Paris, Texas

Wim Wenders' European take on the great American landscape

On Sunday afternoon Neil, Jennifer and I met up at Chapter Arts Centre to see a film. It was a bright sunny day and the air was warm: perfect weather for a cold glass of beer. Neil (being Neil) opted for a hot cup of coffee. We sat around the table for about forty to forty-five minutes, shooting the breeze with idle banter. I guess you could call it a catch-up chat.

We had decided to catch a screening of Paris, Texas that afternoon, shown as part of a Wim Wenders season of films. The British Film Institute has been touring the UK with a print of Alice in the Cities (of which there is a new DVD in the pipeline), and Chapter had seized the opportunity to bring out the big guns. Wim Wenders is a director who often draws strong opinions: for many his sometimes esoteric style can come across as precious and self-indulgent, and even his fans have reservations regarding certain parts of his career. But Wenders has made one or two films on which there is an unreserved consensus, and an enthusiastic following: one of those films is Paris, Texas.

What struck me most directly about Paris, Texas was the soundtrack coupled with the film's cinematography. Wenders has a foreigner's eye for detail, and seems to revel in American iconography; whether we are looking at a desert landscape, a road-side motel, or a dollar bill, Wenders is committed to an almost mythological image of what America is or could be. The landscapes are vast, the roads are long, and the neon burns brightly in the rain. Every turn feels full of hope and possibility, and there is something innately attractive about this. It's an exciting and liberating vision of America seen by a stranger in a strange land.

Ry Cooder's acoustic score is a solo performance, modifying a theme by blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson to bring mystery and intrigue to the American landscape. Against the backdrop of the desert it sounds like an epic score, but when played against the emotional development of the characters it sounds sensitive and intimate. The score is always the same, and yet always different, and Cooder constantly develops it using dozens of almost imperceptible variations. It is a contribution that has a lasting impact. (I've been listening to the soundtrack all week.)

After the film Jennifer made a few comments about the geographical layout of some of the locations featured in the film. Hills and roads and airports are misplaced and rearranged in a way that would distract and baffle anyone familiar with the shooting locations. But of course, it's common Hollywood practice to shoot locations in a way that serves the narrative, rather than serving the truth. After all, Wenders is a filmmaker and not a cartographer. So it comes as perhaps no big surprise that there are spacial inaccuracies in Paris, Texas, and that when taken literally the mise-en-scene leads characters through places that do not exist, and that never will.

But I can't help thinking that Jennifer's observation is an interesting one, and it's probably central to my appreciation of the film as a whole. There are a number of characters in Wenders' films that wander through the narrative like empty signifiers: they're strangers for us to identify with, on whom we can imbue the meanings and preoccupations that are important to us. In Alice in the Cities there is the German journalist struggling to navigate the American landscape, in Paris, Texas it is Travis that catches the audience's eye. Although he does not speak for the first major scenes of the film, it is him we are drawn to identify with, and it is through him that we begin to see and understand his strange all-American world.

After wandering America alone for four years, and finally being found by his brother, Travis' first word is 'Paris'. And it's an interesting choice. Not only is Paris a specific place that many are familiar with, but it carries a whole host of popular assumptions rooted in a European sensibility of what is considered romantic or idealistic. Of course, the audience's understanding of the word is already tempered by the title of the film, Paris, Texas, which lends an interpretation adverse to what one might expect. Instead of a preconceived romantic image, we remain rooted to America. And so instead of an idealistic fantasy we are perhaps led more towards the grounded and mundane realities of the American south.

But the title: Paris, Texas. It has a two-pronged effect. On the one hand it takes something romantic and normalizes it; on the other hand, it takes something mundane and romanticizes it. To come back to Jennifer's observation that Wenders presents a false picture of the American landscape, his vision is his own creation - the perspective of an outsider. Wim Wenders' vision of America is not simply rooted in the real or the mundane, but in the ideal and the romantic. And for me, that's what makes Paris, Texas such a compelling film.