Monday, July 25, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You At The Movies #18 - Paris, Texas (1984, dir. Wim Wenders)

I’ve watched Paris, Texas many, many times since I first saw it in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until very recently that I realized it has a second plot, a completely abstract one, starring the color red.
I was delighted to discover this, but not surprised to have made such a finding after so many viewings. Paris, Texas is a film full of secrets and revelations. It begins with a man emerging from the desert near the border between Texas and Mexico, dressed in a suit and covered with dust. Little by little, we learn things about him: his name is Travis; he has a brother who lives in Los Angeles; he’s been missing for four years. But each new clue raises more questions. When we find out that Travis has a son, and that his brother and sister-in-law have been caring for the boy, we wonder where the mother is and what happened between her and Travis that would make the two disappear so quickly and completely.
Everything about the film is top-notch. The script is by Sam Shepard, and it’s one of his best, with characters who ache with longing to be alone and to be loved, and a storyline that runs through the seamy underside of the American dream. The acting is amazing, especially the performances by Nastassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton, who plays Travis. There’s a scene near the end with the two of them that’s on my shortlist for the best in cinema, an emotion-filled ten minutes in which two people’s lives come together, reconcile, completely change and drift apart right before our eyes. The soundtrack by Ry Cooder, nearly all of it played on a haunting slide-guitar, is a masterpiece in its own right, a must for any guitar lover’s collection. And, of course, the cinematography, which is completely out of this world; nearly every frame is like a museum-quality photograph of the American Southwest.
That’s how I discovered the abstract plot-within-a-plot about the color red, by really studying the shots. Beginning with the first image of Travis, in which he wears a bright red baseball cap, almost every shot in Paris, Texas contains an element of this very same hue of red. Sometimes it’s just a tiny dot, such as the ember of a cigarette. Other times it fills the sky at sunset. But it’s clearly a distinct element that the director, Wim Wenders, deliberately positioned in the composition of each shot. And there’s continuity from shot to shot: if the bit of red in one shot is small and contained in the lower right corner, it will be in a similar place and of a similar size in the next, where it will move and grow or shrink and draw us visually to the next shot where it will appear again. Wenders even plays openly with color storyline late in the film when two of the characters try to follow a pair of red cars on a busy maze of freeway.
Now that I’ve discovered this aspect of the film, I can’t watch it without thinking of the red as another character in the film and wondering how it fits in with the plot. It’s become a metaphor of sorts in my mind, signifying love, maybe, or passion or the idea of family. And as I continue to watch, I start to wonder about the blues and the yellows, too. What might they be saying about these characters?
It’s been almost 25 years, and Paris, Texas is still raising questions, inviting me back to discover more. 

- Joe Miller

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