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.
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.