“But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds.” -Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers
Paris, Texas is a difficult film, and though I have come to love it by thinking it over the past couple days, I do not think it’s a perfect one. It’s a film that really seems to get at its audience on a visceral, emotional level, and has the power of myth rather than straightforward logic. I may be incorrectly estimating it, and I don’t quite have it figured out yet, but the quiet melancholy it creates is powerful.
Paris, Texas represents the dreams of the film’s main character, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). As the film opens, he is found wandering in the desert, and finally collapses in an abandoned convenience store. He is taken to the local hospital and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) comes to collect him. Unable or unwilling to speak, Walt takes him back to his family in LA where he and his wife Anne (Aurora Clement) have been raising his son Hunter (Hunter Carson) for the past four years during which Travis has presumably been wandering in the desert. Travis slowly reintegrates himself into society and bonds with Hunter, then one day they take to the road again to find Travis’s wife and Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who has been missing for the past four years as well.
There is a great sense of mystery in this film, mainly surrounding the character of Travis. He doesn’t speak for the entire beginning of the movie, and when he does finally start speaking he doesn’t say much. There is a looming mystery about what happened four years ago to make Travis wander out through the desert for such a long time, and whether Jane is dealing with it in a similar way. The film finally does get around the solving this mystery at the very end, in a wonderful shot and acted scene. However, I can’t help but think solving the mystery so explicitly wasn’t such a good idea. The answer of what happened four years ago contains a rather melodramatic story, that despite the great acting and staging of the scene, sort of feels out of place with the mythic feel of the rest of the film.
The other mystery surround Paris, Texas, the town, and exactly why Travis has such a powerful connection to it. One answer is given fairly early on, it’s where he was conceived and as such, represents the beginning for him. Despite the rather melodramatic backstory, his goal of getting to a place totally removed from other human contact meshes rather well with regressing to a time before he was born. It’s a powerful symbol throughout the film of a paradise beyond society that can never be reached because it doesn’t exist. The film never reaches Paris, Texas. Of its many settings between Texas and LA, the titular town only appears as a faded photograph in Travis’s wallet.
Travis is a quintessential American character, played to perfection by Harry Dean Stanton. He is a man scarred by his experiences and doomed by his own contrary nature. He has both good and evil inside of him, in extremes, and can never seem to truly fit in anywhere, except perhaps the desert. It’s significant that in the film’s middle half that he has to dress up with help from the maid in order to play the role of Hunter’s father. It’s a touching scene but also tinged with sadness, because you know that Travis can never fully belong. Perhaps he only belongs in Paris, Texas, a place that he can never really reach.
There is more to this film that doesn’t sit quite right with me besides the reason the family broke up. In this case though, it’s more of a failure of mine to understand it rather than a shortcoming of the film. Let me just say I love the cinematography by Roddy Muller, but I’m also very confused by it. The film for the most part is very static, which gives a weight and dignity that befits its status as a modern myth. I’m very confused by the lighting though, and the strong colors it illuminates. The film uses a lot of bright green that can be kind of unsettling, accompanied by strong, bold reds and blues. I honestly can’t figure out why they are in the film, even though I love the way it looks and I think it works. Perhaps it is supposed to bring in a hint of otherworldliness to the film, but I still can’t figure out why it’s there.
I think Paris, Texas is going to be a film I’ll come back to again and again. One reason I’m praising it so highly even though it wasn’t the smoothest watch for me, is that somehow I can see it improving on repeat viewings, now that I can tell more of what the film is about and what it’s going for. I still have several mysteries to ponder over, the main one of course being the lighting. But more importantly is the experience of watching the film itself, you feel like you are witnessing a ponderous American epic. Which of course, you are.
“He dreamed about this place without knowing its name.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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