The Rewatch: Texas vs. Texas
A dreamy, melancholy view of Americana through 'True Stories' and 'Paris, Texas.'
When you think about "America," as a concept, as a landscape, as a vibe, the images that come to mind when you're not thinking of the big cities are of the southwest—the middle, the heartland. Fields of grasses, of crops, of dust, clear electric blue skies, views that go on past the curve of the earth. The highways are wide and straight and flat, the towns are marked by a gas station here, a convenience store there, an ancient diner still standing on land that has escaped being replaced by national chains. They come up out of nowhere and disappear before you notice, liminal spaces that might as well stop existing as soon as you look away.
For this Independence Day edition of The Rewatch, I thought about this America, and I thought about thinking about America, how working towards a fuller, deeper understanding of this country is impossible without considering the complexities and contradictions embedded in its foundations, the exhausting system of politicking at the mercy of which our various social spheres travel back and forth in time, and the sheer vastness of a single country that spans an entire continent, east to west. There isn't any one movie that could hope to hold all of this in a palm-sized two hours of story, so, for this Rewatch, I'm looking at two.
Perhaps it takes an outsider to conceptualize something this big. West German director Wim Wenders began work on what became his 1984 film Paris, Texas by wanting to "tell a story about America." He and actor-playwright Sam Shepard had the same idea I did, deciding to set their dreamlike, mournful tale of two brothers, one of whom is hoping to reunite with his young son and estranged wife, amid the winding roadways and arid sands of rural Texas. After walking through the desert for who knows how long, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) is picked up by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and taken to Walt's home in Los Angeles to tentatively reunite with his young son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis is also searching for Hunter's biological mother Jane (Natassja Kinski), and keeps mentioning a plot of land that he purchased in the small town of Paris.
The "Paris" of Paris, Texas is a dream, much like the original French metropolis was a dream to those who named their small desert town after its glittering lights and soaring architecture. The film is a road movie (a favorite genre of Wenders') about the disenfranchised and the abandoned, and the persistent hope that, no matter how badly a life falls apart, it's always possible to put it back together again. The various chapters of the narrative are knit together by Robby Müller's astonishing cinematography, lighting gas stations and parking lots in vibrant shades of orange and pink and lime green. Even the tongue-in-cheek scoring choice of Ry Cooder's slide guitar, though it feels almost stereotypical for a film set in the American southwest, is sincere.
As soon as I thought of Paris, Texas, I remembered within seconds another Texas-set favorite that has lived cozily in my brain since the moment I first saw it. True Stories, directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, with music written by the band, came out only two years after Wenders' film, in 1986, and is similarly set in a small Texas town. The fictional Virgil, Texas is in the midst of preparing for its "Celebration of Specialness" to mark the 150th anniversary of Texas gaining independence from Mexico. It was inspired by Byrne's collection of clippings of weird tabloid headlines, and his idea that, maybe, hidden away in the immensity of middle America, there existed a place where all of them were true.
Byrne plays an unnamed man in a cowboy hat who acts as a tour guide for the audience, speaking—and often singing—directly to camera about the odd and hilarious goings-on about town. He tours the local computer manufacturing plant, the candy-colored mall, the church of a conspiracy-theorist preacher, and finally the town's climactic talent show, the construction of whose stage in the middle of an unused grassy field keeps time while the rest of the movie meanders on. Among the many threads, there are a few that follow through to the end: the Sisyphean romantic trials of Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a country-western singer with a hankering for pastel suits who just wants to find love; a local lady (Swoosie Kurtz) who constantly watches television and never leaves her bed; and a couple (Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe) who never speak to each other.
Like Paris, Texas, True Stories has a softer sense of slow melancholy among the joy, perhaps brought on by the knowledge that Virgil and its people is a place that doesn't exist. Even in the upbeat pop tones of the film's happiest musical numbers, there's an undercurrent of something that remains. Both films came out within two years of each other, in the middle of the 1980s, the decade characterized by then-President Ronald Reagan's pie-in-the-sky economic policies that rewarded only the very wealthy, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. There's a reason both films see the "real" version of this country through desert-dwelling redemption seekers and assembly line gig workers, karaoke bars and small town parades and suburban backyards and green-hued parking lots at dusk while the sun paints the horizon in one endless line of red.
Living in America is living every day accompanied by our own internal monologue of David Byrne-like sly observations, the very American obsession with the current moment and the equally American aversion to looking towards the future or the past. In our technology-dominated present, a town whose economy is overseen entirely by a giant computer manufacturing plant seems sinister. Maybe 40 years ago they may have felt the same anxious pricking at their thumbs. Is all this really that great, or is it a portent of some future doom? Like the citizens of Virgil, Travis Henderson's joy at reuniting the disparate parts of his family is momentary. Decades later, we're still repeating the same refrain: Soon, things might be bad, but, for now, it's all right, and it's enough.