sicilian city of the title. What is more, the road itself is frequently a character in the films, whether as a counterpoint to meandering voice-overs, as in the opening of Alice in the Cities (1974), or as the visual equivalent of a character’s restless anomie, as in Paris, Texas, with its many, many scenes shot in or from a car. Even A Notebook on Clothes and Cities (1989), a documentary about fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, is punctuated with long sequences of driving on freeways. (The only real exception is 1987’s Wings of Desire, set in Berlin two years before the wall came down, and for that reason a reflection not on movement but on stasis—or rather, on dreams of movement in a place of stasis.)
Born in the Ruhr area in 1945, Wenders is the best known of that group of young filmmakers who emerged in the 1970s and were dubbed the New German Cinema, a movement whose trigger was the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto. Like most rallying cries, the Oberhausen Manifesto was about freedom and the need for a break with the past. “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one,” it intoned. Wenders was only seventeen when the manifesto was signed, but his early films, from Summer in the City (1970) through to Kings of the Road, are all about breaking with the past. Paris, Texas is one of the most fully realized and exhilarating examples of this break—which is ironic because it has none of the political ambitions of Oberhausen, and because it comes at the very end of the New German Cinema’s shelf life. Indeed, by the time he shot it, Wenders had moved a long way from Oberhausen, having already made two films in the United States.
The origins of Paris, Texas lay in one of those earlier American films: his failed attempt, under the not-always-benign aegis of Francis Ford Coppola, to convert New German into New Hollywood with Hammett, which took up five years of his life and was finally released in 1982. Wenders had wanted Sam Shepard for the title role of that film; the studio said no (its default response throughout the making of Hammett). But the two stayed in touch. The first inklings of their eventual collaboration came in a screenplay Wenders wrote based on Shepard’s Motel Chronicles. The final script, however, was an entirely fresh start, with Shepard’s epic sense of the American West finding perfect expression in dialogue whose rhythms are at just the slightest of removes from everyday speech. The final telephone-and-mirror scene between Travis and Jane is one of his best, and if there is one thing that holds at bay the sentimentality that occasionally threatens to creep in, it is Shepard’s language.
The playwright and director shared a sense of movement as escape—a traveling away from, not toward. While the constant movement in Wenders’s films—and in this one especially—seems to hint at a final narrative coming together, any such resolution or redemption usually proves unattainable. Compare Paris, Texas with Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which it superficially resembles. Travis, like John Wayne’s Ethan, comes out of the desert and is slowly weaned back onto normal life. But in Wenders’s film, the threat to normal life comes not from outside—not from a character like Scar, the Apache warrior who abducts Ethan’s niece—but from within Travis himself. As the last part of Paris, Texas makes clear, traditional redemption is not on the menu. Following that final long dialogue scene through the telephone and one-way mirror of the peep-show dive to which he has finally tracked her, Travis, visible to Jane when she turns the lights off on her side of the mirror, simply disappears by walking into the darkness. He repeats the action in the film’s closing shot: having engineered a reunion between mother and son, Jane and Hunter, in a downtown hotel room, Travis disappears into the greenish gloom of the parking lot below. It is a quintessential Wenders scene, at once bleak and borderline sentimental. Travis, briefly pinned down by the domesticity of his brother and the emotional needs of his son, is moving on.
Wenders has sometimes tried to re-create this feeling in Europe. But Europe, big though it is, is divided by so many frontiers, languages, and cultural differences that any movement is always “false” (one of the themes of Kings of the Road is highways and railway lines that lead nowhere, cut off from their former destinations by the fact that those places are now in East Germany). Still, he keeps trying, as in the wonderful driving montage at the start of Lisbon Story (1994), when the director’s alter ego, Phillip Winter (played by Rüdiger Vogler, star of so many of the early films), heads south to Portugal.
In Paris, Texas, there are no borders, and Wenders’s exhilaration is palpable. When Travis’s fear of flying gets him and his brother thrown off a plane and he insists they drive to Los Angeles, you can almost sense Wenders punch the air and say “Yes!”: they’re on the road again. Even that troublesome border a few hundred miles to the south doesn’t really seem to have had any meaning for Travis: from what we can gather in the opening scenes, he has simply walked across it back into the United States. I guess you could do that then. But Mexico and the desert have one thing in common in American culture: they are places people go when they want to get lost. And Travis, in the film’s wonderful, soaring opening shots, is clearly a man who would rather stay lost.
It is, of course, hard to think of those opening shots without hearing Cooder’s score. Cooder is a musician’s musician whose career has only occasionally overlapped with commercial success, as in his session work for the Rolling Stones (his is the slide guitar you hear on Sticky Fingers’s “Sister Morphine”). His score for Wenders’s film is not only unforgettable: it seems somehow to have burned itself into the landscape of the Southwest, to the point where footage of that dry red terrain, with its wind-eroded mesas, can hardly appear on an editing console before someone reaches for the Cooder button. Heard here for the first time, it adds a quality of yearning to the bleakness of the landscape. Absent through much of the middle part of the film, it creeps back in at the very end, as Travis retreats into the darkness—a perfect thematic resolution that removes (or maybe obscures) the need for a narrative reconciliation, turning Travis into one of the mythical figures of American cinema.
But if Paris, Texas is a love letter to America and American cinema, it now also has something of the feel of a farewell. The world to which Wenders pays homage is vanishing fast: not the desert, which is close to eternal, but the pay phones and diners and motels that used to line the approach to every small U.S. town, now replaced by cell phones and McDonald’s and multistory Doubletree Hotels and Quality Inns. All offer a sterile, branded comfort—and all deny the lure of the road, the impulse to keep moving, by affirming that, nowadays, however far you go, it’s still going to look just like home.
Maybe, as he fades back into the Texan darkness, Travis knows more than we thought. These days, Paris, Texas is not just an odyssey: it’s an elegy too.
Nick Roddick, a former editor at Screen International, taught film and theater at universities in the UK, Ireland, and the U.S. before becoming a journalist in the early eighties. He contributes regularly to the London Evening Standard and Sight & Sound.