From the starkness of the chalk cliffs and metallic blue sky of the Mexican desert to diner-lined highways wet with neon, "Paris, Texas" gives us post cards from the America that entranced Jack Kerouac. But even your grandmother wouldn't make you sit and look at post cards for over two hours. For all its photographic beauty and mythic freight, "Paris, Texas" is a bore, with the gummy flatness of an egg gone cold on a plate in one of its lowdown roadhouses.
Director Wim Wenders loves to make road movies, and "Paris, Texas" begins as one. Four years earlier, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) had gone bughouse, abandoning his family to wander the desert; when he pops up sick in a Mexican clinic, his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) leaves L.A. to retrieve him, and their reunion is played out on the road. They stop in a motel, but Travis won't talk; they drive some more; they stop at a diner, but Travis won't eat; they drive some more; they stop in another diner, and Travis eats, but he still won't talk.
The romance of the road lies in picaresque adventure, as travelers discover strange characters and situations, and share hidden intimacies just to cut the boredom. But it's the tedium itself, played to the built-in metronomes of windshield wipers and turn indicators, that seems to entrance Wenders -- here's a road movie where you hear every click of the odometer.
Things only get worse after the exit ramp. Travis strives to reacquaint himself with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), who was adopted by Walt and his wife (Aurore Clement) after he decamped; the kid balks at first, so Travis borrows one of Walt's suits (so he'll look more like a dad) and listens indulgently while his 7-year-old natters on about the mechanics of the universe. There's poignance here, but it ends up as an art film version of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." And the kid's so cloyingly precocious that you can't wait for them to hit the road again.
Which, of course, they do. Travis' erstwhile spouse Jane (Nastassja Kinski) has wound up in a sex parlor in Houston, where women talk dirty to the patrons. Travis goes to visit her, and the setting provides Wenders with a powerful image -- Travis on the phone, Jane in a phony domestic setting, separated by a one-way window (he sees her, she sees herself). And boy, does Wenders know it's a great image -- he sticks with it so long that he drains off whatever force it has.
Travis can't bear to identify himself, so he goes at it obliquely, in a long third-person monologue that tells us marital problems made him fly the coop. Jane answers with a monologue of her own. It's a skein of such corn pone cliches -- he loved her too much, she felt trapped, he "hit the bottle," blah blah blah -- that you want to blame screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson ("Breathless"). But the theme of love in doom belongs to his cowriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, and so, in all likelihood, does the flat writing. In his plays, Shepard's language sparkles and cavorts like a bleacherful of fans at a sunny Sunday doubleheader; only through eloquence can Shepard get away with his self-consciously mythopoeic claims. When the language flags here, the myths deflate -- in "Paris, Texas," Shepard's just making a lot of noise. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Stockwell nicely satirizes Walt's middle-class earnestness -- he approaches his brother's weird behavior with the same roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism he'd use to change a tire; Clement is a real charmer as his French expatriate wife. And Kinski gives one of her best performances -- she doesn't try so hard anymore (although her version of a Texas twang is a little nutty).
The bitter disappointment of "Paris, Texas" is Stanton. In a series of character roles, Stanton became a classic piece of American bric-a-brac. With his skinniness and long, mournful snout, he always seemed on the outs, and he delivered his lines like inside jokes for an audience of one. The perennial victim, he sometimes, like Chaplin, betrayed the kind of quiet, routine viciousness that only victims can summon. Stanton can make the most outrageous evil seem like cutting corners -- he'd play a great Adolf Eichmann. But having finally landed a starring role after all these years, Stanton flubs it -- he's a victim again, but he plays it cuddly, in the manner of Jackie Gleason's "Lost Soul."
Paris, Texas, is the name of the town where Travis was conceived -- his mother hailed from that town, and his father used to say his wife came from Paris, and there was pain in the pun. The movie is about the strains our dreams put on our lives, how we project fantasies on our loved ones that end up crushing them. But sentimentality screens the movie from its theme. It's like being locked in a car where the radio keeps playing a Hank Williams song -- dubbed in German.