Inner State 5 examines American road films. This series of articles will explore their place in the rise of New Hollywood, their common themes of freedom and individualism, and their place in history as perhaps the most fundamentally American film genre. For more in this series, click here.
The world became a worse place last Friday, because we lost Harry Dean Stanton. Even though he seemed prepared for it, most of the rest of us weren’t. Stanton’s long résumé defies quick encapsulation or summary, but Paris, Texas, an offbeat road-drama-cum-mystery, shows Stanton at his best. Sam Shepard wrote the film, taking inspiration from his autobiographical and emotionally truthful anthology Motel Chronicles. (Shepard died in July. If 2016 was the year of the death of the pop star, 2017 is the year of the death of the craftsman.)
The film opens as a crane shot over the Texas desert alights on Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), a seemingly mute, insensate, haggard scarecrow of a man. So completely has he shut down from human contact that he doesn’t even nod or shake his head to answer questions. Encounters with Travis’s extended family reveal a different person before he dropped off the map. As the film tantalizes with the mystery of how Travis became this non-verbal vagabond, Travis embarks on an odyssey back to his past. His first companion is his brother Walter (Dean Stockwell). His second: his son Hunter.
As Rich Hall points out in Continental Drifters, Travis communicates through machines what his voice can’t say. His bond with Hunter grows as they communicate through walkie talkies. Travis later tape-records his true feelings for Hunter, what he can’t say to Hunter’s face. When Travis finally meets his ex-wife Jane (Natassja Kinski), they communicate through a peep show intercom. Even the home movie of his time with Hunter and Jane symbolically equates to Travis telling his brother and Hunter that he still loves Jane.
Interestingly, the love between Travis and Jane, especially the marked age difference, seems reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton’s real-life relationship with Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay left Stanton for Tom Cruise shortly before Stanton acted in Paris, Texas. One wonders how much of De Mornay became Jane.
Speaking of inspiration, the film’s plot would become echoed two years later with “Graceland,” the best song Paul Simon has ever written on the best album he’s ever recorded. Paris, Texas and “Graceland” both depict open road ruminations and father-son bonding as conduits of healing from the end of a marriage. Twice Simon sings, “[L]osing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody feels the wind blow.” We’ve all felt that—Simon, Travis, and anyone else who watched a relationship crumble to dust before they could pick it back up and put it back together.
The film also appears to have inspired the main plot thread in the recently-ended new season of Twin Peaks. Both deal with men whose circumstances have effectively made them a silent tabula rasa. They have to regain enough of themselves to complete the odyssey for which they’ve become destined. As a bonus, Harry Dean Stanton appeared in both!
Director Wim Wenders lights the path along the way to Jane with motifs such as motels, road signs, and color, especially shades of bright red. The color red has historically served as a symbol of vitality and life energy. In this film, that life energy points to Jane, whose role as an inaccessible mother in this film resembles the role of a mythological mother goddess. Red objects show up on the screen when the characters are on the right track to Jane. Distinctly American motels with flashing red neon signs show up throughout the film as stepping stones dotting Travis’s path to his destiny. Of course, this also includes taillights, of which we see hundreds in this road film. Travis and Hunter show their spiritual proximity to Jane by wearing red as well. When we finally see Jane in her cherry red 1980 Chevette, even without a good look at her face, we know it’s her. When we learn that Jane works in a peep show club, it makes sense, since we associate that with a red-light district.
We also associate red with love. In her absence, Jane becomes a symbol—an unknowing recipient—of love beamed out into the ether. This builds up to the climax, when Travis bares his soul and we realize this film is about love. The film asks if untempered, erupting love is the real root of jealousy and abuse. Was that Travis’s and Jane’s downfall that brought them to this point? A conversation between Travis and Hunter on the cusp of the final climax implies that Travis’s parents suffered a similar fate: love without anchoring in reality drove them apart. Travis even implies that he inherited his alcoholism from his father. Alcohol has always had a way of exacerbating the issues beneath.
Interestingly, the second and final time we see Travis and Jane together, the scene has no red objects whatsoever. Black dominates this scene and pale green (the film’s de facto secondary color) dominates the rest of the film. Black has often symbolized separation and green has often symbolized envy and jealousy. Both Travis and Jane believe the damage is done and The Way Things Were will never be an option again. But with their separation comes the salutary reunion of mother and son. The last red of significance gleams off the taillights of Travis’s beat-up Ranchero as he drives into the night, believing he’s restored the balance of the universe.
However strange it may seem, Paris, Texas couldn’t have existed without the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent. In this myth, the Queen of Heaven Inanna made a long sojourn into the underworld to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral. To gain an audience with her diametrically opposed sister Ereshkigal, she must take off one article of clothing at each of the underworld’s seven gates until she appears naked before the Queen of the Dead.
In the same manner, Paris, Texas chronicles Travis Henderson’s odyssey back to Jane, the embodiment of his old life. But for Travis to have the strength to speak to Jane again, he must slough off the habits and flaws of his old self—which starts with acknowledging that they exist. As Joseph Campbell said, “The hero… discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed.” Throughout the film, Travis relearns how to communicate, build a relationship with his son, and seek out his past by his own free will. By building this strength, Present Travis “swallows” Past Travis and becomes someone better.
Inanna’s Descent would inspire the myth of Persephone. The Inanna myth differs because the staying-in-the-underworld punishment fell to Inanna’s husband Duzumi and Duzumi’s sister Geshtinanna. Two people who had no involvement in the original conflict paid for Inanna’s decisions. By the same token, like any child of parents in conflict, Hunter pays the price for the sins of his parents. One wonders if he’ll end up like Duzumi or Geshtinanna or Persephone, stuck between two parents in the same way Persephone ended up stuck between two realms.
Paris, Texas also analyzes the male ego. Travis embodies the Quiet Man archetype: the manly man who only communicates when necessary, in keeping with the male stereotype (which is utterly false, by the way). He carries his own burden, but he carries all of it. He won’t admit his vulnerability but has all the answers. This leads to all sorts of toxic behavior, even at the completion of Travis’s arc, which takes place in a milieu redolent of male gaze. Of course, in real life, the climax—Travis talking to Jane at work and telling her to come pick up her son—would seem like the sort of creepy, juvenile broken-hearted-male spectacle that would get a man punched. But in this context, where we see a man regain the capacity to connect emotionally and even to speak, we recognize how far he’s come to reach this point.… By today’s standards, however, it’s still creepy and wrong. I want you to know that.
Looking through this film’s mythological lens, Jane takes the form of the Universal Mother. Before her, one must come correct or get struck down. It’s no accident that it took Travis two tries to talk to her. He knows that as he faces this confrontation with the embodiment of his past, he will become either emotionally renewed or destroyed. Will Travis and Jane reconcile after so much has happened between them? Will she alter his destiny and force him on a course to certain death, as Ishtar (Inanna’s Akkadian equivalent) did to so many of her would-be lovers? Will she nurture or annihilate?
As a peep-show girl, Jane simultaneously embodies the other main female mythological archetype: the temptress. She tempts with her body and she tempts with her starring role in Travis’s past. We all have that experience of talking to an ex and feeling that ineluctable desire to regress: if not to take them back, then to become who we once were. Everyone hates breakups, but they have a way of forcing introspection and kickstarting emotional maturation.
What the future holds for Travis, we don’t know. But like so many mortals who chanced upon goddesses, Travis appeases the temptress/mother with a sacrifice: Travis returns their son to Jane. By this point, Hunter has become a heroic sacrifice; Hunter has come closer to understanding Travis than anyone has or will.
Shepard leaves the balance of the Hendersons’ lives to our imagination. We don’t know whether Travis and Jane will see each other again, or if Hunter will stay with Jane, or if Walter will restore the status quo from just before the film’s events. Maybe Travis and Jane will reunite. (It wouldn’t be the first time Travis wandered off and his family talked him back!) The title, Paris, Texas—its two incongruous names hinting at the divide between aspiration and reality—refers to the place where Travis owns a plot of land on which he hopes to live with Jane and Hunter someday. Could that still happen, or has Travis chased an impossible dream like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men? The truth doesn’t matter as much as what the viewer believes. The ritual has completed, the characters have confronted themselves and lived to tell about it, and a new life awaits.Liked This? Share It!