By Sven Mikulec
In 1984, one film confidently rode through Cannes, sweeping prizes from all three juries at the most respected film festival in the world. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, the visually enticing road film that centers far more on emotion that action, that leans on subtlety and the inner world of its heroes, is still held in the greatest of esteems by countless film devotees around the globe. As a poetic exploration of character set against the grandiose mythological background of Western America, it’s also one of the primal reasons our love for the art of film has grown into this strong devotion that urges our to explore its depths as if on a pilgrimage of some sorts. Thirty-two years since its release, Wenders’ movie continues to amaze. Part of its power, perhaps, lies in the very implications of its oblique title, the subtle hint at its Transatlantic quality: in its core, it could be seen as a wonderful portrait of the Western mythology forged freshly and uniquely from a European perspective, and with such passion and reverence that could only come from an eye and artistic soul of a foreigner. What many people immediately associate with the film, however, is its visual identity, greatly influenced by Wenders’ expert cinematographer and long-time collaborator Robby Müller. Breathtaking shots of Texan desolate landscape, bathed in sunlight, decorated with lonesome gas stations, steaming roads that cut through the brown, dusty carpet that stretches far towards the ocean, lost people trying to find their place under the scorching sun.
The legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays the central character, accompanied by the obviously talented young Hunter Carson as his estranged seven-year-old son and the delightful Nastassja Kinski as his wife, finally given the chance to shine in all her acting strengths. The screenplay was penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and L. M. Kit Carson, who wrote a script that allows the viewers to be gently sucked in the atmosphere and swept by the power of the scarcely uttered words. Dutch master of photography Robby Müller, whose cinematography debut occurred with Wenders’ own directorial first feature Summer in the City, geniusly plays with lights and shades, setting the haunting visual tone of deep beauty and overwhelming emptiness. Allegedly shot in only four to five weeks on locations previously rigorously researched by the filmmaker, Paris, Texas has been continuously lauded over the years, with Roger Ebert simply dubbing it “true, deep and brilliant.” This practically sums it all up. Impossible to determine the path which its characters will decide to tread upon, abounding in unique people unlike all others we’ve witnessed before, Wenders’ film is the testament to the enormous but elusive ability of its main actor. “We chose Harry Dean because he is one of the few adults I know who has kept the child that’s dead in most adults with him. He has an innocence about him,” Wenders said of his lead man. The filmmaker, one of the most distinguished singular filmmaking voices of our time, called the experience of making this film a “flight all night without instruments, but this time we landed exactly where we meant to.” It seems they did. Paris, Texas is a film of extraordinary beauty and irresistibility.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: L.M. Kit Carson, Sam Shepard & Wim Wenders’ continuity screenplay for Paris, Texas [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
LIKE FLYING BLIND WITHOUT INSTRUMENTS:
ON THE TURNING POINT IN ‘PARIS, TEXAS’
The story’s about a man who turns up somewhere in the desert out of nowhere and returns to civilization. Prior to filming, we drove the length of the entire U.S.–Mexican border—more than 1,500 miles. Finally, we decided to shoot in an area called Big Bend, in the southwest of Texas. Big Bend is a national park with incredibly beautiful mountains, through which the Rio Grande flows. That’s the river the ‘wetbacks’ have to swim. As it turned out, we didn’t film there, because when we were looking over the area again from above, in a helicopter, the old pilot, a local guy, told us there was an area a little way off called the Devil’s Graveyard. This godforsaken patch of ground wasn’t even entered on our maps, and it turned out to be a gigantic, abstract dream landscape. There are no police, and most of the immigrants who swim across there just die in the desert because there’s not a drop of water anywhere in it. So that’s where we started our film; that’s where we see Travis for the first time. After he collapses with exhaustion, he’s picked up by his brother. The first place they go is a little hamlet of about twenty houses called Marathon. It has a hotel, where Walt drops Travis, and goes off to buy him some new clothes. But when Walt gets back, his brother has taken off again. The next, slightly bigger, place that Walt and Travis pass through on their way from Texas to Los Angeles is Fort Stanton, a town with a couple of thousand inhabitants. We tried to arrange the film in such a way that all sizes and types of American towns appear in it.
Actually, the smallest place of all was the gas station where Travis collapses. It was called Camellot, and we only stopped there on the recce because we thought it was a funny name. Then came Marathon, then Fort Stanton, then El Paso, which is a middle-sized town, and finally the metropolis Los Angeles. I didn’t show Los Angeles as a city but as an enormous suburb. You don’t really get to see ‘L.A.’ in the film. The only real city you see is Houston, Texas. Houston is one of my favorite cities in America. So, you see, I tried to show all kinds of towns, though of course there are also a lot of scenes that are just set in the countryside.
Actually, I was going to make a far more complex film, because I’d originally intended to drive all over America. I had it in mind to go to Alaska and then the Midwest and across to California and then down to Texas. I’d planned a real zigzag route all over America. But my scriptwriter, Sam Shepard, persuaded me not to. He said: ‘Don’t bother with all that zigzagging. You can find the whole of America in the one state of Texas.’ At the time, I didn’t know Texas all that well, but I trusted Sam. I traveled around Texas for a couple of months, and I had to agree with him. Everything I wanted to have in my film was there in Texas—America in miniature.
A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts. Sometimes it feels like flying blind without instruments. You fly all night, and in the morning you arrive somewhere. That is: you have to try to make a landing somewhere so the film can end. For me, this film has come off better than, or differently from, my previous films. Once more, we flew all night without instruments, but this time we landed exactly where we meant to. From the outset, Paris, Texas had a much straighter trajectory and a much more precise destination. And from the beginning, too, it had more of a story than my earlier films, and I wanted to tell that story till I dropped. —Wim Wenders, May 1984
An interview with L.M. Kit Carson.
What happened was, we got to the point where Harry Dean talked to Nastassja for the last time, to tell her the story of their life. He’d seen her before and sort of ran away. So Wim called Sam and said, ‘Okay, so here’s where we are, here’s what happened.’ And Sam said, ‘Okay, let me write this.’ So he wrote the speech, Harry Dean’s speech, and dictated it on the phone to the script girl, who then typed it up. Then it got to Harry Dean, who went nuts. He had to talk to Sam, he had to talk to Sam. So he talked to Sam, and Sam said, ‘Just. Say. The. Words. It’s all there.’ And it was. And it is. When we shot that scene, Harry Dean had the right to call ‘cut’ if he was fumbling. So we shot it all day long, and he kept calling ‘cut.’ And he finally got it from the beginning to the end without any break. It’s funny; it was a giant hit overseas. When it was distributed in England, the distributor printed T-shirts, and what was on the T-shirt was the speech. The whole fucking speech.” —L.M. Kit Carson
L.M. Kit Carson on the shooting of Paris, Texas.
Harry Dean Stanton talks Paris, Texas in vintage interview.
“Of the films that delineate road trips, Paris, Texas is the most scrupulous, yet it is sometimes imprecise in its geography: when Walt and Travis arrive on the outskirts of Los Angeles early in the film, they’re driving northward on Route 395 instead of the more probable eastward-bound Interstate 10. Nevertheless, this map approximates the geographic extent of Robby Müller’s U.S.-based work, which may be grouped into distinct partitions: his color films, which make frequent use of magic hour sunsets, neon-lit barrooms, and street lamps that illuminate landscapes and characters in phantasmagorical colors.” —Robby Müller in the United States, The Completist
In Paris, Texas there is that scene with Travis, the protagonist, at his brothers’ home sitting to the table with his brother, sister-in-law and their son. They have a dialogue with each other, after watching some super 8 films with each other. What strikes me in that scene is how you use at hard and soft light—the combination—I remember the shot in which you see the sister-in-law with the kitchen on the background. The light that gives this women her character, comes from the kitchen, green neon light—and that brother has been influenced the most by the hard light on the luxaflex behind him, and Travis again in a different way, dark. My point here is this: you have four characters sitting to a table and they all have their own character in terms of light and colour.
I think there are a lot of things you do—from a feeling—without thinking it through. There are big mistakes—but complete mess-ups you will not make. That you light someone green, whereas it is not the correct moment. You will correct that automatically with the story. But I cannot remember lighting them all differently.
For me the scene is very effective—every character has another contrast and atmosphere. I can imagine you don’t really think it through, but rather work on a feeling. But I find it interesting how you learn to have total trust in your intuition in a process where 40 people run around you: how you can continue doing that on set? That you remain that relaxed that you’re still able to really see?
It is a matter of organisation. Everyone around you also has to be a bit organised. That’s also true for the director. One time in the Netherlands on a Dutch film the director left his script in the shot and when I said something about it, I was yelled at. And then I said: how is it possible that you’re having a meeting at that table, that is in the shot and that I’m trying to light here? They shouted at me. That’s why I didn’t want to work here anymore.
Was there a difference with Wim Wenders—when you did Paris, Texas?
Yes, it was the beginning of our careers. He was a different guy. He doesn’t talk bullshit so much. That can be very unpleasant. And he dared to admit that he was wrong at a given moment—if he had lost.
He was honest?
Did you reflect a lot about the magic of film, concerning what a camera is and such—things like that?
Sometimes, from time to time, however… because of your interest in photography and photographs of other people.
What’s the most important difference between a good shot and a bad shot?
A good cameraman. I don’t know if that makes it worse, but it’s better if you know the ‘substance’ well and know were your general priorities are. For instance, I don’t think of money in the first place—what you will earn with this shot and you’re not going to involve things in your decision-making that have nothing to do with the story. Therefore, the more honest you are, the better. It’s the same with telling lies… the truth will always hunt you down. —Robbie Müller by Bart van Broekhoven, Netherlands Society of Cinematographers
Robby Müller on shooting Paris, Texas.
“I remember discussions I had with Robby Müller about the implications of starting a shot like a P.O.V. and then the person that’s supposedly looking enters the shot himself—yeah, not herself, it’s always himself—and we discussed the meaning of it, that strange switch of position. Most of my films are exclusively designed from somebody’s point-of-view, like for example The Goalie’s Fear, also Paris, Texas, so to break the pattern every now and then, and very rarely of course, is a sort of a mental jump. I always liked it because I think it does something to the person watching just as it does something for the character seeing from the point-of-view. It creates a strange distance all of a sudden and it turns the point-of-view from the character back to the audience, i.e. everybody who is watching the film. Every single pair of eyes that is looking at the film all of a sudden becomes the new point-of-view. The point-of-view is passed on to the audience. They first think this is what Trevor is seeing and all of a sudden it’s what they are seeing. That was always the thing I tried to do: to pass on the P.O.V. to the audience.” —Wim Wenders
Ry Cooder about his collaborations with Wim Wenders.
What is it that you find in Wim Wenders’ filmmaking, and that he finds in your music, that keeps you working together?
I think he’s a great improviser. I think you have to be in order to seize the moment and make something memorable out of it. There are those who make music and movies in a linear way: They plan them, they have a script. Of course, you have to have a script sometimes—though we didn’t here—but that alone isn’t enough. You have to be able to improvise and respond to what’s going on around you. Then you might get a good piece of work done. As far as I’m concerned, Wim is very adaptable to what’s going on. He responds in a way that I feel is compatible. I feel we have the same take on things, and I really do trust him. You have to be around people you trust; otherwise you can’t do anything—you’re afraid, you’re paranoid, and you can’t do any work. I really do believe trust has a lot to do with it. —Ry Cooder
Why do you think Paris, Texas was so successful?
It was a sound and an image that went perfectly together. The fact that Wenders had been such an arty kind of guy, European in feeling, so he has this whose first third of the film’s Harry Dean character just wandering around out there in the desert because he loved the desert. He was a good shooter, Wim, he photographed well, so it looked great. So what are you going to do out there? Try for some naturalness, some nature tone, some sort of blending of wind sounds and air sounds? It’s not going to have any fancy harmonic references or other kinds of consciousness inserted into it. It’s too little a boat. That was the thing Wenders was frightened about because he had three days to do this. He was on deadline, he had to go to Cannes festival and he had to get done. So I said, ‘Jeez, what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘Play Blind Willie Johnson, it’ll probably be okay.’ There’s nothing to it. It’s a mood, that kind of lonely sound. Trouble with guitars, though, you always picture one guy in a chair playing the guitar, you don’t want that, it’s not good, you want to evoke something spatially rather start thinking about people who are playing the instruments, that’s a no-no. but in this case, we were able to move the tone centres around pretty good, and it’s just a tone centred idea with this little guitar thing noodling along. It’s perfect for the film, it’s just great. It’s one of these rare things. We didn’t have time to think about it, didn’t have time to worry about it, just had no time but three days, get in there and get thing done so he can tear ass over to the Cannes Film Festival. But it worked pretty good. Of course, people loved the film. The film was unusual and it was on time, I think it was the times. Walter used to say to me, he used to say a lot of things, one of the things he said was ‘Timing is everything, if you’re too early it’s no good, if you’re too late it’s no good.’ You’ve got to be there with what people will respond to. That’s changing and shifting all the time, more so now than ever before. Not in a good way, either. But in those days of Paris, Texas, when that film came out it struck people as worthwhile and even important that they could identify with this character lost in this wilderness. They got something out of it. It’s a very well written film, see. —Ry Cooder
Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes discusses Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and explains how it inspired his own American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002).
WIM WENDERS: WRITTEN IN THE WEST
In late 1983, looking for the subjects and locations that would bring the desolate landscape of the American West to life for his iconic film Paris, Texas, German filmmaker Wim Wenders took his Makina Plaubel 6 x 7 camera on the road. Driving through Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, Wenders was captivated by the unique, saturated, colorful light of the vast, wild landscape of the American West—even in the 20th century, a land associated with cowboys and outlaws, and suffused with the mythology of the frontier. The series he produced, Written in the West, was first exhibited in 1986 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and first published in 2000. —Picturing Paris, Texas: A New Volume Collects Wim Wenders’s Photographs of the Town Behind the Film
Photos © Wim Wenders. Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel & D.A.P. Wim Wenders: Written in the West, Revisited is available at Amazon.
Below: Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini, Monument Valley (photographed by Wim Wenders).
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Photographed by Robin Holland © Road Movies Filmproduktion, Argos Films, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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