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Paris, Texas (1984)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders’ elegiac drama that swept the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and has consistently remained on most critics’ “Best of” lists ever since.  Adapted by L.M. Kit Carson from a screenplay by esteemed playwright Sam Shepard, it tells the story of Travis, a middle-aged man who walks out of the Texas desert after disappearing for four years and, after reuniting with his brother’s family, slowly begins the effort of restoring his shattered life.  Through this simple synopsis, Wenders executes a masterful, character-driven exploration of subjects, allowing the mystery of Travis’ past to unfold through the players’ interactions and reminiscences as they take awkward steps to move towards an uncertain future- and using the microcosmic drama to stir powerfully resonant themes and conjure deep, universal emotions.  A collection of superb performances makes it all work beautifully, from veteran character actor Dean Stockwell as Travis’ well-meaning brother to newcomer Hunter Carson (son of the film’s screenwriter Carson and actress Karen Black) as the child rebuilding a relationship with a father he doesn’t remember; Nastassja Kinski, whose star turn doesn’t come until late in the film, beautifully captures the emotional fragility of a woman confronted with a past she has tried to forget (though I can’t help nit-picking that her German accent sometimes distorts an otherwise acceptable Texas drawl).  It is, however, the remarkable presence of Harry Dean Stanton, as Travis, upon which the film hangs: from the opening moments when he purposefully stumbles out of the blasted Texas landscape, he is utterly compelling, allowing his droopy, hang-dog features and his simple, unaffected delivery to express a dazzlingly complex spectrum of emotions.  It is a performance which few actors could accomplish, and the fact that it was not even nominated for an Oscar is one of those glaring omissions that makes the entire idea of Hollywood awards seem suspect and vaguely ridiculous.  Beyond the cerebral and emotional riches provided by Paris, Texas, it delivers a visual beauty thanks to the stunning cinematography of longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, which captures a remarkable array of iconic American backdrops- the dusty vastness of the southwestern desert, the scenic experiences of the endless cross-country highway, the bland familiarity of suburbia, and the contrasting elegance and squalor of the big city- giving this jointly-French-and-German-produced film a distinctly American flavor rarely captured by domestic cinema.  Despite these lavish praises, this movie is probably not for everyone: viewers with a short attention span may find the leisurely pace a bit grueling (particularly in the climactic sequence, which is comprised mostly of long, lamenting monologues performed in a claustrophobic setting), and those who seek a clear-cut, definitive resolution from their entertainment may be left unsatisfied by the mixed emotions which cascade around its ambiguous conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a more exemplary piece of filmmaking than Paris, Texas, and it is easy to see why it became one of the most influential and revered pieces of cinema to come out of the eighties.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087884/

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