Judge Paul Corupe once visited Paris, Texas hoping he'd find some fine French pastries. All he found was some stale Krispy Kremes at a gas station.
"I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice."—Jane (Nastassja Kinski)
It may be a German-French co-production by pedigree, but for most cineastes, Paris, Texas has earned a privileged place as one of the most preeminent American films of the 1980s. A collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and German new wave hero Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas is an intensely cinematic and disarming film about rebuilding from the mistakes of the past. Tapping deeply into an idealized American mythos, the film has proven itself a success with both audiences and critics alike, and even nabbed the coveted Palme D'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.
Paris, Texas has been conspicuously absent on DVD ever since the debut of the format, but Fox has finally made up for their previous omission with a new authoritative edition of to this essential film.
Facts of the Case
Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, Repo Man) has been missing for four years when he is discovered wandering the Texas desert in a feverish daze. At the local hospital, the doctor contacts his brother in California, Walt (Dean Stockwell, Blue Velvet), to come and rescue him. "We thought you were dead," says Walt, on arriving. Ever since Travis's wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski, Cat People) vanished too, Walt and Anne (Aurore Clßment, Apocalypse Now Redux) have been raising the couple's eight-year-old son Hunter (Hunter Carson, Invaders from Mars) as their own. Now, Walt now plans to reunite biological father and son, even though he doesn't want to lose Hunter himself. Wracked by amnesia and obsessive compulsive behavior, at first Travis is unable to reconnect with his child, but Hunter is eventually charmed by Travis's eccentric behavior. On Hunter's behest, they decide to head off to Houston in search of Jane in an attempt to reestablish their lives together.
Paris, Texas easily ranks among Wenders's best and most affecting works. A true intersection of Shepard's story of human alienation with Wenders's almost poetic vision of American physical and cultural landscape, the film is a wonderfully bittersweet story of hope that avoids the trappings of self-indulgent quirkiness and overwrought Hollywood sentimentality. This is cinema stripped to its barest form—just a simple, straightforward story, brought to the screen with exceptional skill.
Critics have spilled much ink comparing Paris, Texas to The Searchers, John Ford's classic western that has John Wayne seeking out his kidnapped niece, but this film does more than just reinvent the western for a modern audience. Travis's unspoken history casts him as an anonymous figure that clearly echoes the dusty heroes of cowboy films, but Shepard keeps the mystery of the broken family's past front and center, and the story is ultimately about redemption, not righteousness. Shepard seems primarily concerned with the power of human communication to build and destroy relationships, as Travis refuses to speak to anyone until Walt takes him on the road to California. Dialogue between the two brothers is strikingly meager at first, but Travis grows more talkative as he continues on his journey, which allows him to finally connect with Hunter. Ultimately, the film ends with some of Shepard's finest writing, an exchange of lengthy, powerful monologues that reveals the emotional depth of all that has gone before it.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton proves he is equally adept at handling lead roles, with perhaps his most empathetic character ever. As Travis, he's simply amazing as the broken man trying to reach beyond the fog of his memory loss to his past life. Dean Stockwell is often overlooked in his portrayal of Walt, but he has a difficult job here, playing off Travis's mute determination, and he succeeds admirably. As this is a European co-production, Nastassja Kinski and Aurore Clßment head up the international portion of the cast, but they're surprisingly believable in their roles, and do not hamper the distinctly American preoccupations of the film. Even the young Hunter Carson delivers a natural, believable performance as the affected son.
If the plot seems sparse and the acting a triumph of understatement, it is the film's images that speak volumes. Frequent Wenders collaborator Robby Müller's cinematography captures a sentimental portrait of the American landscape that finds beauty in dingy sex booths and the garish signage of roadside diners and motels. Again recalling Ford's westerns, special emphasis is given to the vastness of the desert and brilliant blue skies, which slowly give way to scenes of equally sprawling cities, a distinct reflection of the plot's own well-worn spaciousness. Much of the film's distinctive look has to do with the creative lighting techniques, and there are some sublime moments in which scenes are saturated with hazy greens and brilliant oranges. Highlighting Wenders's idealized America, Müller's transcendent camerawork gives the narrative much of its emotional punch.
Working in tandem with the cinematography, Ry Cooder's sparse acoustic guitar soundtrack weaves a spell of nostalgic loneliness. Using Blind Willie Johnson's melancholy slide guitar weeper "Dark Was the Night" as a jumping off point for his main theme, Cooder further drenches the film in down-home earthiness. Although the bluesy string-bending can come off a tad overdramatic in some sequences, the score for Paris, Texas represents one of Cooder's finest achievements.
Paris, Texas is beautifully presented on Fox's new DVD. The crystal-clear anamorphic image is nothing short of striking, with brilliant, strong colors and not a speck of dirt or digital artifact to be seen. Simply gorgeous. Paris, Texas is first and foremost a dialogue driven film, but the included 5.1 soundtrack is rich and alive, highlighting Cooder's score. Quite simply, this DVD blows the full screen R2 DVD and the old VHS release completely out of the water, and should be a revelation for fans of the film's haunting cinematography.
Not only does Paris, Texas look great on this disc, but it also packs some impressive extras. Although a little dry and on the technical side, Wenders's scene-specific commentary manages to make it through the film's epic-length running time with only a few pauses. He's obviously proud of Paris, Texas, and his reminisces make for an interesting track. Also featured on this disc are 20 minutes of deleted scenes, often complete with clapper, which are again available with or without commentary from Wenders. Mostly, these are just additional dialogue scenes that wouldn't have really added much to the story. Rounding out the DVD is a still gallery, a theatrical trailer, and an inessential few minutes of footage of Nastassja Kinski arriving at Cannes.
At almost two and a half hours, Paris, Texas saunters along with the same lackadaisical pace as its protagonist. While some may find Wenders's intentionally unhurried pace a little tiresome, like Travis, the film is headed toward a specific destination, and gets there with single-minded determination—eventually. At almost two and a half hours, watching this simple series of road trips from Texas to California and back again is almost a journey in itself, but with scenery this beautiful, you won't mind a bit.
Not only has Fox has wrapped up this landmark film with excellent image and sound quality and a good selection of extras, but they've managed to do it for about $10. While Paris, Texas is an easy recommend on DVD, the wallet-pleasing price tag is definitely a deal-clincher. This DVD should not be passed up, even as a blind buy.
Paris, Texas is free to go, and may wander the vastness of the desert for as long as it wants.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Wim Wenders
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