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Blu-ray Review: Paris, Texas

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When Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas came onto the scene in 1984, it was more an oddity than anything. Here was a film about Americana and crumbling families, made by a German director and a fully international cast. The script was unfinished at the time of shooting, which might help explain the visual-heavy narrative style. It was relatively long, noticeably quiet, and distinctly unresolved. Needless to say, it found more success in art house circles than it did with the general public. But its influential style had a deep impact on filmmakers, and also may have helped usher in the burgeoning movement of American independent film.

Movie

I grew up near the actual Paris, Texas. The thick landscape of pine trees and gently rolling hills bear almost no resemblance to the memorable images in the film of the same name. The opening shots of desert canyons that melt into the arid southwest offer a stark disconnect between this place the main character has in his mind, and where he actually finds himself. And these character disconnects are all over the film Paris, Texas, where even the name is more a compare-and-contrast of the two words than it is a real place for him.

The plot is fairly simple. The movie opens with a man named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering in the harsh canyon desert of the Big Bend borderlands. He is aimless and confused, and somehow manages to make it to a tiny town nearby just in time to collapse. The doctor is able to find enough info on his person to contact his brother (Dean Stockwell), who immediately leaves L.A. to come pick him up. Even after coming to, and aided by his brother, he is near catatonic, and only very slowly comes to rejoin the world and gain back parts of his memory. His brother informs him about his son who has been staying with them, since Travis disappeared four years prior. And after he also hears about his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski), who is now back in Texas, he embarks on a journey to try to salvage some of the bonds of family that he severed.

And that's really all there is to the plot. But as with much of Wenders' work, the actual story is only partly entrusted to the screenwriter. The rest is completely left up to the cinematographer, the composer, and the actors. And its in this other vein of storytelling that Paris, Texas really comes into its own. Ry Cooder's lap-steel soundtrack becomes a setting on its own, and almost a character. Robby Muller often frames settings more like a still photographer than a cinematographer, creating postcard settings for the characters to inhabit. And Wenders himself orchestrates everything as a grand architect who is now leaving the construction up to his trusted principals. And the wandering journey that they establish for the film helps to mimic the mental journey of our main character, Travis, as he goes from an amnesiac state (but more like an emotional collapse) to trying to reconnect and fix the frayed ends of his past.

Video/Audio

There are only glowing, effusive adjectives that can accurately describe the video quality for this Blu-ray release. Robby Muller's cinematography is breathtaking. The cleanup and restoration for this film is astounding. And the MPEG-4 AVC encode is first rate. This is a beautiful looking film, there's no doubt about it. Colors are mesmerisingly rich and the detail is fantastic. I actually wish I could think of some uber-nerdy A/V nitpick — to prove my critical objectivity — but I'm at a loss. It's a joy to look at.

The attention to audio is no less impressive, although it isn't as immediately obvious. After all, there is a slow, visual priority with this film. But Ry Cooder's plaintive and sparsely improvised soundtrack is remarkably rich here. The DTS-HD Master Audio mix is going to make a fool of however you've been listening to this before. Even during the sections of the film where music and dialogue are blended, the mixing is always completely focused and balanced. Dialogue is crisp, and ambient sounds are well separated.

Bonus Material

Criterion's release of Paris, Texas is nothing if not complete. There are loads of extras to explore, and fortunately none of them are fluff. First there is the booklet included with the packaging. Offering a critical essay, interview excerpts from the original press book for its Cannes release, and a generous amount of photographs, it's a fairly stellar extra for the release. Criterion is to be commended for still taking care in their packaging, but this one is even a step above their norm. On the disc itself itself we have a feature-length commentary track by director Wim Wenders. His cadence is very slow and thoughtful, but for the patient there are plenty of insights to be gleaned. However, it should be noted that his focus is generally more on the technical aspects of the production instead of strictly matters of theme and characters.

The theatrical trailer (HD, 2:13) – in all of its scratchy, time-worn glory – is of surprising interest. It offers a stark contrast – in terms of preserved film quality – to the restoration job done for this release, and is an exaggerated example of how much might have needed cleaning and fixing. There is a collection of deleted scenes (HD, 23:38) included, all of which are interesting and offer further insights into the film. The fact that they were edited together, complete with music, as a unified whole gives them added appeal. The "Super 8 Footage" (HD, 7:00) contains the complete home movies shown to Travis, much of which were edited out of the film. There are two photo galleries included, the first being "Written In The West," containing excerpts from Wenders' book by the same name; the second is "Robin Holland," a collection of behind-the-scenes candids.

There are also several interview sections. "Interview with Wim Wenders" (HD, 28:59) is from a German TV show on film (imagine a more focused Inside The Actors Studio), and has the director looking back and sharing memories of the film, and offering some of his more candid thoughts on the overall theme and resolution for the characters. "The Road To Paris, Texas" (HD, 42:42) is the closest to a standard featurette, but is actually more a general look at Wenders as a director, giving considerable time to some of his earlier films before then focusing in on Paris, Texas for the last half. Rounding these out are two recent interviews with members from the original production team. Director Claire Denis (HD, 20:28), recounts her work as 1st assistant director on the film, while Allison Anders (HD, 25:15) shares memories and journal entries from being a fresh-out-of-school intern on the film. "Cinema Cinemas" (HD, 12:20) closes things out, and contains archival studio footage and interviews with Wenders about the score for the film provided by Ry Cooder.

Conclusion

As much as I enjoyed this film, I would be fairly hesitant to recommend it without really knowing someone's personal preferences first. It's a slow, action-less journey where little is wrapped up and even less is explained. Often there is much more expressed through nervous gestures and forlorn glances than through words. But Paris, Texas exists outside of the strict, unyielding rules of mainstream film, and its this wanderlust – in both its story and style – that ultimately do make it compelling. For those already in tune with the film, this particular package is not to be missed. A phenomenal technical presentation, matched with an engrossing and thorough collection of extras, make this a standout release.

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About David R Perry