monday, july 27, 2009
Paris, TexasThe German director Wim Wenders and American playwright Sam Sheppard began the collaboration that would become the 1984 film Paris, Texas, with nothing but "this one character and the landscape he would show up in."
The character was a travel-worn and weather-beaten man in a dusty suit and distinctive red baseball hat. The landscape was the harsh South Texas wasteland of Big Bend National Park. And from that the pair proceeded to weave one of the most compelling cinematic tales of the era.
Although the start of Paris, Texas seems somewhat arbitrary, it's vastly important that the tale begins with this unusual protagonist, Travis Henderson (a superb Harry Dean Stanton) crossing a threshold - the US/Mexico border at Terlingua, Texas. He's moved out of nowhere into somewhere. Although the dingy South-Texas border town where "the dust has come to stay" certainly doesn't seem like much to speak of.
Travis' cinematic starting point amidst the epic sun-blasted emptiness South, Texas is the first of many parallels to John Ford's 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. Big Bend National Park serves to stand in for the majestic landscape of Monument Valley, Arizona that charged Ford's film with such allegorical power.
In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards returns from years of adventuring in Mexico with a steely sense of self and a seemingly unshakable resourcefulness. Travis, by contrast, seems dazed and stupefied by the complicated dissonance of the mundane reality after four years of directionless but purposeful wandering beyond the borders of the regular world. He certainly appears to have spent much of the recent past wrestling with things far greater than himself.
In both stories the protagonists must come to a new understanding about themselves and the type of place they want the world around them to be. But while Ethan's is one of re-evaluating his beliefs, Travis' story is one of awakening. Both become caught in the same moral quandary at the end, by succeeding in setting things right they create something they are unable to have themselves.
This interplay between the sublime and the mundane permeates Paris, Texas. The dreary reality of the desert border town gives way to California's clean urban artifice where Travis' brother Walt (a fantastically understated Dean Stockwell) now resides.
The dingy reality of the modern American frontier has given way to its cultural shorthand in the current West. Walt wears a trucker hat advertising western clothing and a herd of oversized horses gallop by on a billboard in the back of his workshop.
The myth is used to market and the meaning is left somewhere far behind. The sacrifices of Edwards' ilk have been forgotten and the anarchic nature of the modern world requires a new hero to restore the proper order.
But Walt's billboard advertising business is presenting the image not the actual reality of the thing - a point Wenders subtly emphasizes when the skyscraper he's standing in front of in his introductory shot turns out to be nothing of the sort. It's also a clear comment of the director and the trade he's engaged in with the audience.
The first half of Paris, Texas focuses on Travis' return to the world and being re-united with his son. The logical expectation is that the second half will result in him re-uniting with his wife. The film's tagline insists there is a place to "pick up the pieces" but it doesn't promise they will be put back together again. Another boasts that "lost love is found" but restoring it is another matter altogether.
That instinctive desire for the happy ending, or at least a neat one, is assiduously American and Wenders never seems tempted.
Similarly, Sheppard is too much of a realist about how the flaws of an individual can become chasms between others to let sentimentality obscure his vision. But, instead, Travis understands that while he is recovering the pieces of his shattered life, it's not to reassemble it for himself.
As the film began with Travis crossing one border, it resolves at another - The Meridian Hotel in Houston. In geography, a meridian is an imaginary delineation that is critical to provide a proper sense of place upon the globe after Travis, at last, understands his role is to bequeath that to his estranged wife and son.
Still, part of the power of Paris, Texas is the fact Harry Dean Stanton simply embodies the character of Travis Henderson. The weathered Tennessean's gangly appearance gives way to a strong determined stride in his walk. While where is an almost childlike confusion in his manner, there is not the slightest clumsiness or hesitation in his determined lanky gait.
"I never knew I had so much rage in me," Travis says and the film leaks the red of his passion. He wears it like a distinctive badge from the first moment we see him until it gradually envelops him whole at the end.
The epic power of his passion creates a singleness of mind in the man and it compels him to movement although not to any destination. His passion consumes him so completely that he no longer needs to eat or sleep - he feeds upon it alone. The only compulsion he must obey is to move, because there is no rest. With the stillness returns the pain and the only solace is in motion. He stumbles out of the desert and searches for water. Obviously to quench his thirst but also to assuage the fever of the fury that consumes him. The cold of the ice suffices too well - perhaps it restores the memory of peacefulness with his mother he later recounts to his brother - and he passes out senseless.
While this distinctive fury is another commonality with Ethan Edwards there are several clear modern antecedents as well. Travis's very name denotes his place in a succession of outsiders immortalized in modern film as consumed by rage. The most immediate and obvious predecessor being the iconic Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver. The connection extends back to the character Bickle was named for, Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) from Lindsay Anderson's 1968 opus, If...
But as similar as Travis Henderson may be to these immediate antecedents he differs in one vital respect - he does not allow his anger to transform into violence. Or, perhaps more exactly, he has already been consumed by the fires of his rage - and, we eventually learn, it almost devoured him physically as well. Like Ethan Edwards he eventually discerns another alternative.
There is an interesting scene in the middle of Paris, Texas when Travis encounters a semi-crazed man screaming from a highway overpass. Instead of the aversion one might expect upon encountering such an individual, Travis seems to recognize something of a kindred troubled spirit. As he passes he reaches out and touches the man compassionately on the back. It's an achingly small but infinitely telling moment.
The solution is through Wenders dynamic use of color as the method of conveying meaning. Throughout Paris, Texas various hues create an atmosphere of passions and a mood of disquiet. The color red is constantly a reminder of the passion - be it fury or love - that Travis keeps within himself. It is constantly present from the distinctive red baseball hat to the moments when the hue seems to envelope not only him but the entire film.
Yet, when Travis finally puts the passions and fears aside and allows himself to see things clearly it is beneath a true white light and he and his son are swaddled in the black furniture of the laundromat waiting room. He and Jane both are dressed in black - almost in formal dress - during their final meeting.
This distinctive use of color is one of the most apparent influences on Wenders by the Michelangelo Antonioni. It's not a coincidence that both directors first trained as painters.
For example, Wenders also made an interesting decision to leave fluorescent lights untreated - a process that makes them appear green on film. The effect projects a "poisonous" feeling the director notes - putting a strange sense of unease in what should be relatively innocuous scenes and settings. It's an effect that recalls Antonioni's famous insistence on painting trees grey for the filming of Red Desert to enhance the visual impact of the fog in certain scenes.
Most importantly, while the motivations of the characters in Paris, Texas are often oblique and their destinations unclear they keep moving forward in a deliberate manner. None are given to the meandering aimlessness of many Antonioni's protagonists. Nowhere is this contrast illuminated better than with heroines of the respective directors. Antonioni ably employed the ineffably compelling Monica Vitti to sway the viewer's sympathy and Wenders does much the same with the superb Nastajassa Kinski.
Yet, unlike Vitti's heroines, Kinski's Jane isn't aloof and disconnected from the world around her. She is intimately engaged in the world and wounded by it directly, not by her distance from it.
It's this particular point that underscores the philosophical gap between Wenders and Antonioni in terms of the conflict between man and the malaise of the modern world. As much as the characters in Paris, Texas have been marginalized by the inexorable depersonalizing tyranny embodied in urban America, they are not at direct odds with it. The man screaming from the overpass seems a reaction to the society rather than a rejection of it.
Of course this kind of objective perspective is partially due to his nationality. Germans in particular seem to have a fascination with the wide open territory of the American west without any ingrained allegiance to the semiotic priorities it presents for Americans. The mythological pull of the frontier and the heavy symbolism it carries can be dealt with in a variety of ways other than abject reverence. The vast emptiness of the region is inescapably alluring but isn't sacrosanct. Nor is he restrained by the shackles of ironic awareness when depicting the more kitschy aspects of Americana either.
Sheppard's impact is most apparent in the end of Paris, Texas where Travis has tracked his estranged wife to a strange exhibition parlor where she works. Wenders described the set-up as a "theme park peep show" and confessed it was created as a device for the film and not based on anything they were aware of existing in real life.
The two-way mirror featured in these scenes is an interesting device that would seem almost ludicrous if not for the way Sheppard uses it to create a very delicate exchange between Travis and Jane that is on par with anything he ever penned for the stage. That effort is more than matched by Stanton and Kinski's powerful and pitch perfect.
Moreover, Wenders, who sometimes given to excessive artistic flourish, exhibits a restraint in Paris, Texas that underscores his directorial ability. He only changes focus when necessary and that's to study the effect of the scene on the faces of his two actors. The gamut of emotions that are visible on Kinski's face as Jane realizes who the speaker is and what his strange confession means is one of the most powerful scenes in any film from that era.
Yet, the mirror isn't simply a device for the performance; the unusual setting becomes a microcosm for Travis' life. The quasi-creepy fantasy setting of each room- the pool, the hotel, the cafe - are more than just a workplace for Jane, they also suggest the ideal lives that Travis (and the viewer) believes he may be able to construct for his family. As tempting as the ideal might be it's also a carefully crafted illusion.
Because Jane's side of the mirror is starkly different - the edges of the fantasy give way to the tawdry wooden framework and exposed insulation. Maintaining the illusion in the face of such an unsightly reminder of reality becomes a heroic task doomed to eventually consume her. She knows it and she knew it when Travis tried to create it before. And so she tried to escape even as he labored to hold her.
The upshot is the introduction of the two-way mirror and the subtle way it could be used to create the exchange between Travis and Jane. But it touches on ideas much much deeper than that. Travis now knows he has to keep some sort of barrier between him and his wife lest his inner fury consume them both again.
This barrier is repeated in the glass windows of the hotel where he sees his wife and son reunited but without him. This time the drama behind the reflective glass isn't his fantasy though and that might be enough to make it bearable.
|add a comment|