Friday, February 5, 2010

DVD of the Week: Paris, Texas: Criterion Collection

Films made about the United States by foreign filmmakers are interesting because quite often they provide a unique perspective – someone from the outside looking in. German filmmaker Wim Wenders did just this with his film Paris, Texas (1984). It was a collaboration with acclaimed playwright and actor Sam Shepard and can be seen as a kind of lament for an era of the American west that no longer exists. It’s an American road movie about characters living on the fringes of society and was made during the peak of the materialistic Reagan era. Paris, Texas went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and firmly established Wenders as an art house darling.

The film begins with an absolutely breathtaking shot of vast canyons of the American southwest while Ry Cooder’s mournful slide guitar plays. Walking through this harsh, desolate landscape is a bearded man in a suit and red baseball cap. The man’s name is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and he makes it to a Texas bar before passing out from exposure to the severe climate. The doctor that treats him finds contact information for his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who travels from Los Angeles to meet Travis at this remote town. The brothers haven’t seen each other in four years and when Walt arrives he finds Travis walking along a deserted stretch of road. We eventually learn that four years ago Travis and his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) abandoned their child Hunter (Hunter Carson) and both promptly disappeared. Travis is reunited with his son and they decide to go looking for Jane.

With his scruffy beard, world weary eyes and dressed like a hobo, Travis could be a character right out of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Wedged between such diverse fare as Repo Man (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986), Paris, Texas serves as a reminder of the impressive range of actor Harry Dean Stanton. For the first 26 minutes of the film he says nothing, relying instead on his expressive eyes and body language to convey how Travis is feeling. Compared to Travis, Walt is a lot chattier and Dean Stockwell plays him as a down-to-earth working stiff. In some respects, he’s our audience surrogate, trying to decipher the enigmatic Travis and figure out his story. This role turned out to be a career resurgence for the veteran character actor who went on to memorable turns in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Blue Velvet (1986).

Paris, Texas features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Robby Muller (Down by Law). For example, there is a great shot of Walt at a gas station bathed in green light while in the background the sky is red. It is a striking contrast in colors. Another memorable shot is of an orange, brown stormy sky at sunset as seen through the windshield of Walt’s car. Muller and Wenders’ compositions are fantastic as they illustrate how the characters relate to their environment. For example, in the opening scenes, Travis is constantly dwarfed by the vastness of the desert.

Paris, Texas is about how more than just geography can keep people apart. There’s the emotional distance too. This is a film about two people who got lost on purpose. They dropped out of mainstream society and lost touch with each other and their son. How does this happen and why? These are some of the questions that the film examines as Travis and Jane sift through the emotional wreckage left behind from their damaged relationship.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by filmmaker Wim Wenders. The director talks about how he and Ry Cooder decided to use the music that is in the Paris, Texas. Wenders also talks about the origins of the film and working with Sam Shepard on the screenplay. The director talks about the genesis of the film’s title and how it relates to Travis. Wenders tells many filming anecdotes on this informative track.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with an interview with Wenders from 2001. He had wanted to make a film about America but hadn’t done it to his satisfaction with his previous films. It wasn’t until Paris, Texas that he felt like he had achieved this goal. It was also the first time he worked in a spontaneous fashion without a pre-planned shot list.

“The Road to Paris, Texas” is a collection of interviews with key collaborators of Wenders over the years. They all speak admiringly of the man. Wenders talks about the influence of rock ‘n’ roll and road movies on his work.

Also included are interviews with both Claire Denis and Allison Anders, who worked on the film as first assistant director and production assistant respectively. They went on to become directors in their own right. They give their impressions of Wenders, how they met him and what it was like to work with the filmmaker. In addition, Anders reads from the diary that she kept while working on the film.

“Cinema Cinemas” is a segment from an April 2, 1984 episode of this French television programming featuring Wenders and composer Cooder working on the score for Paris, Texas. Wenders talks about his love of rock ‘n’ roll music. It was a dream of his to have Cooder work on his film.

There is a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Wenders. We see more of the German doctor taking care of Travis at the beginning of the film. Most of this footage is bits and pieces that just didn’t fit and were ultimately cut. Also included is fantastic Super 8 mm footage, some of which was used in the flashback sequences so as to resemble old home movies.

Finally, there are “Galleries,” one a collection of photographs that Wenders took while location scouting in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The other gallery is a nice collection of on behind-the-scenes stills taken on location.


  1. i need to see this. i love criterion and the movie looks interesting.

  2. I am ashamed to say I have never seen this one. Plan to rectify that tout suite.

  3. MrJeffery:

    I'm not a huge Wenders fan but this is a great film and definitely worth checking out, esp. for the deluxe Criterion treatment.

    Mark Salisbury:

    I hadn't seen the film in so long it was like watching brand new, esp. with the excellent transfer on this new DVD.

  4. Indeed, Robbie Muller's extraordinary canvas is the film's most alluring component, but as you astutely point out at the outset of this stellar appraisal, Wenders had a marked cross-cultural observational talent. It's odd, but this film didn't hit me as it did so many others on first viewing, as it almost seemed too methodically paced and emotionally-distancing, yet it one that rewards a big payoff with patience.

    J.D.: I finally took th eplunge last month and bought a blu-ray player, so the Criterion blu-ray version is the one I am getting. I am hoping those great extras like the interviews, commentary and documentary THE ROAD TO PARIS, TEXAS ar eincluded.

    Outstanding and passionate assessment of this DVD release!

  5. My very favorite Wenders film, and one of the best films of the 80's. As a native Texan, I can say that Wenders and Muller (two foreigners) nail the mood and tempo of both locations they present perfectly. The vastness and quietness of the West Texas open air is beautifully rendered. Then, when the film abruptly shifts to Houston, they also get right the concrete jungle and pure ugliness of that city... with the sea stained walls and cavernous underpass. I love it when films speak truthfully about my home state.

  6. I watched it first thing when I got home today. The Blu-Ray is stunning. This is definitely among my favorite films after the re-watch. If I take to The Searchers when I rewatch it I'll essentially have it thrice in my fav films list (the third being Taxi Driver).

  7. Great review, J.D. This is one I've been hoping to finally see. I'll be picking up the Blu-ray of this. Thanks for this.

  8. JD, great piece on a film I really love, too! It's one of my favorite Wenders (the only other two that contend with that are KINGS OF THE ROAD and ALICE IN THE CITIES) and probably one of my favorite films of the eighties. And Robby Muller gets my vote as one of the finest cameramen ever.

  9. Sam Juliano:

    Well said! The film goes at its own methodical, laid-back pace but the emotional ending is worth it. It really resonates long after the film has ended.

    Congrats on getting a Blu Ray player, Sam! I am still without but some day soon I will take the plunge. Once I upgrade my TV, that is.

    Joseph B. :

    Thank you for that unique perspective as a Texan native! I always wondered what people from that part of the country thought about how they were represented so I found you observations very interesting to say the least!


    Thanks for stopping by and for the report on the Blu-ray version. With Criterion I would expect nothing less from them.


    Thanks for the kind words, my friend. I'm glad you enjoyed my review.

    Jeffrey Goodman:

    Thanks also for stopping by and commenting. I too love Robby Muller's work and would definitely agree with you that he's one of THE best cinematographer's around. I mean, he can go from the sun-burnt look of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. to the stark, moody B&W of DEAD MAN. Amazing.