Who is that walking man? Travis (Harry Dean Stanton in his best role) emerges from the vast Texan desert, to the haunting strains of Ry Cooder's slide guitar. Instantly the possibility of a story seizes us: where did he come from, where is he going?
It turns out that Travis is still fleeing a catastrophic family breakdown that left a wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who has also since disappeared, and a young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), in the care of Travis' brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell).
Travis does not want to stop walking. Walt and others slowly bring him back to language, to sociability, to a remembrance of home and belonging. But nothing will be right until Travis finds Jane and, in a twenty-minute sequence set on either side of a window in a sex parlour, tells her his story.
Wim Wenders here made one of the archetypal films of the '80s. His European, aesthetic vision – carried most powerfully by the landscape cinematography of Robby Mueller – meshed perfectly with the American sensibility of writer Sam Shepard.
Paris, Texas is an affecting film about Otherness, about a man who cannot fit into the Symbolic Order of society. In the course of his tentative re-entry into civilisation, he naturally bonds with other outsiders, such as a Latin American maid who teaches him eccentric lessons in dress and manners, and especially his own son, with whom he shares a childlike rapport (the scene in which he tails the boy on his way home from school and entrances him with a succession of 'funny walks' on the opposite pavement is particularly touching).
This was a pivotal film for Wenders in many respects. Just as Travis negotiates gingerly his relationship with society, Wenders was slowly coming to terms with the act of storytelling in cinema – an obligation he had hitherto suspended in the wandering, episodic era of his German-language Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976). And he was also bringing himself to contemplate traditional values of marriage, family, community. For some, he subsequently went too far in his embrace of both conventional cinema and traditional values.
But Paris, Texas (like Wings of Desire, 1987) captures the best of both phases in Wenders' career: both the longing for home and the recognition of a difficult, modern alienation from it – caught most poignantly in the shots of Travis gazing at his home movies.
© Adrian Martin April 2003