I am lost in the desert. I didn’t think it possible in this day and age, but here I am, beyond the chirp of phones, the cyclical ping of the 24-hour news cycle, and the targeted advertisements selling my emptiness back to me as objects: a leather skirt, a Toyota car, a pillow correcting my posture. Here, in the desert under the annihilating blue sky, I walk with my emptiness. I take it out of my mouth, hold it up to the light. Without my emptiness, I become thirsty. Soon, I cannot help drinking back my emptiness, swallowing it like the last splash of water from a plastic gallon. In the desert, the rock formations could be anything. They could be parents. They could be my father. Again I take out my emptiness. Together, we have been talking like this for years.
Before I see the desert of Paris, Texas, I hear it. Ry Cooder’s spare slide guitar permeates the black title screen. The melody suggests what’s to come: a bleak atmosphere, a mysterious man with tired eyes, and a grimacing regret flung from steel strings. I know this music, the Western-meets-bluegrass twang of American heartbreak. I know it so well that, like the highway I drive home, it’s a part of me, an indication of regional identity.
Paris, Texas comes across as mythologically Western. The first shot is an eagle’s eye view of the Mojave desert. Perching on a rock, the eagle locks eyes with a dusty stranger, the mysterious man predicted by Cooder’s guitar tone. Bird and man share a long, bewildered stare. The bird belongs to the landscape, but the man seems lost. He resembles a scarecrow in an oversized, pin-stripe jacket. He suffers the sun, the light textured by the grain of color reversal film.
“The excitement of grainy film,” wrote musician Brian Eno in his 1996 book A Year With Swollen Appendices, “is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.” This is why I’m always disappointed by the look of contemporary Westerns. No matter how meticulous the emulation, digital formats can’t reproduce the momentous feeling of standing alone in the desert. It was a feeling made for color reversal film, or that color reversal film made itself: a yearning to lose oneself out in the rippling heat. “Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature,” wrote Eno. “It’s the sound of failure…the sound of things going out of control.” The grain of film became its signature. As the crackling medium may suggest, Paris, Texas is partly a movie of failure, of losing control—and of swallowing that loss, accepting the consequence of one’s life.
The name of the mysterious man in the pin-strip suit is Travis, but we don’t learn this from him. Some trauma has rendered Travis mute and manic. When his brother Walt drives to Texas to rescue Travis, who has collapsed in a stranger’s desert trailer, he arrives to find Travis missing: gone again, chasing the lone telephone wire stretched to the white distance.
Though Walt manages to locate his brother and coax him into the car, silence strains their dynamic. Travis can’t bring himself to confess the root of his trauma. When Walt leaves their motel room to buy clothes, Travis again attempts escaping his brother’s love. He beelines for the railroad tracks—they seem endless, and secure in their endlessness, two black rails cutting a path through dead space.
Again Walt arrives in the nick of time, before his brother can lose himself to the horizon.
“What’s out there?” asks Walt, shaking his head.
At this point, I understand Travis’ commitment to getting lost is greater than his desire to be loved. It happens. When we can no longer stand ourselves, we can no longer stand others. We fling ourselves from the burden of love into escapism: a substance, a job, a far-off desert. A few personal events can spark this kind of reaction; most commonly, shame. If we can understand shame, we can understand why a man would abandon his family for the desert. Why a man walks alone until he collapses.
Shame is the slow burning motivation driving Travis through the nearly 2 ½-hour movie. It slows his speech, drags his gestures. His words sound hard won, as if wrestled from some deep pit. But he’s not the only one. Though she gets less screen time, his ex-wife, Jane, also struggles with the shame of abandoning their son. She confesses through a peep show rotary phone to Travis why she left Hunter to be raised by his aunt and uncle: “I didn’t want to use him to fill up my emptiness.” This is a story of emptiness, the one in and around us. The road cuts a thin line through the vast Mojave. The atmosphere, the cars and dust-bitten signs outlined in green light, create a kind of yearning, a desire to fill space with what Shakespeare called “sound and fury:” a doomed romance, maybe, or a great American yawp, some Marlon Brando-type screaming to the stars.
Director Wim Wenders doesn’t indulge this desire. Instead of Marlon Brando, we get the taciturn Harry Dean Stanton as Travis, whose lined face mirrors the sun-cut landscape. Shoulders hunched against the wind, he carries himself like a man who has accepted the defeat of his life. We never see the fury of his doomed romance, only its consequences: a look in his eye as he pores over photographs and home movies, an awkward silence at his brother’s dinner table and, most notably, a child.
I wonder if my father intended to be a father. Walking with my emptiness, I turn the question over like a pebble. Throwing the pebble at the sky, I hope to snag a backdrop, bring down the horizon, and reveal a bustling studio of light and chatter. I want to see the edges of the desert, the place where it ends in a tangle of wires. The boom mic hanging over cameras. The director yelling “cut,” some final proof that the desert, like the set of Paris, Texas, is a constructed illusion. But this isn’t a movie. This is just the life in which I have been made to accept absence, which has no end but fades out to the horizon in all directions.
My first absence was my father’s. For most of my childhood, I didn’t know him, though I grew up with his image. In analog photographs I witnessed his youth, which seemed plucked from a Kerouac fantasy. A photo of my father with slick hair and a wild smile. A photo of my father in a leather jacket leaning on his motorcycle, wheels dusted by the pan-American highway. My father, a teen greaser. My father void of fatherness. In Paris Texas, Travis talks in third-person of his desire to get “lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets.” For both Travis and my father, that place was the American and Mexican desert. In their world, there wasn’t much difference. You could just mosey over the border.
That world has vanished. These days, getting lost takes more preparation, a photo ID, a thumbprint, the humiliation of border patrol. Some of the guards are fathers. So are many of the people they detain and separate from their families. Being a father, it turns out, doesn’t protect you from being cruel, or from being a victim of cruelty. But I grew up hoping it would, as if the word father itself were a prayer against the chaos of absence.
When he enters Hunter’s life after vanishing for four years—“half a boy’s life”—Travis makes an effort to earn the love of his 8-year-old son not by being a father, but by looking like one. Flipping through men’s fashion magazines, he asks the curious maid, “What does a father look like?”
“There are many different kinds of fathers,” she says.
“Well,” replies Travis, “I just need one.”
Travis settles on a rakish business suit and hat, a caricature of fatherhood. It’s a cunning look, but not enough to make him a father. At the end of the movie, he once again abandons his son, vanishes back into the night.
When my father came back into my life, I hoped for a picturesque kind of love. At the time, what I knew of fathers came from ‘90s TV shows. These fantasies depicted upper middle-class families who enjoyed full breakfasts before school, bedrooms with telephones in them, and lives that followed a predictable, episodic plot. Their problems were never ugly enough to jar the laugh track. Like their golden retrievers, the fathers were usually dopey, loving, and wholly unmarked by the traumas of toxic masculinity.
My father was brilliant and severe. As a child, I couldn’t appreciate his brilliant mind, but I felt his severity. No one taught him how to give love in such a way that a child could receive it, and while this wasn’t his fault, it was his responsibility, which he never fulfilled. When he moved back in with our family, I did not come to know him better. I simply transitioned from yearning for his presence to fearing it.
Comparing Travis to his brother Walt in Paris, Texas, I see the difference between my father and the father I wanted him to be when I was a child. Walt: the bourgeois advertising father whose business is filling emptiness with billboards, the imagistic language of children and idealists. Travis: the distant father who creates emptiness every time he walks into a room, who never could string together an apology—until it’s too late, and even then only over the phone.
The class difference is painful to observe. Though we don’t see the trailer Travis lived in before it caught fire, we can imagine how it might compare to Walt’s suburban utopia. Like Travis, my father eventually traded in his traveling jacket for a tweed coat, but that didn’t give back the years he worked the graveyard shift at the steel mill, that smoking mouth of manual labor. All lives contain hardship. But some lives are gentler than others, and my father’s life lacked gentleness.
The desert is not gentle, though it contains beauty, especially at dusk, when the neon signs wink on and the landscape seems preserved in a haze of light pollution that softens the edges of the land. “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine,” wrote the novelist Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and in the desert my emptiness is lit up like a billboard. I am asking the billboard again and again what has fueled my shrug away from love into a life-long dissociation. What left me, like Travis and my father, stranded in the desert, trying to get lost—or more precisely, to lose myself.
It’s possible that when we talk about the failures of our parents, we are really talking about ourselves. Talking to Hunter in a highway shanty, Travis describes his father’s principal failure as an inability to accept his wife, Travis’ mother, for who she was. “He looked at her, but he didn’t see her. He—he saw this idea,” says Travis, who made the same mistake in his relationship with Jane, whom he failed to accept as a growing individual with her own inner world.
If we are to love at all, we must relinquish our ideas of people and accept the real things. I don’t know when I’ll emerge from the desert. For now, to have at least started the conversation with my emptiness is a small triumph. “The world’s definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another,” wrote the essayist James Baldwin. “One cannot allow oneself, nor one’s family, friends, or lovers—to say nothing of one’s children—to live according to the world’s definitions; one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.” In Paris, Texas, we observe the tension between the world’s definition of fatherhood and the reality of being a father, an experience as nebulous as the changing desert light. I do not have the father I imagined I would have. I have a father. That’s the beauty of the desert. Out here, away from tree cover, you learn to see people for who they are, how this, too, is a kind of love.