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It's not a stretch—at all—to declare that Wim Wenders' Palme d'Or-winning Paris, Texas (1984) is one of the great movies of the 1980s and one of the great movies about America. It declares its scope from the beginning: Ry Cooder's iconic twanging guitar soundtracks the camera's curious pan over the buttes and scorched sand of the Texas desert, settling on a man in a red baseball cap, walking along, a speck of dust. It cuts to a hawk looking hungrily his way. The camera goes back to the figure, and he stops, taking a swig from a nearly empty water bottle. We get our first sight of the man, and he is a wreck; his eyes are both pained and vacant, his suitjacket, tie, and baseball cap worn and dusty. This wanderer is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and he is lost in America. Searching for more water, he comes across a West Texas outpost of beer and gas and a pool table, and starts eating the ice chips out of the icebox. As he collapses on the ground, the proprietor says, "What the hell?" and our story begins.
Paris, Texas, is a collaboration between Wim Wenders and cowboy playwright Sam Shepard, and it casts a rare spell. Putting Shepard's worries—about masculinity and loneliness and myth—alongside Wenders' winding drifts down the highway and towards connection, the film is elliptical enough to inspire a variety of interpretations. Is it a riff on the John Wayne classic The Searchers? On Yasuijiro Ozu's Floating Weeds? Is Travis a spiritual figure? Is it simply about men who can't communicate, or the many ways in which people can't communicate? Whatever your interpretation may be, you will find poetry and humanity in the film, whether it's the American vistas (photographed lovingly, in lurid neon reds and greens, by cinematographer Robby Müller), or the way that Travis tentatively finds his family again: his brother (Dean Stockwell), his son (Hunter Carson), and his wife (Nastassja Kinski).
Travis is not always making the best decisions, but he is trying, haltingly, to become a person. Pairing that central mystery—what actions make us human? how do we find a place in the world?—with Wenders' inspired eye and record for a lonely America, loaded with idiosyncrasies that are doomed to be fading into the past, leave us with a work of art that remains mysterious, beautiful, and loaded with meaning. Best of all, it's a film to age with; its mysteries grow richer with time.
The funny thing about the new Criterion edition of Paris, Texas, is that the abundant extras reveal a secret: the film was a bit of a happy accident. Wenders had started a script based on Shepard's book Motel Chronicles (a collection of autobiographical short stories, poems, and rants), but they decided to scrap that and start from scratch. The result: Travis in the desert, collapsing and reuniting with his brother, sister-in-law, and his long-lost son. According to Wenders, Shepard also had the last part—the extraordinary monologues between Travis and his long lost wife Jane—written. They had to figure out, however, how to get from point A to point B.
That's just one of the facts you can pick up from the film-school "how'd they do that?" of Wenders' commentary. First off, you have to be alert to listen to it: the combination of Wenders' soothing, sonorous, German-accented murmur and the amazing visuals are, frankly, a recipe for a glorious nap. That said, Wenders' commentary is like having him as a professor. He tells about how they set up certain shots, what effects they were going for with the lighting, where the script came from, and how it evolved as they shot the film.
What the DVD extras do a magnificent job of is capturing the essence of the film and how it came to be. Excerpts from a 1990 Wenders documentary, Motion and Emotion, feature Dennis Hopper, a hilariously candid Stanton, photographed smoking and sitting Indian-style on a bed (on working with child actor Carson: "I was about to tell the kid to fuck off, because I don't talk down to children." Somebody, somewhere, please give this man a one-man show or Oscar vehicle. He is an American treasure.), Cooder, Peter Falk, writer Patricia Highsmith, and more on Wenders' filmography. Wenders is interviewed wearing cool-guy sunglasses the whole time.
There are also two separate interviews with Wenders, deleted scenes (which show that John Lurie initially had a bigger role), a gallery of Wenders' location-scouting photos through America (he is an evocative photographer), and an extended glimpse at the Super 8 "home movies," which are seen in glimpses in the film. They're a fine argument for the nostalgic beauty of Super 8.
One of the more interesting features are two interviews with successful directors in their own right, France's Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, Beau Travail) and MacArthur "genius" Grant winner Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging, Grace of My Heart). (The difference between the two directors' IMDB pages in the last decade says a lot about the difference between Europe and America for independent female directors.) Denis was 36 when she worked as First Assistant Director on Paris, Texas, and she talks about the random places in Texas where they ended up shooting. (Bob Dylan was supposed to do the music at one point!) She has precious insights on the actors: "Harry Dean is not a guy who's screaming with joy when he's happy. He looks anxious and ready to bite."
Anders, fresh out of college, was a production assistant. Anders' story is a gripping tale of moxie and persistence: she had been sending mix tapes and writing fan letters to Wenders while she was in film school. Eventually, he made an appearance at her college, asking to see her student film, and she insisted that she was going to work on Paris, Texas. She also proved helpful to Stanton—Denis claims she "tamed" him—sharing her teenage journals from a time in her life when she was catatonic, in order to help him understand Travis' silence. She kept copious journals about her time on the set. Both directors provide fresh and fascinating anecdotes on how the film came together—and Anders, in particular, is fascinating.
Taken as a whole, the DVD makes a case for Wenders as a great director, with limits. He has done two works that are deathless—this film and Wings of Desire. When Wenders is paired with a great writer (Shepard, Peter Handke), he is one of cinema's true poets of location—of bombed-out cities and the Texas desert—and this DVD is a fascinating glimpse into the work and guiding serendipity that leads to a profound result.