Program Notes: Paris, Texas (1984)

Sam Shepard doesn’t appear in Paris, Texas (1984), but his fingerprints are all over it.

Shepard’s celebrated dramas – by the time he co-wrote the Paris... screenplay he had completed more than 40 plays – specialize in American families coming apart under the weight of spiritual emptiness, economic stress and long-held secrets.

And that’s precisely what he gives us in this collaboration with German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The Buena Vista Social Club).

A haggard-looking man (character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a rare leading role) wanders in from the desert. He has no memory. Eventually his brother (Dean Stockwell) is located and comes to pick him up and gives him a home.

Our protagonist is named Travis, a moniker that references both the hero of the Alamo and the deranged cabbie Robert DeNiro played in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Film Screening:
Paris, Texas (1984)
Monday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Little by little, Travis’ memory returns. He was married and his son (Hunter Carson) has for several years been raised by his brother and sister-in-law. Now father and son – virtual strangers – set out on the road in search of their wife/mother.

Eventually the trail will lead them to a sex club where Travis and his ex (European siren Nastassja Kinski in possibly her greatest performance) are reunited, though separated by a one-way mirror in a peep show booth.

Roger Ebert has called Paris, Texas a “defiantly individual film about loss and loneliness and eccentricity.”

But it’s a hard movie to pin down. It really isn’t about plot. Far more important is its mood, the atmosphere of loss and longing that stands in contrast to the harshly beautiful Southwestern landscapes captured by Robby Müller’s camera. But for all their beauty, those landscapes are empty. A soul could rattle around forever in that vastness.

And in fact Stanton’s Travis remains a troubling, enigmatic figure. Why did his family break up? What was his sin (or his wife’s)? And is there any chance of them re-establishing “normal” domesticity?

Don’t expect easy answers.

Paris was made at a time when most European intellectuals viewed Reagan-era America as an impossibly shallow display of cowboy culture. But the film seems to celebrate America – the cities, the vistas, the rugged characters.

Wenders’ fascination with Americana was shared by his moviemaking countryman Werner Herzog, who also was obsessed with our country’s mythology and culture. Perhaps that accounts for the affection/fascination which constantly seeps through in this movie.

And it is impossible to imagine Paris, Texas working without guitar avatar Ry Cooder’s hauntingly beautiful slide guitar soundtrack. Here the music and the visuals seem to melt into one another.

Individually they are good. Together they are great.

Interestingly enough, many years later Wenders cast Shepard as the lead in his film Voyager. Shepard played a businessman on an air liner that crashes in the desert. The airplane was "played" by the prop-driven TWA Constellation restored by local aviation enthusiasts and kept at the Wheeler Airport across the river from Downtown Kansas City.

See Bob's general introduction to the Fool for Cinema film series.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.