We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Paris, Texas, 1984
Palme d’Or – Wim Wenders
Prix du Jury Œcuménique
When Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) walks into view from the vast expanse of the desert of the American West, one instantly recognizes that Paris, Texas is not your average film.
That view was clearly shared by many when the film came to the Cannes Film Festival in 1984. This would be the coronation of director Wim Wenders on the international stage. After Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at that year’s ceremony, Wenders achieved worldwide fame and was now considered one of the foremost auteurs.
I was not alive when Paris, Texas was released, so I cannot speak personally to the way it was received at the time. However, watching it now, I cannot imagine that it has lost any of its originality. It feels today as a wholly unique creation, which is high praise for any film being viewed more than 30 years after its release.
Surely a great deal of that originality is thanks to the lead performance from the late Harry Dean Stanton. Though you often hear the physical description that someone has “the map of the world on their face” it would seem to fit for Stanton. There is so much spoken simply through his looks and subtle expressions.
This is a role that must have looked difficult on paper – Travis does not speak for the first half of the film, then his character slowly unravels throughout the second half. But Stanton absolutely knocks it out of the park. This was one of his first lead roles, and he showed the talent for which he’d come to be known.
I was also impressed by the performance from the young Hunter Carson as Travis’s son, Hunter. One scene that stands out in my mind is when Travis and Hunter are walking home from school and they begin mimicking each other as they walk. It is a touching moment in a film that runs the complete emotional gamut.
This brings me to a quote from Roger Ebert’s original review of the film in 1984 that I think is spot-on (as Ebert nearly always was).
– Roger Ebert, 1984 review of Paris, Texas
‘Paris, Texas’ is more concerned with exploring emotions than with telling a story. This isn’t a movie about missing persons, but about missing feelings.
I think that quote is so apt because, as the film begins, you may think this is a “missing persons” story. We wonder about Travis, then we wonder about his relationship to his son, then we wonder about his estranged wife. The more we learn about all these stories, the more we understand that Travis continues to be lost. The phrase “lost soul” is a cliché used to describe an assortment of lifestyles, but in the character of Travis Henderson, we see up close what a soul that has been lost really looks like.
As for the film’s technical elements, they also hold up well after so many years. The direction from Wenders is impeccable, as is the script from L.M. Kit Carson and the venerable playwright and actor, Sam Shepard. However, I think I was most touched by the memorable score from Ry Cooder. It uses the slide guitar as a moving cue into the vast, harsh landscapes that the film inhabits.
I think more than anything, this film shows that the human mind can be just as vast and harsh as the desert that Travis traverses in the film’s opening. We lose ourselves and attempt to find the person we were, but that person may be lost forever. In their place, we move forward and attempt to forge new identities. But what of the scars that remain?
Not many of us have endured the trauma of Travis’s life. Not all of us are as lost as he is. But we all know that feeling of reaching out and searching. We’ve felt the twinge of these emotions, even if we haven’t lived the full experience. It is amazing that Wenders is able to – through such a unique character as Travis – find threads that are relatable. It reminded me of another famous movie Travis – Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There, too, you had a character that should be unrelatable, yet through the way the film presents him, we find traits and threads that open up emotions and feelings to which we can all relate.
I think the film really comes into its own once we meet Travis’s ex-wife and Hunter’s mother, Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski). It is during her conversations with Travis that the full weight of the film’s emotional narrative begins to reveal itself. There are pains and emotional tremors that begin almost as a whisper but then gradually swell until we are shaken to the core by them.
Since winning the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas has continued to grow in stature. It is a testament to the power of originality and the value of a single-minded approach to story and narrative. This film never strays from its material, and it does not care for the conventional wisdom as it pertains to plot and character development. Through its use of emotion and place, a wholly unique story unravels before our very eyes.
When the film ends, you aren’t quite sure of what just happened to you. But as you move on, emotions come back to you like waves. This is a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll. It is clear that it has remained in the public consciousness long after its entry onto the worldwide stage in 1984, and it seems that it will remain in that lofty space for many years to come.