The Perils of Riding Off into the Sunset

illustration by Tony Stella

“I would like to think…you can never determine how you are going to influence someone, particularly your children.”

―Sam Shepard

When Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton died last year within a few months of each other, I took the opportunity to revisit Paris, Texas (1984)—a film co-written by Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, which gave Stanton his first leading role. 147 minutes and a full box of tissues later, I was a mess. The film remained the slow-burn emotional experience I remembered on my original viewing, but I also felt something I didn’t feel the first time around: disappointment.

Paris, Texas was one of the first films I saw from German director Wim Wenders, and part of the first wave of independent and foreign films I was exposed to. It felt both familiar and alien to me at the time, and introduced me to a new kind of cinema, the sort that takes time to unravel itself and subverts expectations in unexpected ways. It begins with a mystery: a man walks out of the West Texas desert, seemingly mute. Is he an amnesiac? A dangerous drifter? The man is Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), and he is both and also neither. Travis has been missing for four years and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), who works in advertising, travels from Los Angeles to fetch him. From there, the film morphs from a mystery into a family drama, as Travis reunites with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), to a road movie, as the pair embark to find Hunter’s mother (Nastassja Kinski), and ultimately to something else entirely—something existential, something lived-in, something not easily identifiable as a film genre.

Of course, it is also—all of it—a Western. Or a neo-Western, if you prefer. Roger Ebert noted this and compared it to both The Searchers and Taxi Driver, explaining that “the buried theme in each [film] is the need to save the woman from what is perceived as sexual bondage. All three heroes—those played by John Wayne, Robert De Niro, and Stanton—are somewhat misguided in their quest, not quite understanding the role of the woman.”

Ebert recognized that Travis Henderson is a mirror image of The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, but also an inversion; the contrast is set up from the beginning with the casting of Stanton, a stringy, hangdog character actor, instead of a barrel-chested John Wayne type. Wayne’s stolid power was always decidedly focused outward—at a world that was full of danger, with possible rapists and murderers behind every mountain range or mesa. Stanton exudes a similar stoic silence, but it was usually focused inward, trying to come to grips with the violence he knew he was capable of. Both characters, of course, go on journeys to repair a broken family. But whereas The Searchers, in keeping with the template of most Westerns of the early- to mid-20th century, places its protagonist at odds with external physical threats, Paris, Texas sets up Travis Henderson as a man at war with himself.

Though I watched a lot of classic cowboy movies as a kid, I didn’t initially recognize that Paris, Texas was a subversion of traditional Western tropes, an answer to the type of American masculinity that fetishizes raw power, weaponry, and unemotional resolve. What I did recognize was a story about someone like myself. He was at a different stage in life, with past experiences vastly different from my own, but Travis Henderson nonetheless felt to me like a kindred spirit. This was the story of an introspective man, prone to a certain type of sadness, who could love passionately but also had the capacity to lash out violently in frustration.

Travis, you see, had purposely lost himself out in the Texas desert to escape his disappointment and jealousy and rage. He wanted to forget who he was and what he had done and how he had hurt those he loved. Maybe he thought that by erasing himself from existence, or at least from interaction with others, he could also erase the harm he had caused or might potentially cause. This is, however, an inversion of the same line of thinking from the classic Western hero, who presumes that by erasing others—Indians maybe, outlaws—he can provide safety for his family.

Losing himself to the wilderness didn’t erase the harm Travis had caused, though. It just left his family broken and traumatized. His son now lives with his brother Walt and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément) in Los Angeles, and his wife—dealing with his violence and rejection—struggles to make ends meet as a sex worker in Houston. Travis didn’t know how to deal with his emotions, and rather than channeling them into a socially acceptable type of anger we often see in the John Wayne archetype, he exploded and ran from them instead.

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When I first saw the film, as a young man who also didn’t know what to do with his emotions, I didn’t recognize the harm Travis had done to his wife and child. But I did recognize and admire his desire to confess his wrongs, engage in conversations to bring about understanding, and try to restore something that had been broken. In one of the great confessional moments in cinema, Travis retells the story to Jane through a one-way mirror. He reminisces about their early romance. He recounts their breakdowns: her struggles with postpartum depression, his with jealousy and alcoholism. How he chained her to the oven one night; how she set fire to their trailer home. How he ran off into the wilderness. Travis relates this to Jane not to relive the trauma, but as a form of penance, to prepare her for a reunion with her son.

Watching the film again, almost two decades later, I was staggered by how Travis’ experiences were no longer all that different from my own. In fact, the similarities were eerie. I had helped destroy a marriage through fits of jealousy. I had sometimes lost my temper, at one point screaming loud enough to prompt a neighbor to call the police. I was also for a time geographically separated from both my ex-wife and my children. I had been laid off, and couldn’t find work that was steady enough to support myself, let alone my estranged family. Feeling unable to take part in their day-to-day lives, I moved back East, where I had grown up. I wandered mentally, if not physically, through regret, shame, and fear.

What drew me to Paris, Texas as a young man was Travis’ willingness to admit his failures and work toward confession and forgiveness. I had learned to do that, too. But I had also come to see that the underlying problem—the curse of so many men raised on cowboy movies—lay in my failure to properly process or display the emotions I felt. I had learned that this was my first mistake, the one that produced all the others, and was determined not to repeat it.

And so, watching the film almost 20 years later, I found that I no longer looked up to Travis Henderson.

You see, the film ends with Travis—who has reconnected with his son—reuniting the boy with his mother, and watching them through a window from a parking lot, before driving off into the sunrise (another inversion of the classic Western, whose heroes often ride off into the sunset).

In my own life, I was able to relocate, and was given the opportunity to be in my family’s lives as a father again. But there was no tragi-heroic deed of reconciliation, no riding-away again in resolution. I can’t imagine even wanting that at this point in my journey. While I continue to struggle to find economic footing and stave off displacement, the struggle to patch up a broken family only begins with an act of confession and a request for forgiveness; it’s the start of the story, not the ending. And the responsibility of fatherhood doesn’t end by driving away, leaving children in the arms of their mothers.

Revisiting Paris, Texas, I felt a profound disappointment that Travis Henderson no longer had anything to teach me. And I felt a disappointment that the film, even while it offered an incisive criticism of the rigid Western hero’s journey, couldn’t propose any fundamentally different concept of masculinity. It doesn’t ask the tender, introspective hero to learn any lessons or push further than the rugged, macho hero might in another film. Travis Henderson leaves his family a second time, ostensibly a tragic hero having done a good deed, but no more a committed father than he was when he first escaped into the wilderness.

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A film reflects the mindset of its times, but it’s also a dream of the future, an argument for what could be—not just a passive reflection of the present, but a lesson for it.

Paris, Texas upended the stories I was familiar with, the Westerns where heroes never thought to ask themselves what damage their violence and anger caused, where questions about “what it means to be a man” usually ended in gunfire, not an apology. I didn’t quite realize you could tell a story on film in any other way.

But I wish Paris, Texas could have dreamed bigger. I wish it could have imagined a better kind of masculinity, celebrated the value of a father’s consistent, supportive influence, rather than centering the story on a singular extravagant, heroic deed which carried no indication of ongoing responsibility. Too many men have been told that that’s the way to solve their problems. And too often, it’s movies that told them so. As Leo Tolstoy once famously lamented, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

There are worrisomely few films that even attempt to tell the story of a father—or a husband, or any male caregiver—fighting to harness healthy expression of his internal emotions. There are even fewer that accomplish it without using the metaphorical language of violence. Those that do exist, or at least take stabs in that direction, are often constructed as comedies, such as Mrs. Doubtfire or Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy, instead of serious dramas. But occasionally, we see a film that picks up where Paris, Texas leaves off, and follows through on the story Travis Henderson skipped out on: Movies like The War (1994), The Road (2009), and last year’s largely overlooked Menashe, which told the story of an ultra-conservative Jewish widower fighting for custody of his son.

Films like these help me. And I know that Paris, Texas helped me, too, even while, in some ways, it failed me. I appreciate the way it subverted the norms that were damaging to me, but I remain frustrated by the way it remained complicit in them. But film, like all art, is both a reflection of culture and a way to imagine different possibilities. Filmmakers, like artists, writers, and even critics, may challenge the culture of their times, but are often forced to use its language. And sometimes that means they miss something—something that won’t become clear for maybe half a lifetime.

As we grow up, we often get mad at our parents for doing something that, in hindsight, was bad for us—making us play a sport we hated, feeding us unhealthy food, punishing us in traumatic ways, having their heads up their butts one way or another. We confront them about it now that we’re adults, and now that they’re older. A good parent is willing to face this critique: “You know what? You’re right; I’m sorry. I did have my head up my butt. But that’s partly because it was 1984, and that was the conventional wisdom of the times. We all did it wrong. That’s no excuse, but it is partly the reason, and on behalf of all of us I’m sorry we didn’t do better by you. I’m sorry you’ve had to carry that trauma with you. I’m sorry you had to struggle out of it. I’m sorry I didn’t have the imagination to transcend the wisdom of my time and forge something better just for you. I wish I had.”

And we have to realize that we’re probably doing the same thing to our own kids, and will have to make the same apology someday, once they’ve grown up. “I’m sorry that I did that. It was 2018, and that’s what we were all doing. That doesn’t make it right, but we didn’t know better.”

Maybe movies are like that, too. Maybe they were bad parents and teachers, in some ways, even if they were trying to be good ones. Even if we thought they were good ones at the time. An imperfect father is often better than nothing—and in both fatherhood and filmmaking, there’s always hope to be found in the idea that those who come after us might do better than we ever did.