There are so many different ways to look at and analyse Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984). Is it about the American psyche and the mythology of the Wild West? Or maybe a ghost story about making peace and finding redemption? In fact, Wenders’ success may lie in the fact that his film is definitely about something, but what that ‘something’ actually is can be interpreted in so many different ways. It’s a masterclass in how to keep an audience questioning and engaged.
Fundamentally, Paris, Texas is an exploration of memory and nostalgia. It’s a story about how we create, store and share our memories. And in particular how time, space and place affects and is affected by these memories in turn. Everyone has their own perception of the world; our experiences are subjective. And this subjectivity of experience is fixed into our memories and exaggerated until what we remember becomes the truth to our minds’ eye.
Travis appears to be an extreme example of subjective perception; he sees everyone else as characters in his story, rather than people with stories of their own. His initial mutism seems to represent a solipsistic refusal to interact with others. Wenders’ beautiful, incredibly well thought out cinematography, with its exaggerated colour-scape, is also a knowing nod to the unreality of memory.
Travis’ isolation is highlighted in his interactions with Jane. She is kept in a box, we see nothing of her life outside of those cubicles, she is a person without context. This seemed to me to be representation of the way in which we remember only isolated fractions of our life, which are unconsciously selected and elevated to the status of ‘truth’ in our minds, no matter how much context has been discarded or lost. Jane is living, thinking person, but Travis treats her as nothing more than a living memory, an object in his own mind. Indeed, in almost all of their conversations he can see her, but she can’t see him; a reflection of how little her perception of the situation matters to him. And Travis exaggerates this disinterest by turning away from her as he speaks; is he afraid of seeing her reaction, or does it simply not matter to him?
Wenders builds this sense of solipsism by following Travis to the exclusion of the other characters. After Travis leaves Los Angeles for Houston we never see Walt or Anne again. And even though we see Hunter and Jane’s reunion, it’s only for a brief moment before Wenders cuts back to Travis watching them from the car park.
Wenders also plays with the senses of time and place that are so fluid in memories (and so rarely accurate to the realities which inspired them). The film is set and shot in the mid 1980’s, but both the story and its setting feel timeless in a Wild West kind of way, it could be the 1950’s or it could be 2010. Moreover, he hints at the subjectivity of our perception of time when Walt and Travis are discussing how long Travis has been absent. Travis asks his brother if four years is a long time (implying that it’s not) and Walt responds:
Well, it is for a little boy.
It’s half his life. (Wenders, 1984)
It also doesn’t seem to be an accident that German born Wenders set his film in the American West. It’s a place with an intense mythology that’s been explored and exploited by generations of filmmakers. Consequently, it’s a setting that’s deeply ingrained in cultural memory, even though it probably never existed in anything close to the form that we imagine. Wenders directly references the fiction of memory and nostalgia by having Travis show Hunter old black and white photographs of Travis’ long dead father and tell a story about how his father told a lie so often that it became the truth in his mind:
And… he looked at her, but he didn’t see her. He, he saw this idea. And he told people that she was from Paris. It was a big joke. But he started telling everyone all the time, finally it wasn’t a joke anymore. He s-… He started believing it. And, he actually believed it. (Wenders, 1984)
Wenders most interesting hint at memory and nostalgia comes when Travis and Hunter watch a Super-8 film with Walt and Anne, a film which has become the only memory for a son of his mother. Yet ultimately, the child without ‘real’ memories is far more aware than the adults around him of the difference between reality and the representation of it:
Yeah, that’s not her… That’s only her in a movie … (Wenders, 1984)
Wenders, W., (1984) Paris, Texas, Road Movies Filmproduktion