The greatest #3: Paris, Texas
I've never seen a blue as blue as the ones in Paris, Texas. Stretched across Technicolor skies, painting the ephemera of road signs, coloring in the getaway car that skirts down desolate highways, the blues in this film are kinetic, overwhelming, hypnotic, alive. From the opening frames, which find a disoriented, disheveled Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) stumbling across the desert, they hypercharge the scenery with an almost shocking beauty. And yet blue is simply one shade in Wim Wenders' palette, which also worships red and green as if they were just invented.
It's fitting that our protagonist Travis starts out mute, as if he's just sharing my wordless reverence for Robby Müller's cinematography. Every shot Müller captures is so stunningly exact—the white clapboard houses dotting the sandy landscape, the lineup of shoes above a sunlit vista, the Houston hotel room at night, anything involving Nastassja Kinski—that his work could just as easily be a series of photographs. At times, the languorous pace even suggests that medium, as the camera drifts in and freezes on another gorgeous target.
But while the visuals are undoubtedly my favorite aspect of Paris, Texas, the film has much more to offer. Ry Cooder's steel-guitar score echoes the characters' abiding loneliness and Sam Shepard's spare script (via a Kit Carson adaption) delivers a weighty subtextual punch. Stanton as the drifter suddenly no longer adrift, Kinski as his estranged bride Jane, Hunter Carson as their son Hunter, and Dean Stockwell as Travis's brother Walt all provide terrific performances as well, raising the stakes on a film already steeped in pathos.
The roles are especially difficult because the characters all have such fractured relationships. For example, Travis's unexplained reappearance after four years means that his eight-year-old son now has to choose between staying put with his old family and uprooting for an untested one. Travis, in his renewed search for his wife, has to deal with the messy circumstances he discovers her in. Like the dingy roadside signs, sparse rest stops and existentially blank stretches of mile they pass by, these people can't help traveling in their own isolated orbits. (This is even made literal in one scene where Hunter and Travis walk home on opposite sides of the same street.)
Still, for all of Paris, Texas's allegorical proportions and distancing effects, its moments of connection are genuinely affecting. The Henderson family reunion is not as happy or simple as we'd like it to be, but it feels real given the traumas involved. It's also pretty amazing to look at, with Kinski saturated in luscious reds and Stanton hunched over, barely visible in the shadows. A different vantage point betrays the illusion; she's actually sitting on a set that's only half-built. As they catch up through a one-way mirror, Stanton's face superimposes onto her head, creating a very creepy juxtaposition. But it's also a shot that's unforgettable, heavy with meaning and full of blues, much like Paris, Texas as a whole.
* MP3: "Canción Mixteca" - Ry Cooder from the Paris, Texas soundtrack [Buy it]
* MP3: "Paris Is Burning" - St. Vincent [Visit her]