Paris, Texas (1984): Wim Wenders Cannes Fest Winner, Starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski

The main character of Wim Wenders’ brilliant “Paris, Texas,” Travis, (Harry Dean Stanton) shares this desert experience through his journey in the film. He first appears on a speck of screen space amidst the rocks and plateaus of an uninhabited wasteland desert.

Many critics see Travis’s journey through the film as a metaphor for Wenders¬ís own journey through the abyss that eventually led him to his dedication to storytelling.

The unobstructed vision, and the lack of any recognizable landmarks in the desert sequence establish the desert as ‘the realm of the image’ in the beginning of the film, whereas the ending, a heavily-worded sequence, signifies Wenders’ shift into the realm of story.

In the still, oppressive heat and the unobstructed space of the desert opening, Travis walks on until finally returning to some sort of civilization: a rundown roadside gas station rest stop, where he subsequently collapses. From his definitive gait in these first wide shots, Wenders shows us that we will only find out later in the narrative. The scholars Kolker and Beicken have explained, “Travis emerges with a clear understanding of complicity, guilt, and the necessity of taking definitive action¬í that will place him ¬ëon the edge of closeness and separation.”

Throughout the movie, Travis’ attempts to reintegrate himself into society are marked by his space in the frame, where the compositions reveal the singleness and seriousness of his situation. When his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) comes to Texas to pick Travis up, Travis refuses to sit in the front seat with Walt, and instead is separated from his brother, the messenger of civilization, by sitting in the back seat.

Even when he returns to Los Angeles with Walt, he is repeatedly seen “on the outside,” or separated from society and the other characters in the frame. He washes dishes in the kitchen, framed from the outside behind a window. In another scene, Walt’s wife, Ann (Aurore Clement), is making the sofa into a bed for Travis in the living room. The frame separates the living room with the sofa, Walt, and Ann, from Travis, standing in the hallway, by a hallway wall between them. Travis is standing on the steps, facing the wall, while on the other side of it are Walt and Ann, facing away from the wall and towards the sofa. When Travis finally crosses to the other side of the frame, into the family and community of the others, Ann and Walt immediately leave the scene.

Wenders’ separation of Travis from others places him perpetually in the loneliness of the desert in which we first found him. As the camera gives “itself completely and wholly to its subject,” as Nathaniel Dorsky suggests is the nature of devotional cinema, the audience develops an empathetic affinity to Travis, which allows them to see beyond what is on the screen, “directly to the heart of the object.”

The heart of the object, the spiritual center, surpasses the act of seeing and takes the viewer beyond vision. And this ‘insight’ allows for a personal journey–Travis¬í journey–a journey of solitude through the desert. For Wenders, solitude in the desert allows for a whole new way of seeing, as he explains in the foreword to his 1982 collection of photographs, Written in the West: “Solitude and taking photographs are connected in an important way. If you aren’t alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking. There’s a distinct kind of satisfaction that you get from looking and traveling alone, and it’s connected with this relation of solitude to photography.”

The meditative solitude of which Wenders speaks permeates Travis’ journey, as well as the audience¬ís journey, from their seats in the darkened theatre, from the wilderness of separation back to repentance and, in a way, reconciliation. It is only through this first journey of vision, both Travis’ and the audience, that we are allowed participation in the language of forgiveness, for “each image has a truth only in relation to the character of its story.”

First, Travis re-introduces himself to his son, who eventually grows to accept him, and then he ultimately seeks to mend the relationship between his wife and his son. During the story, Travis must take the long way across the desert to overcome its hardships, a journey Wenders takes us on through the images of the harsh desert landscapes and the wide shots through which his characters move.

At the beginning of his road trip with his son Hunter, the two are framed in Travis’ car, beneath four merging freeway interchanges. This is the first time Travis is framed in a two-shot: “Several roads meet, symbolizing the blending of chaotic with resolute movement through this space, and the fact that a decision is made here that will decide the shape of the future for the protagonists.”

In the climactic sequence within the peep-show parlor where Travis finds his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) working, Wenders first demonstrates the transformative power of sight through the composition, but also finally takes a definitive step in his journey towards a cinema of story and language. Travis sits on one side of a glass window, separated from Jane, who is captured inside the demeaning parlor walls as an object to be looked upon. The lights are positioned both in Jane’s box and in Travis’ viewing area such that Travis can see Jane inside her world, but Jane is refused entrance into Travis’s; she can only see a reflection of herself in the glass.

Dorsky reflects on the nature of cinema itself to create this non-reflective separation, this immersion into the world of seeing, which precedes meditation and reflection in the afterglow of devotional cinema: “We sit in darkness and watch an illuminated world, the world of the screen. This situation is a metaphor for the nature of our own vision. In the very process of seeing, our own skull is like a dark theatre, and the world we see in front of us is in a sense a screen. Film, insofar as it replicates our experience of vision, presents us with the tools to touch on and elucidate that experience. Viewing a film has tremendous mystical implications; it can be, at its best, a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable. This respect for the ineffable is an essential aspect of devotion.”

But as Travis first begins to speak, he unlocks the reflection that has thus far been excluded in the discovery of images¬óit is finally only in words that recovery is to be found is Jasper’s conclusion. This mirrors the beginning of Wenders’ journey towards a cinema of narrative, as both Graf and Kolker and Beicken recognize, without compromising the honesty of the image. “Not just Travis’ confession, but the whole film relies, in the end, on Travis regaining the power of language that enables him to tell a story. Wenders suggests, through Travis’s monologue, that this kind of narration can co-exist with photographic images without threatening the integrity of the film image.”

When image and language finally coalesce after Travis’ speech, he tells Jane to turn the lights out in her prison and focuses the light of his own lamp on his face. Travis finally fully reveals himself, his sins, and all that he has been wandering and hiding from. While Travis is still physically separated from Jane by the glass, it is he who is now revealing himself in the frame–of his own accord–and this image reveals his own penitence, his nakedness and complete surrender, which has finally brought him to contrition. And this, in turn, allows Jane to tell own her story to Travis and to complete the narrative circle.

Wenders is able to affirm both the power of language to heal and the power of the image to truly see things as they are.


C0-written by Emily Mantei and Emanuel Levy