Vintage Movies: “Paris, Texas”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Paris, Texas (1984, 145 minutes)

From a bird’s-eye perspective, the camera slowly pans across the rugged, sculptured pinnacles and mesas of the west Texas badlands before following a solitary man in a suit, a tie and a red ballcap as he drains the last of his water from a plastic gallon container. Bearded and gaunt with eyes half-blinded by the sun, the man trudges into a remote cantina, opens the fridge behind the bar, shoves a handful of ice into his mouth and falls to the floor, unconscious.

“Something must have cut your tongue off, or else you’ve got something to hide. I ain’t got beds enough to be putting up mutes,” says a rural doctor in a German accent as he pushes a scope into the bearded man’s ear. Now fully conscious, his patient says nothing. The doctor finds a Los Angeles phone number in the stranger’s wallet and takes a chance.

Walt (Dean Stockwell) calls his wife from an L.A. construction site with startling news. “I just got the strangest phone call from Texas. They’ve found Travis.” “What are you going to do?” says Anne (Aurore Clement). “I’ll go and get him. He is my brother,” says Walt. “What am I supposed to tell Hunter?” she asks. “Well, you’d better tell him the truth,” says Walt.

Outside a rustic Texas clinic, Walt learns he’s come too late for his brother. “He’s gone,” says the doctor. “He left early this morning.” Walt combs the surrounding countryside and finds Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) back on his endless trek. Walt sweet-talks his brother into the car. “Why were you walking out there?” he asks. “You look like 40 miles of rough road.” Tired of the silent treatment, Walt says, “You’re not going to clam up the whole way, are you? Would you mind telling me where you disappeared to for the last four years? We thought you were dead, boy.” That night, Travis looks at himself in a motel bathroom mirror and plainly doesn’t recognize the person staring back at him.

The next day, Walt speaks on the phone to Hunter (Hunter Carson). “Guess who I’m visiting in Texas? Your father! I’m going to bring him home.” He explains to Travis, “Hunter’s been living with Anne and me since you disappeared. One day, he was just standing there at the door. We couldn’t find you, and Jane (Travis’ wife, Nastassja Kinski) had vanished, too.” As the brothers are about to board a plane for Los Angeles, Travis finally speaks. He asks Walt if they can drive to Paris, Texas “right now.”

The first American film by German director Wim Wenders was beautifully photographed by Robby Müller with heartwrenching guitar accompaniment from Ry Cooder. It’s a searing tale of pain, guilt, obsession and redemption that, like 2010’s Blue Valentine, is almost unbearably sad.