Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas – 1984

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, and Nastassja Kinski

Director Wim Wenders’ (pronounced Vim Venders) other film on this list, Wings of Desire, made quite an impression on me.  It’s use and juxtaposition of color and black and white imagery to illustrate the perspectives of human beings and angels respectively was so masterfully used that I wasn’t really sure it could be topped.  Combined with the fact that Paris, Texas’ story wasn’t about something so grand and complex as the need for faith and guidance, I thought for sure it would be  a let down.  It turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

Paris, Texas tells the story of Travis, a man who has been wandering the southwestern United States and northern Mexico for the last four years.  When he stops at a farm in Texas, overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, he is brought to a doctor who promptly calls his brother, Walt, to collect him and pay his medical bills.  Once Travis is re-united with his brother he begins the long journey home, reconciling the last four years, reconnecting with his young son, and slowly putting his life back together piece by piece.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the lead role of Travis.  The audience learns about his past the same way his brother (played by Dean Stockwell) does, slowly, as Travis remembers it.  As his history unfolds, Travis eventually learns to trust again, and begins speaking more and more openly about why he vanished and where he’s been.  To tell more than just this basic plot skeleton would be to deny those who haven’t seen it the pleasure of discovering it on their own.  Needless to say, it is a fully realized story with characters that are completely fleshed out (and since it was filmed in the mid-eighties, they are also a bit naive).  I had one or more issues with the placement of responsibility at the end of the film, but by and large was completely won over by this film.

Almost more so than Wings of Desire, the visuals in Paris, Texas are so very arresting.  The world that these characters inhabit is so vivid and saturated with color.  The cinematographer, Robbie Müller, has also worked extensively with another director to come out of the surge of independent film in the late eighties and early nineties, Jim Jarmusch.  Based on his resume, it is no surprise that each scene seems like a living oil painting.  Shadow and color play together on-screen to create a palpable atmosphere, one which is as much a part of the developement of the narrative as the acting, directing, or writing.

Where Wings of Desire sought to use color as a sudden rush of emotion and passion (color does represent the human experience after all), Paris, Texas seeks to overpower your senses, so much so that by the end the real world was looking pretty drab and uninspiring (it doesn’t help that it’s winter in Chicago right now).  Texas, a pretty interesting place what with the diversity of landscape afforded to it by mother nature, has never looked so engaging or as strikingly beautiful.

Based on the two of his films that I’ve seen, Wenders has quite a knack for getting nuanced acting performances and matching them with striking visuals.  A quick review of his resume on IMDb has me wondering why he’s been so busy with films that I haven’t ever heard of.   With talent like his, I would have guessed that some of his films would have garnered more attention (despite the influx in popularity of superhero movies and TV remakes that have been so popular lately).  Unfortunately the latest film whose name I recognize is 2000’s Million Dollar Hotel, which I don’t think was received very warmly by critics or audiences.

Paris, Texas more than stands up as a film that has earned it’s place on this list, as has Wender’s other entry on the list, Wings of Desire.  Who knows, since everything seems to go in cycles, perhaps Wenders will even release a new film to the fanfare of his much celebrated classics (in a year when a Terrence Malick film is coming out, anything can happen.)

Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) (1987)

Der Himmel Uber Berlin (AKA: Wings of Desire) – 1987

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk

Tackling the spiritual subject of the lives of Angels and their influence on the lives of human beings, Wings of Desire follows  Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) as he becomes fascinated with and eventually falls in love with a young trapeze artist (Marion Played by Solveig Dommartin) performing in West Berlin (pre-fall of the Berlin Wall).  The film aspires to much more than simplistic confirmation of faith or belief.  Instead, Wim Wenders struggles with the ideas of how his angel characters experience the world while avoiding the cliché of making them infallible beings of infinite grace and experience.

Firstly, if the story seems familiar, you might be thinking of the far inferior re-make, City of Angels, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.  If you haven’t seen the re-make, congratulations, if you have, at least it can only go up hill by watching this film after the fact.  The story follows an angel named Damiel who, along with his fellow angel Cassiel, roams the city following humans through all stages of their daily and life-changing experiences.  As the story progresses, Damiel expresses his desire to experience the things that people do everyday (food, love, human contact, tactile sensations, pain, smells, etc…), and his ultimate desire to leave his angelic status behind and become human.

The look of the film mirrors the pacing and the story in-so-much-as it is very lyrical and flowing.  The world of the angels is very stark, and contrasty, filmed entirely in a silky black and white.  Every crag and wrinkle of the people that they follow are visible, just as it would appear to an omnipresent, all-seeing angel.  The human world, however, is filmed in lush, saturated color.  Every joy, and mood, and taste, and experience of the human condition is on display visually, contrasted with the stark black and white world of absolutes.  The passion and experience that these visuals convey, represent the question that Damiel is wrestling with throughout the entire movie.  Is a life of passion, and emotion more satisfying than a life of eternal order, and knowledge, when each is separated from the other.  Is there a halfway point between the two worlds, and if so, do the benefits of one out-weigh the other.

I have to say that I didn’t really notice the music in this film, with the exception of the very obvious concert scene featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and that isn’t necessarily bad, it just is.  Overall the film seemed very quiet and relied heavily on the weight of silence and the power of dialogue.  This means that you don’t get the standard emotional swell of music when you are supposed to feel happy, or sad, or angry.  Since you still feel these emotions, it is clear that despite the absence of these musical cues, the movie is strong enough to get across its points without them.

One other element that may seem familiar is the lead actor, Bruno Ganz.  If he seems familiar, it might be because he is a famous face in modern German cinema, most famously for playing Hitler in the film Downfall.  His power as an actor is obvious when you watch him on-screen.  For a film that is so visually striking as this one, when you find yourself trying to choose whether to look at the beautiful scenery or keeping your eye on the main actor, you know that you’re watching a dynamic performer.  The actor (or actress if you prefer) who plays Marion, Solveig Dommartin, imbues the role with a luminosity that makes you believe an angel might choose a mortal life.  Her wistful carefree nature provides the romance of the story, while ironically it is Ganz who provides the audience with necessary grounding and realism.

Wings of Desire is a slow-paced film, one that relishes the opportunity to show the characters, situations, and the world that it’s about, but it is very worth the time and energy spent watching it.  Wim Wender’s visual poem to the city of Berlin is a definite influence on indie movement in the films of the early nineties, and on into the 2000s and beyond.