What the hell?
– Sam Shepard, Paris, Texas, 1984
Even if you’ve never seen this movie you might feel like you had. It begins with aerial scenes of the bleak and iconic majesty of the American Southwest. Ry Cooder’s slow slide guitar dominates the soundtrack. A man walks: he looks bad, but his stride is strong. He stops, drinks the last swig from a water bottle, drops it, walks into the void that stretches endlessly before him. He comes upon the barest outpost of human habitation. He steps inside a dark and forlorn bar; Mexican music plays on the juke box. He grabs a handful of ice and eats it, passes out. A man sitting by himself drinking a beer sees him fall and speaks the first line, almost five minutes into the film. The main character, Travis, the walking man, doesn’t say a word until twenty minutes later. That word is Paris.
Paris, Texas is one of those films about alienation in America, where the cities are as empty as the endless desert, where people are as isolated from one another as the stone buttes and mesas standing mute sentinel. This variation on the theme, written by playwright-actor Sam Shepard and directed by the German Wim Wenders, is a really good one.
Travis’s brother picks him up and drives him back to L.A. It turns out nobody’s heard a word from Travis in four years; Travis’s wife Jane is gone too — it’s obvious that something terrible must have happened. Their son Hunter, now eight, has been staying with Travis’s brother and his wife ever since. Slowly, gently, Travis becomes reacquainted with his son, who had all but forgotten him. One day Travis buys an old junker car, picks Hunter up at school, and the two of them begin the long drive back to Houston to find Jane.
Travis and Hunter follow Jane to what looks like a warehouse in a scruffy part of town. Leaving Hunter in the car, Travis goes in the warehouse. It’s broad daylight but inside it seems like nighttime. Several women are lounging; one is partially undressed. A man tells Travis he’s in the wrong place, escorts him upstairs. Two ranks of booths line a central corridor; each booth, numbered, is entered through a cloth curtain. Travis tries booth 10. He takes a seat in a dimly-lit room. He picks up the receiver of a telephone that sits on the table in front of him and places his order: a blonde girl, about 25 years old. There’s a glass partition separating Travis from the other half of the booth, which has been decorated to look like a poolside: beach chairs, umbrella, inflatable toys. A girl comes in wearing a nurse outfit. “Why aren’t you looking at me,” Travis asks her; “can’t you see me?” “Listen sweetheart, if I could see you I wouldn’t be working here.” The glass partition is a one-way mirror: Travis can see the girl but she can’t see him. She’s not the right one: Travis gets up, walks down the corridor, goes in booth 6, sits down.
Travis sits in the dim light, his eyes closed, his hand shielding his face. We hear the door on the other side open, then the girl’s voice, electronically distorted, as if we’re listening through the phone with Travis: “Are you out there? That’s okay, if you don’t want to talk, you know. I don’t want to talk either sometimes. I just like to stay silent. Do you mind if I sit down?” “No,” Travis replies. Now he looks through the glass and sees Jane, dressed in a long fuzzy pink sweater. This booth looks like a cheap motel room without the bed: she stands next to a side table on which are placed a lamp, a telephone, and an intercom speaker box. A wall-mounted TV flickers over Jane’s right shoulder.
“Am I looking at your face now,” Jane asks. Travis doesn’t answer. Jane laughs: “Oh God, it don’t matter. If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’ll just listen, all right? I’m a real good listener.” Travis is silent. “Is there something… I don’t know, is there something I can do for you?” Pause. “Do you mind if I take off my sweater?” No reply. “I’ll just take off my sweater.” She reaches for the hem and begins lifting it. “No, no, don’t, please, please leave it on.” She does. “I’m sorry,” Jane says, “I just don’t know exactly what it is that you want.” “I don’t want anything.” “Well, why’d you come in here then?” “I want to talk to you.” Pause.
Jane, who has been looking directly at Travis, even though she can’t see him, now turns her head to the side. “Is there something you want to tell me?” “No.” Jane faces forward again. “You can tell me, I can keep a secret.” “Is that all you do is just talk,” Travis asks her. “Well, yeah, yeah, mostly. And listen.” “What else do you do?” “Nothing really. We’re not allowed to see the customers out of here.” Now the perspective changes. We’re still seeing Jane, but now we see the frame of the glass, bordered by raw insulation. We realize we’re now on the other side of the glass looking at Jane’s reflection. This is what she sees: when from the other side she seems to be looking at Travis, she’s actually looking at herself. Now it’s Travis’s voice that’s distorted; we’re hearing it through the intercom in this fake motel room. He gets aggressive, essentially accusing her of being a whore. She looks frightened, says she’s sorry, maybe he wants to talk to one of the other girls; she gets up to leave. “No no, please please please don’t go.” “I just don’t think I’m the one you want to talk to,” Jane says. We flip back to Travis’s side of the glass wall. We see Jane sit back down; Travis, teary-eyed now, apologizes. “All right,” Jane says soothingly through the earphone; “that’s okay.” Travis lays the receiver down on the table and stands up.
Now we’re back on Jane’s side of the glass; her voice is undistorted, open, clear. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax. Relax and tell me what’s on your mind. I’ll listen. To you. I don’t mind listening. I do it all the time.” We see what she sees: dimly illuminated in the lamplight, the phone receiver sits on the table in the otherwise-dark compartment on the other side. Jane doesn’t know if the faceless man has left, or if he’s standing there, or what he’s doing…