Cinephilia: Wim Wenders retrospective features Paris, Texas

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With the upcoming release of Everything Will Be Fine, Wim Wenders’ latest film starring Rachel McAdams and James Franco, The Cinematheque is presenting a retrospective of this important filmmaker’s nearly 50-year career, showcasing 14 of his features and a collection of his experimental short films.

Along with contemporaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, Wenders was at the forefront of the New German Cinema — arguably the most influential filmic movement of the ’70s. Fassbinder’s The Marriage Of Maria Braun, for example, tackled the effects of America’s cultural influence in West Germany.

Wenders has previously focused on the effects of American influence on his home country in The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, and the alienation outsiders feel within the US in Alice and the Cities; here, though, he shifts his gaze towards the isolation that Americans may experience within their own country in Paris, Texas. Wenders’ masterpiece of cinematic storytelling and character-driven empathy is a mythical introspection into American identity from the perspective of an indigenous outsider who clings onto the past.

Dressed in a suit, tie, and ball cap while covered head to toe with dust, an everyman stands amidst the expanse of a Texas desert. For a brief moment he stops to take his final sip of water before continuing his trek towards the infinite horizon. When the man is picked up by his brother, he can’t speak. An empty vessel, a nameless cypher with no memories, a Biblical figure wandering the desert looking for the Promised Land. We instantly speculate: “Who is this man, and where is he going?”

Paris, Texas is about this man becoming someone and going somewhere. The man’s name, Travis, contains many connotations — an allusion to the defender of the Alamo and also the protagonist of Taxi Driver. Inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers, there is a mythical feel of Western movies that permeates most frames of Paris, Texas. The film is about Travis’ attempt to grab onto old myths in a milieu of evolving Americana.

Travis’ brother Walt is well-adjusted in this new city landscape where cowboy boots have been replaced with dress shoes and the vast expanse of the desert has become crowded by skyscrapers. Attempting to cling to the old ways, there is a telling moment where Travis asks to trade his shoes for a pair of older cowboy boots that Walt never wears.

What is as striking as it was 30 years ago is Wenders’ ability to meticulously express emotions, themes, and symbols through compositions and editing — the way he frames the space and organizes it through cuts (a famous scene where Travis talks to his ex-wife divided by a pane of glass is unforgettable). Written by the talented actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and remains one of the greatest films ever made. 

The title, a juxtaposition that borders on oxymoron, is not just a clever indication of Wenders’ European perspective on American identity, and thus a progression of his work in the New German Cinema — it also plays an important role in the film’s thematic development. Travis tells us that the small, nowhere town of Paris, Texas is where his parents conceived him. Tellingly, we never see the begotten, old, western town. It remains an archaic ideal that Travis holds onto — like an old Germany untainted by American imperialism.