in Criterion Month

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas was not what I was expecting. What would you expect if you heard an artsy German director made a movie with eclectic character actors in the American Southwest? Something weird I imagine. A movie that’s cold, experimental, possibly even David Lynch-ian. No, not here. Paris, Texas to my surprise is an incredibly heartfelt film. It’s a film about how we build relationships even after falling out for one reason or another. It’s a film as beautiful as its panoramic desert vistas. But there’s another element at work and it answers to three names: Harry. Dean. Stanton.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess about 90% of film geeks watch this film because Harry Dean Stanton is the star—The other 10% I assume watch it for Wim Wenders. Why is it so intriguing to see Harry Dean Stanton front and center? Maybe because he’s one of the greatest character actors of the past fifty years and yet he’s been given so few opportunities to star in a film. The only other films I can think of off the top of my head where HDS has better than third billing are Alex Cox’s Repo Man (also in the Criterion Collection) and an upcoming movie starring HDS called “Lucky”. Which is basically about how he’a hundred million years old. Also, it’s directed by John Carroll Lynch. There’s an odd bit of trivia.

Paris, Texas is the story of Travis (Stanton) who after four years of inexplicably wandering the desert is discovered and helped by an eccentric Austrian doctor (Bernhard Wicki). The doctor identifies Travis and contacts his closest living relative, his kind younger brother Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt drives all the way from Los Angeles but is confused when he finds his brother completely mute and almost zombielike in how he carries himself.

The whole trip back Travis barely utters a word until he mentions the word “Paris” and pulls out a photo of a plot of land he claims to own in Paris, Texas. Travis fondly remembers the spot and soon returns to his kindly, if not slightly awkward former self. He is introduced to Walt’s French wife Anne (Aurore Clement) and their son Hunter (Hunter Henderson). Only for us (the audience) to discover that Hunter is, in fact, Travis’s son.

Later, Travis takes Hunter to Houston where they track down Hunter’s mom Jane (Nastassja Kinski) working at a peep show. Travis has trouble revealing himself to Jane but also feels responsible for the dissolution of their family. Understated family drama ensues.

The acting in this film is great. Very natural, nothing flashy. Dean Stockwell has a kind of “Aw shucks” manner that makes him instantly lovable. Aurore Clement is equally likable as the warm and comforting Anne. Nastassja Kinski is her salty self and even the dumb kid is good. It’s because everyone is given real things to say in real and relatable situations. Thanks to L.M. Kit Karson and Sam Shepard for their amazingly authentic dialogue. Of course, it’s always best when it’s coming out of Stanton.

Again, though what makes Stanton so appealing? For one, I think his appearance plays a big part in his performances. The always skeletal Stanton with his deeply wrinkled face and gentle Kentucky drawl gives off the air of life lived. Even if he hasn’t, he always seemed like the kind of guy who’s seen so many things you’ll never see and seen so many places you’ll never be. He’s a lurking specter of the past with the kind demeanor of a neighborhood shopkeep. I could go on for ages describing what I think his appeal is and never scratch the surface. Maybe I just don’t know. But I don’t care because I like it.

The film has many sweet moments. My favorite being Travis walking Hunter home from school in a kind of silly, mirrored walk sequence that would make the Marx Brothers proud. Anything with Dean Stockwell is a plus too. You know how much I love those Quantum Leap reruns on the USA Network.

The only issue is this movie is 147 minutes long. You could trim that length by about 40 minutes and have the perfect film. There’s definitely some down time here and though it’s never bad it doesn’t always feel necessary. Unless you’re really into HDS wandering around the desert. Which I imagine you probably are. Either way, Paris, Texas is a unique character drama with the performance of a lifetime for a screen veteran. Why don’t you stop by sometime?