Even taken out of its context, there’s a phrase Sam Shepard once said that has always stuck with me, existing on the tip of my subconscious:
She refers to her past as the time before she was ‘blown away.’
It’s a sentiment I have long carried with me, one that acknowledges a definable moment of impact that delineates the end of everything which has come before, a line drawn in the sand that clearly marks everything else asafter. It’s a realization that has come with time and reflection, looking closely at the person I used to be, and understanding there was a particularly vulnerable period in which I was exposed to just the right alchemy to open me up to a place I’ve never visited—and that place was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. In the ensuing years, Wenders’ film has become a state of being for me, a state of the heart which I return to time and time again to search for myself.
Paris, Texas was a mythological film for me before I had even seen it in its entirety. I dreamt about it before the credits ever rolled. In my sophomore year of college I took a class called “Broken Homes in Literature and Film” in which we were shown clips from the film and discussed them in relation to the Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan we’d been reading. That was months before I bought the Criterion edition, but I spent the intervening time watching those clips on repeat, staring at stills, and imagining a film that I began to believe would never quite live up to all the expectations I had built up around it. Around that same time I happened upon a tattered, old collection of Sam Shepard’s plays in a bookshop on St. Marks and decided to shell out the $2.50 for it. Before I knew it, I had spent my Saturday night in tears on the couch completely enamored with the seamless juxtaposition between Shepard’s cowboy mouth and battered heart. By the time I finally did get my hands on Paris, Texas, I was hypnotized.
There are few sensations—outside of falling in love—like the ineffable feeling that comes when a work of art truly and utterly captures you. There may be no articulating the exact feeling, but you know it when it’s there and it begins to live inside you. And with Wim Wenders’ films—whether it’s his existential poem of mortality Wings of Desire or his inventive documentaries—there’s a central theme that runs beneath them all. In his 2011 ode to Pina Bausch,Pina, she says:
What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?
And it’s those words that capture the essence of Wenders‘ films, work filled with an aching sense of yearning for something which you cannot quite articulate but know as your own. Wenders once told me that Pina taught him more about men and women than the entire history of cinema without a single word, and through his films, and namely Paris, Texas, he has done that for me.
Paris, Texas is actually an amalgamation of both Wenders’ sensibilities and those of Shepard—whose Motel Chronicles inspired Wenders to write the first iteration of the film. “This film, more than others, grew from my dreams…It started with dreams of collaboration,” Wenders once said. “For a long time I wanted to work with Sam Shepard…our love of the road…his love of the west, to me, was almost a reflection of my admiration for America…he’s held onto something that most of the Americans I know today have totally lost.” (“Wim Wenders, Hollywood April ’84”)
Wenders, who grew up in post-war Germany—"where the only world I knew was destruction"—looked at the vast west of America and its stillness as a utopia. But for Shepard, the west was all he’d ever known. It’s the world he was raised in and even as he traveled to New York and found success in a world far from that which he came, all those vast western landscapes and rough-tongues remain deeply ingrained in his writing. Together, along with Wenders’ pastiche fascination of the west, and the pair’s mutual affinity for work that operates just on the edge between dreams and reality, the two were able to create something remarkably profound and beautiful.
Paris, Texas feels out of time and place, out of reality. As in a dream, when we find ourselves existing in the middle of a moment without questioning its origin, so begins Paris, Texas—the story of Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man found wandering through the sweeping desert—having been missing for four years—who has reappeared without a single explanation for where he has been. In his absence, he left behind left his young son Hunter, who now lives with his brother Walt and his sister-in-law Anne. Assuming Travis is dead, the two have been raising Hunter as their own, until the day Walt gets a call that Travis has been found and is now under the care of a German doctor practicing in the middle of the desert. He travels to find him, and upon finally tracking him down, brings Travis back home to Los Angeles where he’s reunited with his son. After a few days attempting to reacquaint himself with civilization, Travis decides to embark on finding Hunter’s mother Jane, who has also left without a trace—save for the name of a bank in which she deposits money for Hunter.
The narrative arc of the story continues when Hunter, once reluctant to his father’s advances, decides he wants to join Travis on the road to find Jane. But it’s the small, tender moments of the film, along with Wenders’ melancholic use of mise-en-scène that comprise of its true essence, carrying far greater dramatic weight through mood and feeling than words. The real characters of Paris, Texas are the lacerations of the soul and the “demonic attachment for a man and his only woman” (Motel Chronicles).
Back when Paris, Texas was merely a film I’d constructed from fragments of my imagination, I always believed that I knew what it was about, was sure I understood the poetic words hanging in its vacant space, and thought I felt the aching beauty of it all. I loved it in the perverse and wonderful way you can only love something unattainable, cherishing it like a worn-out photograph that lives forever in your back pocket and has seen the world even when you could not. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt I truly heard what it was trying to tell me and the what it could teach me about coping with the pain of love and the longing for that which has no name.
Perhaps this is so, or perhaps that’s simply a testament to the ways a film can live alongside you like a companion, growing with you and teaching you more as you reflect your own life back. With Paris, Texas, it’s not only about seeing it, but about the echoes it leaves behind. Yes, you can appreciate the flickering neon lights in the distance and the pastel skies cast against the browns and greens that rise in the landscape—the ode to still life Americana that once was and may never be again—but if you can’t feel the yearning in its silences or recognize the weight that comes with looking love in the eye and knowing you must let it go, you haven’t allowed yourself to fully succumb to what lies at its core.
While back in Los Angeles, after dinner one night, Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to watch a montage of old home video footage from a family vacation on the coast when Hunter was only a toddler. But as the Super 8 starts to roll, you realize that what they’re watching isn’t just old footage, but rather the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact of a moment lost to time. We all collect these artifacts and build monuments to love, whose essence is shroud in a pink cloud of impressions upon the brain. When we peer back into those memories that haunt us—the ones that we cover up in the daylight so that we can press on and live—they flash and burst forth with more power and more sensation than most any present moment can. It’s all those impressions of moments that Travis remembers: the way Jane lifts her arms as she twirls on the beach or her pink lips puckering or her blonde curls cascading on his neck. Her skirt bellowing in the breeze.
It recalls the end of a poem in Motel Chronicles:
Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched
I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on it’s own.
And through these home movies that play out like images stuck on the walls inside us, Shepard’s words echo without a bit of dialogue. Jane is introduced to us as a memory, appearing on the screen from a more perfect past. Hunter, having seen the videos before, now watches them through the desolate look on his father’s face. We begin to understand for the first time that it wasn’t a lack of love that led Travis to escape, but rather the immense power of love and burden that comes with chaining yourself to someone else’s heart.
Living through romantic woes of my own, I’ve become cognizant of just how vivid those memories can be. I’m often paralyzed by the power they hold over me, and the lucidity with which I can recall all those small, intimate moments, like scenes from a film unspooling in slow motion before my eyes. Like Jane dancing on the beach, it’s the sensory elements that haunt me. I’ll never remember the words uttered, but I can describe to you the exact color of the air or the precise curvature of our bodies’ shadow as we slow-danced in the dark. Revisiting these moments time and time again—bringing their full sensation back to life—therein lies the pain.
After watching the home movies, Hunter asks Anne if he thinks his father still loves Jane, saying he could tell by the way he looked at her, while still knowing, “that’s not really her. That’s only a movie of her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Seeing those movies act as the spark that ignites Travis’ desire to search for her. When Hunter and Travis hit the road to go after her, they find her working in a peep booth parlor—run by John Lurie—where men can pay to sit and interact her through a one-way mirror in various settings. The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to elicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and he leaves.
The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse time and time again to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend the wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try.
By the end of Travis’ speech, we’ve gained more insight into their relationship than could have ever been gained otherwise. We don’t need to see their past played out before us to understand the intensity of the time they spent together or how it left scars that may never fade. As Travis talks, Wenders intersperses shots of Jane, slowly awakening to the identity man behind the glass. Finally, Travis asks her to turn out the light so that she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her at the Meridian Hotel, Room 152.
She pounds on the glass asking him to stay.
And then it’s her turn, finally, to voice the words she’s been carrying with her. She sits on the floor—her back to him. “I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me.” Working in a parlor where she spends her days entertaining anonymous men is a way for her to exorcise that yearning for Travis and to feel like she has a place to put all the love that has stored up inside her. “And now I’m working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice,” she says. And no matter the time that’s passed, how far gone he’d gone—how she learned to live in the absence he left behind—every man that walked into that room carried a piece of Travis.
She presses her face to the glass, he looks directly at her—their reflections mingling in one another’s, evoking the Cesar Vallejo line quoted Shepard’sDay Out of Days:
Never did far away charge so close.
But instead of trying to force them back together or even appear to her physically, Travis chooses to escape yet again. He leaves Hunter in a hotel room where Jane later finds him and embraces him as their blonde locks blend together like two lost parts of a whole. Although Travis has chosen to remove himself from their presence, he isn’t abandoning them—he’s freeing them. In bringing Mother and Son together he is allowing them to exist, with each other, in a way that he knows he’d never be able to. Speaking to Travis’ decision, Shepard noted that “even pulling together the broken pieces of the past isn’t enough.” What’s shattered inside Travis is something so deep that he needs space to discover and deal with unrestrained by the emotional expenditure that comes with love, relationships, and family. Rather than stay with Jane and Hunter and allow life’s cyclical nature to rear its ugly head and corrode their family from the inside out once again, he chooses to be alone instead. That, he ultimately decides, is better than hurting them even more.
I pray for a break
from all thought
a clean break
in blank space
let me hit the road
I’m not begging
I’m not getting down on my knees
I’m in no condition to fight. - Sam Shepard
Still, for the aching sadness of it all, there’s a hopefulness in the reunion that Travis has given them. Jane and Hunter now have a new beginning in which Travis’ shadow may always loom somewhere above them, but it won’t act like a weight on their lives—every man will no longer have his voice.
Earlier on in the film when they’re are looking through an album of old photographs, Hunter asks Travis if he could feel that his parents were dead. “I never felt like you were dead. I could always feel you walking around talking, someplace,” Hunter says. But whether it’s actual death or metaphorical death, when you love someone that strongly, their presence never truly leaves you. Those pink impressions are burnt upon your brain forever. Shepard and Wenders both create hyper-sensitive realities in their work, where love is synonymous with pain and yearning and is always complex.
My whole life has felt propelled by a deep longing, always desperately searching—but for what? And if I ever found it, would I even realize its presence until after it was gone? Yearning for something which you cannot name or feeling inextricably linked to a place you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint on a map is as confounding as it is exhausting, and like Travis and Jane, its easy to look at love as a way to fill the saudade that rests over us. But its the falling that’s easy, love is what kills us. Yet when plagued by this existential ache, the affections of another person can only dull it. As I’ve come to understand what it means to fall prey to this kind of love and care for someone with fervent and unconditional passion—only to have to say goodbye to that love, knowing it could be no other way—have I finally heard the cries of Paris, Texas. I now see that the heartbeat of Wenders’ film isn’t just found in its overwhelming beauty, but in its desire to understand those screams that live inside us and how far we will travel to fathom their voice.
*Originally published in Issue #4 of Bright Wall / Dark Room*