*Spoiler warning: this essay goes in-depth into the plot of Paris, Texas and briefly discusses the meaning of Rosebud from Citizen Kane (for those of you who haven’t seen Orson Welles’ masterpiece)*
Despite its odd name, Paris, Texas is a real place. A quick Wikipedia search locates the town just “98 miles northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in Lamar County,” but in the eponymously titled film from Wim Wenders, this stateside Paris exists as an abstraction. It’s never seen and is referenced only a couple of times. It’s a place especially significant to Travis, our mysterious hero whom we see trekking through the Mojavi Desert at the start of the movie, near-empty water gallon in hand and a tattered suit draped over his scrawny frame. For a good portion of the film, we know as little about him as we do about Paris, and this is important. Through its mystery, the movie compels us to draw premature conclusions about Travis only to upset our expectations with a series of startling insights into the true nature of things. In this way, the movie sets up what it’s really about: the incongruity between perception and reality, and how, in the realm of human relationships, it can have devastating consequences. It invites us to contemplate the heartbreaking story of a married couple’s own impressions and ideas about one another, and how a lack of communication tore their family apart.
Paris, Texas is the aftermath of this story, the details of which are revealed very gradually as the film progresses. We are given clues as to what happened, the first of which is the enigmatic Paris itself. The first mention of the town occurs when Travis, after occupying the opening twenty minutes of the film in silence, abruptly asks his brother whether they can take a trip to Paris, the place where Travis was allegedly conceived. He offers no explanation as to why he wants to go there other than the fact that he’d bought a plot of land there some time ago, a transaction which he oddly does not remember completing. This association between Paris and a distant past indicates Travis’ desire to reclaim something that was lost. Specifically, he yearns for the innocence he came into the world possessing, indicated by his fascination with returning to the place where he first came into being. Like Rosebud in Citizen Kane, Paris represents a longing to forget the afflictions of the world and embrace a time when things were simply beautiful and beautifully simple.
And forget he does – Travis’ lapses in memory, which occur repeatedly throughout the film’s earlier segments, could be the product of repression or intentional misremembering, suggesting a history of pain deemed best forgotten. Furthermore, his initial loss of speech, arguably the most fundamental way in which we communicate with one another, seems to indicate that he’d lost, or never had, some crucial facet of human communication. Simply through Travis’ characterization, the film has already told us, albeit cryptically, the source of its hero’s suffering. That he slowly regains both memory and speech over the course of the movie mirrors his process of reconciling a past rife with regret and miscommunication, a journey that begins with the opening scene. When we see Travis navigating the Mojavi Desert at the film’s start, he is a misdirected traveler seeking a physical destination when the real frontier exists at the level of the soul. His quest to find Paris, a symbol of both the thing that was lost and the reason for that loss, is an outward manifestation of inner longing.
In keeping with its hero’s journey, the film spends a lot of time on the road, which has become a staple among soul-searching narratives set in quintessentially American milieus like Los Angeles and the Midwest – both make prominent appearances in Paris, Texas. At one point early in the movie, Travis inexplicably refuses to travel by plane, granting us even more shots of cruising Chevys and yawning blacktop stretching towards the horizon line. The movie’s streets and highways seem to multiply to infinity, thus befitting the nature of its hero’s quest, whose end is not yet in sight and whose immensity can leave one feeling desolated and disillusioned. Meanwhile, the film’s thrumming, guitar-driven soundtrack toys with the word “Western,” but beneath it rumbles a dissonant countermelody that eerily subverts the dominant score. This secondary melodic line reiterates the perception/reality motif by sneakily slipping something different (the countermelody) under the fabric of the familiar (the generic Western score). Paris, Texas may look like a contemporary Western with its sand-swept locales and cowboy boots, but below its surface is a troubled heart that escapes the trappings of any one genre.
The magnitude of Travis’ longing is powerfully articulated in a pivotal scene where he watches Super 8 home video footage of an old family vacation. The video, grainy and faded, shimmers with nostalgia. Everyone is smiling, and the shots of a younger Travis and his wife Jane are so romantically intimate as to be almost magical. On the one hand, the video functions as an extension of the symbolic Paris. It visualizes an untainted past whose unattainability only magnifies Travis’ longing. The sight of him and his wife, so lovingly together, accentuates their current separateness. On the other hand, the footage invites us to consider the paradoxical nature of art, art in this case referring to any means we use to represent the world around us. At its finest, art immortalizes treasured moments for us to revisit. It is as Shakespeare writes in his Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” – he preserves the essence of his lover by representing the lover through poetry. The vacation has long since faded into memory, but the video offers snippets of this lost reality as if they were unfolding in the present, vivid and as good as new.
At the same time, we question the context of what is shown in the video. After all, the very act of representing is an act of editing. When shooting a video or painting a canvas, we omit everything we are not shooting or painting, and often, these omissions are the ugly details of life: the lumpy gray rock encroaching upon the field of lilies, say, or the short-tempered fussing prior to the film shoot. The video itself is bursting with joie de vivre, but you wonder whether Travis and Jane were as happy as they appear, whether a schism had started to grow between them at this point in their marriage. Were their smiles genuine or simply for the camera? How does their seeming affection for one another fit into the grand scheme of their relationship? Although the events depicted in the video actually happened to Travis, we are missing the backstory – the pain of real life – that would contextualize the images for us.
By ruminating on art’s contradictory nature, Paris, Texas touches upon the complicated business of romanticism, which characterizes Travis’ yearning for the past as represented by the video. There’s a special place in life for dreaming and reminiscing, but that’s never enough. Every ideal needs a practical application, and in this scene, even as the video’s poignancy overwhelms him, Travis begins to find the resolve to act. He knows the context of the images, and with that knowledge, the video becomes for him both a caveat and a catalyst – a caveat against losing touch with the consequences of his actions and a catalyst to dream of the possibility of redemption. Indeed, the scene functions as a turning point, breaking Travis out of his self-absorbed misery into action. The very next scene shows him trying to fulfill his role as a father with renewed vigor, picking out “fatherly” clothes to wear for when he walks his son Hunter home from school.
The relationship between Travis and Hunter takes center stage as the film continues. Having been gone for four years, Travis has to make an extra effort to reprise his status as a father, a role that has been filled by his brother in Travis’ absence, in his son’s eyes. Rocky start aside, this process goes rather smoothly, culminating in an endearing father-son road trip to find Jane. On this venture, there is a crucial scene where Travis tells a story of his own mother to Hunter, and with it, the Paris of the title takes on additional meaning. As the story goes, Travis’ father, a joking man, would tell people that Travis’ mother was born in “Paris” without specifying which “Paris” he was referring to. Naturally, people assumed he was talking about the one in France and so assumed Travis’ mother was a Frenchwoman at heart, “ [a] fancy woman,” as Travis puts it. The father, however, soon bought into his own joke and began seeing his wife as being an actual “fancy woman.” The story ends there, enigmatic and incomplete, but we now understand that “Paris, Texas” signifies a mismatch between perception and reality. The significance of the story for Travis eludes us until the film’s climactic scene.
This scene takes place at the brothel where we’ve discovered Jane works. Her job is to role play her clients’ fantasies through a one-way glass while the clients sit on the other side, telephone in hand to convey their preferences to her. This arrangement renders her client anonymous to her, so she is initially unaware that her latest customer is her long-lost husband. It’s within this setup that Travis speaks with Jane. On her side of the glass is a crude replica of a domestic kitchen, a painful reminder of the life the two of them could have had if things had worked out between them. That she is more or less inhabiting the role of the housewife recalls a bitter comment Travis had made earlier about how she’d stopped being a mother long before their family separated. Jane, still unable to fill the role of motherhood for financial reasons or other, is left playacting the part in a pitiful charade. In this scene, Paris, Texas unveils the tragic second half of a version of the American Dream narrative, a story of young love and aspiration crushed by the realities of capitalism and human nature.
Travis picks up the phone and begins recounting the past. He refers to himself in the third person, almost as if distancing himself from what he’s describing as a way of saying “I’m not this person anymore.” He tells of the initial happiness of their marriage. His obsessive love for Jane that spawned delusions of her infidelity. The drinking habit he developed. Her pregnancy and his attempts to set things straight. Her resentment towards him, and his subsequent rage and return to alcoholism that would eventually break apart their family one fateful night. We realize that the story he’d told about his father had been an indirect confession on his part. Both he and his father treated love as an ideal. When it failed his impossible standards, Travis (and presumably his father) slowly became corroded by bitterness and deep disappointment. The similarities between him and his father, along with the fact that he’d told the story to his own son, hint at the movie’s perspective on the role of fatherhood in proliferating familial sin across generations. We realize how important it is that Travis took the initiative to come talk with Jane, requesting that she go see Hunter. As a father, he didn’t come to get back together with his wife, but for the two of them to prevent this cycle of estrangement from consuming their son as well.
Travis begins his confession facing away from the glass, and in this part of the scene, there’s an interesting play on voyeurism. Jane thinks he’s looking at her as her clients typically do, but he has his back turned. Thanks to the one-way glass, there lingers a misalignment of perception and reality, the very thing that scattered their family to begin with. Only when they turn around to look at one another, adjusting the lights to reduce the mirror’s one-way effect, do they completely bridge the chasm between them. For the first time, they are truly speaking to one another. At this point, words come pouring out. Though she turns her back afterwards, each is fully aware of the other’s position, and the talk is candid but unsentimental – both know what must be done and what cannot be.
The ending reunites mother and son in a hotel room while the father stands alone in the parking lot outside. The family is not entirely together because some wounds are irreparable, but there is a delicate sense of fulfillment. Importantly, the film offers no concrete resolution. Any alternative would have rung false. How can the complexity of emotion and the intensity of life ever be resolved? When Travis drives away in the film’s final shot, we see that he still has traveling to do, a life to live, and much uncertainty about how to live it. But this leg of the journey is done, and its completion offers hope for the future. Bloodied and battered, our hero has arrived at his destination. It may not be Paris, but it’s the place he’s been searching for.