Europe Endless: The America Of Paris, Texas

A recent 4K re-release of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas offers a perfect moment to look back on the European lens through which the filmmaker views America, finds Tom Tidnam

It begins with an endlessly vast, endlessly empty desert plain. It could almost be an alien landscape. But, when accompanied by the sparse, plaintive twang of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar, based around Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground),’ which the musician called “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music,” it becomes clear. Paris, Texas presents America through the eyes of European outsiders – German director Wim Wenders and Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. Through this lens, the scorched terrain, out of which Cooder’s score seems to organically seep, is rendered with a searing beauty, both otherworldly and quintessentially American.

Into this stark, unforgiving vista walks a lone figure, like the crusading hero of a Western, but with no discernable direction or purpose – mute, trauma-scarred Travis Henderson, played with gaunt, craggy intensity by Harry Dean Stanton. Another outsider in this strange land, he emerges from the desert and collapses in a remote bar, forcing his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) to make the journey from Los Angeles to collect him. Walt doesn’t know where Travis has been the last four years, and neither do we. Both Travis and Wenders take their time, and the glacial pace at which the heartbreaking backstory is filled in is one of the film’s triumphs. In the meantime, America is observed as both Wenders and Travis see it, iconic imagery somehow anew. There is something mythic in its visual landscape, with diners, parking lots, gas stations and highways presented in warm, painterly compositions by Müller.

The transatlantic identity of the film, a co-production between companies in France and West Germany, is embodied in the incongruous juxtaposition of the title. ‘Paris’ is the first word spoken by a previously mute Travis. This initially confuses Walt, who, unaware of the Texan town, assumes he is referring to Paris, France. An oft-repeated joke of their father’s, recounted by Travis as he slowly starts to speak again, hinges on this same confusion, a pause between ‘Paris’ and ‘Texas’, which, in its momentary misdirection, conjures an aura of distant, sophisticated Europe before crashing us back down onto dusty American land.

As with the likes of Billy Wilder or Miloš Forman, Wenders’ portrait of this vast, unknowable country has a distinctly European perspective, one that can reveal hidden depths. While the imagery and soundtrack embody Americana, Hollywood clichés are absent, replaced with restraint, subdued quietude and nuanced, unsentimental humanism. Stanton, after a lengthy career as a supporting actor, makes for a highly unconventional leading man. The film unfolds slowly, trusting in silence, leaving things unsaid, Travis himself not speaking for 30 minutes.

Towards the end, there is an embrace, or an acceptance, of moral ambiguity – there are no heroes in this tale, only damaged individuals struggling to connect. Other small details warp the landscape, revealing it to be populated by aliens of various stripes – the first human Travis encounters is the similarly stranded German doctor who treats him; Natassja Kinski, a German actor, plays Travis’ estranged wife Jane, a much younger Texan woman; Walt’s wife, played by Aurore Clement, is French. While the story contains a classical tale of seeking redemption, the film’s elements render them strangely foreign.

Wenders had, over the course of an already prolific career, been building steadily towards this definitive examination of American life. Along with contemporaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Margarethe von Trotta, he pioneered New German Cinema, a mostly self-funded, low-budget, Nouvelle Vague-inspired movement. Of this cohort, Wenders was not alone in his fascination with the mythical United States. Fassbinder forged a new form of modernist melodrama out of his reimagining of the 1950s oeuvre of Douglas Sirk (another German who took a sideways look at America) in films such as Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun. Fassbinder did so to expose the hypocrisy of a German society he accused of living through a collective post-war denialism, unable or unwilling to face up to its own history.

Lacking Fassbinder’s excoriating cynicism, Wenders was more concerned with the hold America seemed to have over the collective European imagination. For Wenders as for many Europeans, America would have been a filmic domain before it was a real place. In 1973, he visited the country for the first time, on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles with photographer Annie Leibowitz. “I felt like an astronaut visiting another planet,” said Wenders of the trip, declaring that “‘America’ doesn’t exist – only in our minds or as a figure of speech.” Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he had one of the characters in Kings of the Road say, “The Americans have colonised our unconscious.” The ‘Road Movie’ trilogy, also comprising Alice in the Cities (the most obvious precursor to Paris, Texas) and The Wrong Move, began to crystallise this fixation, but it was evident as early as Wenders’ 1970 debut Summer in the City, with its debts to The Lovin’ Spoonful and Edward Hopper.

Paris, Texas inverts the sense of cultural imperialism animating the director’s earlier films, by rendering America itself irreconcilably ‘other’, populated by atomised outcasts. In the first of two road trips, Walt takes Travis to Los Angeles, where Walt’s wife and Travis’ estranged son Hunter live. They travel from the vast empty plains of Texas to the modern alienated, fragmented cityscape of Los Angeles, all sprawl and no centre. Walt tells Travis that he designs billboards, which pepper the highway, heralding Travis’ arrival from wilderness into civilisation. Emblems of American excess in a world dominated by the imagery of advertising, they embody the aesthetic gulf between a European city and an American one. Their ubiquitous presence is as surreal a sight as the barren Texan desert to the outsider, the man who walks endlessly, arriving in a city where, in the words of Hunter, “Nobody walks, everybody drives.’ These words are spoken when Travis attempts to connect with his son by suggesting he walk him home from school. Wenders’ America is one where people struggle to connect all the time.

Travis does gradually begin to connect with Hunter, who quotes Star Wars, as clear an example of American cultural hegemony as any, when he comes to understand that Travis and his mother Jane loved one another “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Keen to assimilate and assume the role of traditional American father, Travis seeks assistance from another outsider, Walt and Anne’s Mexican maid. She tells him he can be a rich father or a poor father – he’d like to settle somewhere in the middle but she tells him this isn’t possible, it’s one or the other. Naturally, he chooses rich. Their understanding of the roles they must assume within American society is either aspirational or clear-eyed, or both.

These fumbling attempts to navigate modern life amount to a search for human connection in a cultural and geographical landscape often all too hostile to such notions. As Travis walks through a city only truly navigable by car, he encounters a fellow outcast, whose view of America, screamed from the top of a bridge overlooking one of the many highways slicing through the city, is one of imminent apocalyptic destruction. His response is to reach out and touch him before continuing on.

Eventually, Travis and Hunter embark on another road trip, this time to find Jane. They travel to Houston, where the streets seem deserted but for father and son, as if they are alone in attempting to forge a connection here. At the film’s conclusion, Travis and Jane almost but don’t quite connect, their ability to touch stymied by the one-way mirror between them. But Travis, in an act he deems as fulfilling a straightforwardly heroic purpose, is more concerned with facilitating another connection – reuniting mother and son. At the film’s end, he rides out into the night, having done so successfully. It’s almost like a quintessential Western, but this denouement isn’t straightforwardly happy – Jane initially abandoned Hunter because she felt unable to take care of him. Is he really better off here than he was with his surrogate parents in Los Angeles? Has Travis done the right thing, or has he made things worse? Satisfied, he returns, to where we don’t know, back into the unknowable immensity of America. The film doesn’t judge, doesn’t provide easy answers. It simply portrays, from outside, just as Wenders does with America.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today