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With: Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, John Lurie
Written by: Sam Shepard, L.M. Kit Carson
Directed by: Wim Wenders
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 147
Date: 19/05/1984

Paris, Texas (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Desert Road

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The three major figures of the German New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s took three completely divergent paths. Rainer Werner Fassbinder remained determinedly local and burned out quickly, dying at the age of 37 after pumping out more than 40 films in 15 years. Werner Herzog became interested in issues of man versus nature, and often ventured out into uncomfortable sections of the world. And Wim Wenders became fascinated by America, and especially the open road that connected all the various people and places within. A good number of his movies deal with characters that travel from one place to another, especially the three-hour Kings of the Road (1976), which is sadly absent from DVD. Happily, his best-known and best-loved road movie Paris, Texas (1984) has just been re-issued in a beautiful Criterion Collection edition, available on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

The movie starts with an iconic image. Harry Dean Stanton -- himself a 40-mile stretch of bad road -- wanders out of the desert wearing a dirty suit and baseball cap and carrying a nearly empty bottle of water. His name is Travis Henderson, and though he has apparently been lost for five years, the movie never lets on as to where he might have been. He staggers into a little Texas town, and the local doctor contacts Travis' brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), who dutifully flies in from Los Angeles, rents a car and comes to pick up his wayward brother. Walt lives with his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) and the two of them have been raising Travis' son Hunter (Hunter Carson) for the past five years. It goes without saying that they have become attached to the child and they begin to worry that Travis will take him away.

Travis, meanwhile, remains elusive and aloof, not sleeping, speaking very little; his mind is as far away as his body has been. And it turns out that living in a house, in the suburbs doesn't really suit him. He soon gets the idea to travel back to Texas to find his former wife, Hunter's mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski). Hunter asks to go, too, and they hit the road together. Where he finds her provides the movie's second iconic image. She works in a sex emporium, providing fantasies for anonymous men from behind a pane of glass. Travis finds her there, and poses as one of her customers, speaking to her over a telephone and through the glass. It's an amazing image, almost completely the opposite of the opener, even if the characters in the scene are just as lost and disconnected -- and without identity -- as that first scene. For Travis, the constant forward motion of the road is the only point; any type of stopping or resting is the equivalent of death.

Paris, Texas is that rare thing: a movie of intelligence and beauty and poetry, but also based on emotionally believable characters and a forward-moving, narrative thrust. You can watch it for its fascinating, moving story, or you can read between the lines and find something more profound. It's definitely something of a hipster movie (it even has John Lurie in a small role), but one with its heart on the line, and not cynical or snarky or guarded. Twenty-five years on and it's beginning to seem more like a timeless work, so good that it might have even coaxed Fassbinder to come to America.

The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD set comes with a new digital transfer supervised and approved by Wenders, and a director's commentary track. The second disc features tons of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage and photos, both new and vintage, including excerpts from documentaries and TV shows of the time, and even an interview with the great Claire Denis, who worked on the film as an assistant director. Other interviewees include Samuel Fuller, Patricia Highsmith, Stanton, Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Peter Falk, cinematographer Robby Muller and composer Ry Cooder. The thick liner notes booklet comes with an essay by critic Nick Roddick and interviews with writer Sam Shepard, Kinski, Stanton and Stockwell and notes by Wenders.

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