Sunday, April 5, 2020

Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

It’s taken me a number of years to feel ready to write this post because I want to focus on just one scene from Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas, which for me is one of the most important cinematic scenes from the latter half of the 20th century. Since the first time I saw it, I’ve never stopped thinking about this scene; it’s always lingering somewhere on some level of my consciousness, every day and every night. The scene is in the last half-hour of the film, and it also takes up a large portion of that final half-hour. A two-hander, it starts out as a dialogue, then becomes one character’s monologue, then a dialogue again, then the other character’s monologue. The scene was written by the late great Sam Shepard, who’d also originally drafted two different screenplays for the film, loosely based on some elements from his book Motel Chronicles. He handed those screenplays over to L. M. Kit Carson, who skillfully re-worked and adapted them into the form that’s used in the rest of the film, culminating in the scene that I’ll be focusing on here. According to Carson, the scene that I’ll be writing about was scripted entirely by Sam Shepard. Viewers can probably hear the language shift stylistically into Shepard’s voice and thematic idiom as the scene unfolds, or at least I can.

The two characters in the scene are Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who were once a romantic couple; together they’d had a son, Hunter (played by Hunter Carson, Kit Carson’s real-life son with Karen Black). Here’s a brief synopsis of the film for those who’ve never seen it. The movie opens with Travis wandering out of the Texas desert, silent and haggard, after several years spent alone in the wilderness. He’s retrieved by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), and the two men drive the long distance back to Walt’s home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, which he shares with his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement). Walt and Anne were left to raise young Hunter in the wake of Travis’ sudden disappearance and Jane’s abandonment of her child. Much of the film’s first half focuses on Travis’ reunion with his son, whom he then innocuously absconds with so that Hunter can be reunited with his mother in Texas, once they’re able to find her. Wenders has remarked that the specific circumstances of Travis’ and Jane’s breakup are intentionally left mysterious throughout the majority of the film, and that mystery is finally unveiled during the film’s quiet and emotional climax, in the scene written by Sam Shepard.

Although they play fairly well with regard to the story on screen, those plot-based details, even when endowed with Shepard’s spare and beautiful writing, feel somewhat arbitrary to me in terms of the scene’s power, its resonance, and its ultimate meaning. While we certainly feel for Travis and Jane as we watch and listen to their interactions (movingly accompanied by Ry Cooder’s acoustic guitar score), it’s the particular mise-en-scène that makes the scene so important and unforgettable. The scene takes place in a sort of Texas peepshow emporium where Jane works. Midway through the film, Travis and Hunter follow her there in their car after she makes an anticipated deposit at a bank, and Travis then leaves the boy alone in the car so that he can sneak into the emporium and investigate. He eventually finds a dim hallway of numbered, blue-curtained booths, and inside each booth is a themed window (“Poolside,” “Hotel,” “Coffee Shop”), behind which solitary women appear in costume to play out a fantasy for individual male customers, who can speak with the woman via a telephone in the booth, and she can then respond through a two-way speaker inside the little themed room. She can see only her own reflection in a one-way mirror, however, not the anonymous man who’s sitting on the other side of the glass in the curtained booth.

Travis and Jane talk through everything that they left behind and why, both at length and in turn, as the material grows darker and more angular and tilts towards violence. Yet it remains just language and facial expressions, all words and memories, transformed into the visual incarnations of Sam Shepard’s fluid and broken-up phrases. Tears fall, of course, on both sides of the mirrored glass, and Wenders knowingly places his camera and audience with each character in alternating balance on both sides of the glass partition, too. At a pivotal moment halfway through the scene, after his monologue is finished, Travis asks Jane, “If you turn the light off in there, will you be able to see me?” to which she replies, “I don’t know. I never tried.” The scene works because the two actors are aware, ironically, of both the simplicity and intricacy of the dance that they’re inhabiting. Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton wasn’t sure at first if he could do it, and so he told Wim Wenders that he had to talk on the phone with Sam Shepard, who assured him that the language in the script would be enough to carry him through. The director let the actor start and stop the cameras as much as he needed to, and the filming of the scene went on all day long, until Travis’ monologue finally came out from beginning to end in one long uninterrupted flow.

I think this scene is timeless because it’s about how human relationships operate. Not just romantic relationships, but all relationships. And not just our relationships then or now, but always, both intimately and distantly: in person, on the phone, disembodied in typed text or on video via a computer screen, in a cinema, on television, on a stage. In office cubicles, classrooms, motel rooms, in cars on highways, moving separately or together in the same direction or in opposite directions, branching out endlessly across the miles. Even when we’re face-to-face, we speak to each other through invisible mirrors and panes of glass, through the tinny circuitry of wires, because we can never fully know what it’s like for another person inside their own room, inside their own mind, inside their personal history of their own experience. We see each other and don’t see each other in our tiny theaters of desire — backed and packed with torn tinfoil and pink tufts of insulation — and empathy is a trick of the light. That our experiences in human relationships dovetail and separate, for minutes or for decades, is one of the reasons why art exists. We play our lonely roles and we watch each other play them, trying our best to respond with our own performance, yet we know that’s ultimately what it is: that we’re alone together inside our truthful approximations, inside those scripted spaces that surround us, which we enter by parting heavy blue curtains, picking up the receiver of the phone, turning on or switching off the lights.