Vast American spaces and Harry Dean Stanton star in Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas, a lovely, easy-going, melancholy film about dislocated family. Wenders' beautiful compositions benefit from a brilliant performance from Stanton.
He walks out of the desert at the beginning of the film in a dusty suit and an incongruous red baseball cap. He seems incapable of speech and can't give a name to the man who finds him--it's as though he somehow materialised out in the wilderness. Stanton's ability as a performer is crucial as he manages to convey so much silently with his extraordinarily expressive face.
Eventually his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), finds him and we learn his name is Travis. They travel back to Los Angeles where Walt lives with his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement), and Travis' seven year old son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Walt and Anne have an impossibly nice home on a hill overlooking the city so Wenders can continue his beautiful compositions of vast American spaces.
Hunter considers Walt and Anne his parents now--Travis has been missing for four years--but it doesn't take him long to adjust to the idea that he has two dads and eventually he wants to run off with Travis to seek out the also vanished Jane (Nastassja Kinski), Travis' wife and Hunter's mother.
Hunter must be one of the most amiable kids I've ever seen in a movie. He doesn't seem very anxious and never wants to argue. In one sense this is a much more down to Earth (literally and figuratively) story than Wings of Desire and at the same time there's also something abstract about it. Travis, Hunter, and Jane feel like lost archetypes; the independent American man, his hot young wife, and their obedient kid, but the two adults have found themselves all too human and messy to force that dream on the big American landscape. Stanton and Kinski both imbue their characters with much more raw human frailty than the characters' conceptions can take. This is developed when we finally learn about the circumstances under which they parted and we hear it told like spoken prose. Travis tells the tale like it's about some other, hypothetical couple, turning their failed attempt to live out a story back into a story. But it's to show how broken a thing it is.
And Jane has gotten a job where she appears in little erotic tableaus, performing fantasies of cafes and clinics for customers who watch unseen behind a mirror. It's hard not to think of Harry Dean Stanton's everyman looks and Kinski's glamorous beauty as representing the relationship between the average American and the dreams represented in film and television, so one is compelled to read the dysfunction between the two as a commentary on a larger disconnect between fantasy and reality. But the film doesn't reduce Jane to a puppet--Kinski's performance is amazing as she delivers a dialogue about her point of view and her own troubled relationship with the dream.
But it's Stanton's performance that anchors the film. He appears in almost every scene and he creates that magical intersection between the otherworldly and the absolutely grounded.