Director Nico Pimparé reflects on one of the least known works of one of Monkhead’s favourite playwrights – Paris, Texas, written by the late great Sam Shepard – and probes the depths of his murky soul to figure out why it’s the only film to ever make him cry…
Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, is the only film that has ever made me cry. Yes, that includes all of my childhood. And believe me, I’ve tried: I watch movies drunk, sober, on a cinema screen, huddled in my bed, in the morning, in the evening, at night, alone, with people… When it happened, I was sitting at my desk in my student bedroom, early on a Saturday afternoon, hungover, curtains closed.
Since then, I’ve pretty much bulldozed through both Wim Wenders’ and Sam Shepard’s bodies of work, desperately looking for the same catharsis, but I haven’t quite found it. It might just have been because it was my first time with Wim and Sam, but I think there’s more to it. In the light of Sam Shepard’s death two months ago I thought I’d revisit the only film that ever made me cry.
I first watched Paris, Texas because someone had put it in my downloads folder and I liked the title. It’s hard to conceive of two more diametrically opposite locations: Paris, Texas. It has an oxymoronic zing to it reminiscent of the Russian greats: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons… And what makes Paris, Texas a masterpiece is, in fact, a juxtaposition: Sam’s harshness and Wim’s softness complementing each other brilliantly through their contradictions. Sweet and sour sauce. Cold vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate cake. Paris and Texas.
Actually, it turns out that Paris is (in real life) the name of a small city in Texas a hundred miles northwest of Dallas – a sort of self-professed oxymoronic geographical location. Fun fact: yes, the city of Paris, Texas does have a 70 ft replica of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1993.
In the film, Paris is talked about but never visited. Travis, the main character, has bought a piece of land there. The closest he gets to explaining why is during a drunken conversation he has with his seven year old son, where the city feels like a symbol for the tension between what one wants to be and what one is.
Don’t just read the script, watch the video! This scene is a masterclass in directing: the pace, the stark red and black colours , the singular light bulb above Travis’ head, Hunter’s position which makes him look down at his father, the desolate ‘white-noise’ soundscape of the laundromat they are in, the painful guitar slide in the background… the list is endless… and all these detailed touches simultaneously bring out the pathos and the beauty of the text.
[Here Travis talks to his son about his mother and father]
TRAVIS: She was just plain. Just plain good. She was very good. But my Daddy– See, my Daddy had, uh– He had this idea– he had this idea in his head that was kind of– kind of– kind of a sickness.
HUNTER: What idea?
TRAVIS: He had this idea about her… And… He looked at her… but he didn’t see her. He — He saw this idea. And he told people that she was from Paris. It was a big joke. But he started telling everybody all the time and finally it wasn’t a joke anymore. He st– He started believing it. And he actually believed it. And she — Oh, God.She would get so embarrassed. She — She was so — She was so shy.
But let’s fill you in a little. The film follows Travis’ rebirth and rediscovery of the world after four years of wandering aimlessly through the desert – a bit of an atypical ‘coming of age’ story.
Now, anyone familiar with Wim Wenders’ work as a director will know that he is obsessed with the confrontation between the harsh realities of the world and the idealised romantic gaze of children. In Alice and the Cities, a nine-year-old girl is left to her own devices as her mother leaves her in the care of a complete stranger. In Wings of Desire, an immortal angel longs to “be born” as a mortal.
In the idealised Romantic sense, a child (or angel) has not been through the hardships of love, grief or even material subsistence. A child has not experienced the fear of death. A child is Adam, sitting in the garden of Eden, with apples hanging above his head. That makes for beautiful, contemplative movies. Some of my favourite movies. But not quite crying material.
In Paris, Texas, there’s something more. Travis is at once child and old man. He has eaten the apple and regurgitated it – but he knows both the taste of the apple and of the vomit. When we meet Travis, in the very first scene, he has been walking aimlessly through the desert for four years. At the end of the movie, we discover that Travis’ mad escape from civilisation was the result of shock at the violence of his own passions. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but you can get a cheeky taste of the kind of trauma he went through by reading this quote:
“And when he woke up, he was on fire. There were blue flames burning the sheets of his bed. He ran through the flames toward the only two people he loved but they were gone. His arms were burning, and he threw himself outside and rolled on the wet ground. Then he ran. He never looked back at the fire. He just ran. He ran until the sun came up and he couldn’t run any further. And when the sun went down, he ran again. For five days he ran like this, until every sign of man had disappeared.”
Like in a lot of Sam Shepard’s work, the character’s deep emotional trauma comes from powerlessness in the face of his own instinctive desires and behaviour. As he wakes up in his flaming bed, he knows that within him lives a man who has committed atrocities. His conscious mind cannot cope with the frightening expression of his subconscious drives.
And haven’t we all felt that? How many times have I woken up cringing and covering my head with my blanket, hoping that my body would melt into the bed and emerge in a parallel universe? A universe in which I never humiliate myself. A universe where my actions reflect the moral and ethical cleanliness that I expect of myself. A universe, in other words, where I am not myself. And the worst thing is that even if I could go back in time and eliminate last night’s wrongdoing, nothing would be solved: I would be left with the knowledge that there is a humiliating or dark part of myself that not only exists but is also prone to express itself.
So Travis, who, by the way, has gone through a much more painful experience than I have ever, does the only thing he can do. He walks. In the desert. For four years. And here is what he looks like after those four years, when we meet him in the movie’s opening scene:
Looks more like a child than a wise old man, right? A kid with a red cap, a jerrican of water and an old withered body. He has shed all semblance of civilisation. He has lost the ability to speak. In his naive and contemplative gaze we see a child’s furiously active brain constantly trying to integrate and make sense of the signals that he receives from the world. He is truly a man reborn, a phoenix, straight out of the womb of the desert. ‘The other’ in him had become so difficult to cope with that he has had to wipe the disc and start all over again. He has taken a journey back in time to the moment before shit got messy. In Freudian terms, it is the purest realisation of the death drive – the subconscious drive for destruction and oblivion fuelled by the desire to go back to the moment just before birth, when everything was simpler. Travis has gone through a suicide of his civilised self.
So that’s what brought my eighteen year-old self to tears. On the one hand, the childlike gaze of Wim Wenders – his subtle and soft orchestration of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack and Robby Muller’s shots. On the other hand, the wisdom and pain of Sam Shepard’s characters – capable of great violence and great regret. Together, they’ve made a film about the unbearable pain of being an adult, the awful knowledge of what you’ve done, and what you could do.