501 Paris, Texas

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Mr Sausage
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Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

#51 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 06, 2023 7:10 pm


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Re: Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

#52 Post by Sloper » Sat Feb 11, 2023 6:02 pm

I was grateful for the excuse to watch this again – I saw it many years ago when I was a teenager, and was disappointed by what I perceived as wooden acting and sentimentality. Now I think it’s very beautiful and sad, so I guess I’m a different person... The acting reminds me of how Rossellini could make seasoned actors seem like non-professionals, and draw something out of them that was both natural and unnatural, like the behaviour of ‘real’ people who feel self-conscious in front of a camera. That’s such a powerful thing to do a in a film like Paris, Texas, which reflects on the mythologising, performance, and artifice of the American identity. The apparent sentimentality is part of that as well, and it makes the (very ambiguous) bleakness of the ending all the more powerful.

The film plays on the classic American motif of what I can only describe as ‘bigness’, in ways that feel endlessly inventive and thought-provoking. Characters are framed against enormous expanses of John Ford deserts, or endless highways, or towering skyscrapers. They talk about the distant past, or the distant future, or the beginning of the universe itself. We have a constant sense of the contexts in which these people operate, the scales on which their lives play out, and the stakes of their decisions, but those contexts, scales, and stakes could be big or small – the fate of these people could be equivalent to that of the entire world, or as insignificant as a tumbleweed. A single composition can suggest both these things at the same time.

The shot that haunted me the most after the film had ended was the one where Travis is walking along a bridge, and the camera tracks with him to keep the busy carriageways behind him in more or less the same part of the shot. It’s a technique I feel like I’ve seen quite often (though I’m blanking on other examples right now) and it’s a great way to juxtapose movement with stasis, while also suggesting a gradual change in perspective. Travis is moving forwards, but also going nowhere. He is surrounded by pathways leading in various directions, but they seem inaccessible to him.

On the soundtrack, alongside the noise of the traffic – Americans circulating in their cars – we hear the voice of a man trapped in a state of delusion and rage, screaming at a world that can’t hear him and doesn’t want to. When Travis finally encounters this man on the bridge, he briefly puts his hand on the man’s back, and then keeps going. Now the camera stays still and watches Travis walk away down the remaining length of the bridge. Has this encounter with the ‘mad prophet’ liberated him and opened up new avenues of possibility, or has it underlined how inescapable his own condition is, and locked him into a path of renunciation and self-isolation?

It's this kind of visual poetry that makes the film’s treatment of ‘American Dream’ dilemmas so rich: the concept of the ‘self-made’ identity, the pioneering spirit, the conflicts between the roles of husband/wife/child and the complex individuals who have to occupy them, and the reckoning with past traumas and abuses. Maybe it helps that I’ve been suffering from an almost obsessive preoccupation with Blonde for the last four months, but there’s something really interesting here about the place of iconic images and clichés in American culture, and the way in which (as with the family roles I mentioned above) people both internalise these and hold them at one remove.

I’m obviously thinking of the peep-show scenes, but also that last detail of the billboard that says ‘Together We Make It Happen’ as Travis drives into oblivion, leaving his family (and the skyscrapers of Houston) behind him. He, Jane, and Hunter have made something happen together; but they have also each acted separately. Travis’s escape at the end means they are conspicuously not ‘together’; his abandonment of Hunter (and the content of his reminiscences about Jane) makes it hard to put much faith in the stability of the mother/son reunion; and the film has left Hunter’s more reliable, loving, American-Dream-like family behind. The billboard expresses the sincere, heart-warming emotional payoff of the ending, but it also seems ominously hollow and ironic, a cynical advertising slogan like the ‘Bank of America’ sunset in Zabriskie Point. I love it when a film makes me feel truly conflicting things and doesn’t try to resolve the conflict – maybe I didn’t love this kind of thing when I was a teenager, and that’s why the film made me so uncomfortable.

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