I Hear Your Voice All The Time

Paris, Texas (1984)

Even taken out of its context, there’s a Sam Shepard quote that has always stuck with me, existing near the tip of my subconscious:

She refers to her past as the time before she was ‘blown away.’

It’s a sentiment I have long carried with me, one that acknowledges a definable moment of impact that delineates the end of everything which has come before, a line drawn in the sand that clearly marks everything else as “after.” It’s a realization that has come with time and reflection, looking closely at the person I used to be, and understanding there was a particularly vulnerable period in my life during which I was exposed to just the right sort of alchemy to open me up to a place I’d never been before. And that place was Paris, Texas. In the ensuing years, Wenders’s film has become something of a state of being for me, a state of the heart which I return to time and time again to search for myself.

There are few sensations—outside of falling in love—like the ineffable feeling that comes when a work of art truly and utterly connects with you. There may be no articulating the exact feeling, but you know it when it’s there and it begins to live inside you. And with Wim Wenders’s films—whether it’s his existential poem of mortality, Wings of Desire, or one of his inventive documentaries—there’s a central theme that runs beneath them all. In his 2011 ode to Pina Bausch, Pina, she says:

What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?

And it’s those words that capture the essence of his films—work filled with an aching sense of yearning for something which you cannot quite name but still know as your own. Wenders once told me that Pina taught him more about men and women than the entire history of cinema, without a single word. Through his own films—and Paris, Texas in particular—he has done the same for me.

Paris, Texas is actually an amalgamation of both Wenders’s sensibilities and those of writer Sam Shepard—whose Motel Chronicles inspired Wenders to write the first iteration of the film. “This film, more than others, grew from my dreams…It started with dreams of collaboration,” Wenders once said. “For a long time I wanted to work with Sam Shepard…our love of the road…his love of the west, to me, was almost a reflection of my admiration for America…he’s held onto something that most of the Americans I know today have totally lost.”

Wenders, who grew up in post-war Germany (where “the only world I knew was destruction”), looked at the vast west of America and its stillness as a utopia. But for Shepard, the west was all he’d ever known. It’s the world he was raised in and, even as he traveled to New York and found success in a world far removed from that which he came, all those vast western landscapes and rough-tongues remain deeply ingrained in his writing. Together, along with Wenders’ pastiche fascination of the west, and the pair’s mutual affinity for work that operates just on the edge between dreams and reality, the two were able to create something remarkably profound and beautiful.

As in a dream, where we find ourselves existing in the middle of a moment without questioning its origin, so begins Paris, Texas. We meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man found wandering through the sweeping desert, having been missing for the past four years. He reappears without a single explanation for where he has been. In his absence, he left behind his young son Hunter, who now lives with his brother Walt and his sister-in-law Anne. Assuming Travis was dead, the two had been raising Hunter as their own—until the day Walt gets a call telling him Travis has been found, and is now under the care of a German doctor practicing in the middle of the desert. He travels to find him and, upon finally tracking him down, brings Travis back home to Los Angeles, where he’s reunited with his son. After a few days attempting to reacquaint himself with civilization, Travis decides to embark on finding Hunter’s mother Jane, who also left without a trace—save for the name of a bank in which she periodically deposits money for their son.

Hunter—once reluctant to his father’s advances—decides he wants to join Travis on the road to find Jane, giving the plot much of its narrative shape. But it’s the small, tender moments of the film, along with Wenders’ melancholic use of mise-en-scène, that comprise the film’s true essence, carrying far greater dramatic weight through mood and feeling than in any of its words. The real characters of Paris, Texas are the lacerations of the soul and the “demonic attachment for a man and his only woman”.

Back when Paris, Texas was merely a film I’d constructed from fragments of my imagination, I always believed that I knew what it was about, was sure I understood the poetic words hanging in its vacant space, and thought I felt the aching beauty of it all. I loved it in that perverse and wonderful way you can only love something unattainable, cherishing it like a worn-out photograph that lives forever in your back pocket, something that has seen the world even when you could not. But it wasn’t until recently that I felt I truly listened to what the film was trying to say, opening myself up to what it had to teach me about coping with the pain of love and the patience of longing.

Perhaps this is so, or perhaps it’s simply a testament to all the ways a film can live alongside you over the years, like a true companion, growing up with you and showing you more about yourself as you reflect back on it. Though with a film like Paris, Texas, it’s not only about the moments in which you’re watching it, but about the echoes it leaves behind. Sure, you can appreciate the flickering neon lights in the distance and the pastel skies cast against the browns and greens that rise in the landscape—the ode to still life Americana that once was and may never be again—but if you can’t feel all the yearning in its silences or recognize the crushing weight that comes with looking love in the eye and knowing you must let it go, then you haven’t allowed yourself to fully succumb to what lies at the very core of Wenders’ film.

While back in Los Angeles, after dinner one night, Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to watch some old home videos. The footage is from a family vacation on the coast, when Hunter was only a toddler. As the Super 8 starts to roll, you quickly begin to realize that what they’re seeing projected isn’t just old footage, but also the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact of a moment lost to time. We all collect these artifacts of course, building monuments to love, an essence shrouded in a pink cloud of impressions upon the brain. When we peer back into these memories that haunt us—the ones that we cover up in the daylight so that we can press on and live—they flash and burst forth with more power and more sensation than most any present moment ever can. And it’s all these impressions of moments that Travis can’t forget: the way Jane lifts her arms as she twirls on the beach or her pink lips puckering or her blonde curls cascading on his neck. Her skirt billowing in the breeze.

It recalls the end of one of Shepard’s poems:

In the midst of all this sleepless blood
Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched

I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on its own.

Shepard’s words echo through these home movies without a bit of dialogue. Jane is introduced to us as a memory, appearing on the screen from a more perfect past. Hunter, having seen the videos before, now watches them through the desolate look on his father’s face. We begin to understand for the very first time that it wasn’t a lack of love that led Travis to escape, but rather the immense power of love and the burden that comes along with chaining yourself to someone else’s heart. Living through romantic woes of my own, I’ve become cognizant of just how vivid those memories can be. I’m often paralyzed by the power they hold over me, the lucidity with which I can recall all those small, intimate moments, like scenes from a film unspooling in slow motion before my eyes. Like Jane dancing on the beach, it’s the sensory elements that haunt me. I’ll never remember the words uttered, but I can describe to you the exact color of the air or the precise curvature of our bodies’ shadow as we slow-danced in the dark. Living these moments was one thing, but revisiting them time and time again, bringing their full sensation back to life—therein lies the pain.

After watching the Super 8 footage, Hunter asks Anne if he thinks his father still loves Jane. He says he could tell by the way he looked at her, even knowing “that’s not really her…that’s only a movie of her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Seeing these old movies acts as the spark that ignites Travis’s desire to search for her. So Hunter and Travis hit the road to go after her, finding her working at a peep booth parlor—run by John Lurie—where men pay to sit and interact with her through a one-way mirror in various settings. The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and so he leaves.

The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger between most men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse so often to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend the wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try.

By the end of Travis’s speech, we’ve gained more true insight into their relationship than we could have possibly gained otherwise. We no longer need to see their past played out before us to understand the intensity of the time they spent together, or how it left scars that will likely never fade. As Travis talks, Wenders intersperses shots of Jane, slowly awakening to the identity of the man behind the glass. Finally, Travis asks her to turn out the lights so that she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her at the Meridian Hotel, Room 1520.

She pounds on the glass asking him to stay.

And then it’s her turn, finally, to voice the words she’s been carrying with her. She sits on the floor—her back to him. “I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me.” Working in a parlor where she spends her days entertaining anonymous men is a way for her to exorcise that yearning for Travis and to feel like she has a place to put all the love that has stored up inside her. “And now I’m working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice,” she says. And no matter the time that’s passed, or how far gone he’d gone—how she learned to live in that absence he left behind—still every man that walked into her parlor carried a piece of Travis to her.

She presses her face to the glass, he looks directly at her—their reflections mingling in one another’s, evoking the Cesar Vallejo line quoted in Shepard’s Day Out of Days:

Never did far away charge so close.

But instead of trying to force them back together or even appear to her physically, Travis chooses to escape yet again. He leaves Hunter in a hotel room where Jane later finds him and embraces him, their blonde locks blending together like two lost parts of a whole. Although Travis has chosen to remove himself from their presence, he isn’t abandoning them—he’s freeing them. In bringing Mother and Son together he is allowing them to exist, with each other, in a way that he knows he’d never be able to. Speaking to Travis’s decision, Shepard noted that “even pulling together the broken pieces of the past isn’t enough.” What’s shattered inside Travis is something so deep that he needs space to discover and deal with it, unrestrained by the emotional expenditure that comes with love, relationships, and family. Rather than stay with Jane and Hunter and allow life’s cyclical nature to rear its ugly head and corrode their family from the inside out once again, he chooses to be alone instead. That, he ultimately decides, is better than hurting them even more.

I pray for a break
from all thought

a clean break
in blank space

let me hit the road

just once

I’m not begging

I’m not getting down on my knees

I’m in no condition to fight

Sam Shepard

Still, for the aching sadness of it all, there’s a hopefulness in the reunion that Travis has given them. Jane and Hunter now have a new beginning in which Travis’ shadow may always loom somewhere above them, but won’t necessarily act like an endless weight upon their lives. No longer will every man have Travis’s voice.

Earlier in the film, when they’re are looking through an album of old photographs, Hunter asks his dad if he could ever feel that his parents were dead. “I never felt like you were dead,” he adds. “I could always feel you walking around talking, someplace.” But whether it’s actual death or metaphorical death, when you love someone that strongly, their presence never truly leaves you. Those pink impressions are burnt upon your brain forever. Shepard and Wenders both create hyper-sensitive realities in their work, where love is synonymous with pain and yearning and is always complex, mirroring the broken world in which we live.

My whole life has felt propelled by a deep longing, always desperately searching—but for what? And if I ever found it, would I even realize its presence until after it was gone? Yearning for something which you cannot name or feeling inextricably linked to a place you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint on a map is as confounding as it is exhausting, and like Travis and Jane, its easy to look at love as a way to fill the saudade that rests over us. But falling is the easy part; love is the thing that kills us. As I’ve come to understand what it truly means to fall prey to this kind of love myself—to care for someone with the most fervent and unconditional passion only to have to say goodbye, knowing it could be no other way—only then have I finally heard the cries of Paris, Texas. I now see that the heartbeat of Wenders’s film isn’t just found in its overwhelming beauty, but also in its desire to understand all those silent screams that live inside us, and how far we will travel to fathom their voice.

Paris, Texas was a mythological film to me before I had ever even seen it in its entirety. I dreamt about it before the credits ever rolled. In my sophomore year of college I took a class called “Broken Homes in Literature and Film” in which we were shown clips from the film and discussed them in relation to the Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan we’d been reading. That was months before I bought the Criterion edition, but I spent the intervening time watching those clips on repeat, staring at stills, and imagining a film that I began to believe would never quite live up to all the expectations I had built up around it. Around that same time I happened upon a tattered old collection of Sam Shepard’s plays in a bookshop on St. Marks and decided to shell out the $2.50 for it. Before I knew it, I had spent my entire Saturday night in tears on the couch, completely enamored with the seamless juxtaposition between Shepard’s cowboy mouth and battered heart. By the time I finally did get my hands onParis, Texas, I was hypnotized.