No man is an island, says John Donne, but sometimes it seems that way. When we see Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) for the first time in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, we see an island. Alone, wandering in the desert, Travis carries an empty water jug and a blank expression like an unused, forgotten chalkboard. Sporting a dusty suit and a red cap—the apparel of the modern-day businessman—Travis is the everyman, set down here by Wenders into the landscape of the American West. We know nothing about Travis, but we want to identify with him. We want to hear his story. Thus, the question demanded of him by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), throughout the film is our question as well: “What the hell happened to you?” What caused this man to set his mind to walking? When we find Travis, we surmise that he has walked a long way out. Now he appears to be walking back to the people and situations he left behind.
Even in these first images, Wenders presents the themes that had become his signature by the time Paris, Texas came out in 1984: alienation, the myth of America (and particularly the American West in this film), and life on the road. Wenders established these themes in the 1970s in films such as Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975), and Kings of the Road (1976), all shot in Western Germany, and usually grouped together as his “Road Film Trilogy.” Affiliated with the New German Cinema—Germany’s new wave movement, which began in the late 1960s, included such filmmakers as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, and advocated independent filmmaking—Wenders became the group’s “American” member. He moved to the US from Germany in the late 1970s and struck up a friendship with American playwright Sam Shepherd while working on a film for Francis Ford Coppola.
Based on an idea Shepherd had for the character of Travis, the two started working on a screenplay together, and before it was complete, Wenders was filming. With a crew of twenty, writing the second half of the screenplay on the fly, and shooting on location throughout the Southwest and completely outside of the studio system, Wenders’s method ensured that the making of Paris, Texas represented independent filmmaking at its organic best (it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984). The method also mirrored the road themes of the film; Wenders was searching for the best way to tell Travis’s story while filming, even though he did not have an ending. Likewise, Travis, the quintessential Wenders protagonist, was on a pilgrimage to find fulfillment and understanding even though the road ahead was unclear. In trying to figure out what happened to this character Travis, perhaps it is best to work through the film the way that Wenders filmed it: chronologically, from the beginning.
No man is an island, and maybe that is true, because whenever a man becomes an island, he is no longer a man. Travis is living proof of this. When Walt shows up in Terlingua, Texas to take his brother home, Travis is mute. Wherever Travis was, it was a place that helped him bury his memory deep within himself. He shows no reaction when Walt gets out of his car and greets him for the first time in four years. The camera flashes between Walt’s animated face, and Travis’s face, a reflection of the stone in the mountain behind him. Travis’s face is the face of the wilderness, indifferent to human concern.
The first glimpse of humanness we see in Travis comes on the road trip back to Walt’s home in California. Walt, exasperated by his brother’s lack of response, mentions Travis’s son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Walt and his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement), have been raising Hunter for the last four years. Finally, we see a change in Travis. His attention is locked onto Walt and tears begin to well up in his eyes as the subject of Hunter comes up. Travis is not an island, because he is a father.
Or Travis once was a father, anyway. When we meet him, he has given up on being a father, and we find out he has given up on being a husband as well. We do not know what the specific circumstances were, but we know that Travis once had a family. Anne tells him that Jane (Nastassja Kinski), Travis’s wife, dropped Hunter off at the house four years before, saying that she could no longer be a mother to him. Travis adds, “She stopped being a mother to him a long time before that.” It appears that the question of what happened to Travis is connected with the breakdown of his family.
While Walt, Anne, Travis, and Hunter watch old home videos of a happier time, we get a portrait of the family when it was intact. Jane is very young, very beautiful, and Travis is much older. Jane dances around on the beach like a little girl, while Travis stands, reserved and fatherly. The shots portray Jane as a daughter to Travis rather than as a wife. Is this distortion of marital roles an answer to why this family did not work? In conversation with Anne, Travis says, “She was young, she wanted something, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was.” Because Travis and Jane did not work out, the family followed suit.
So why does Travis come back from the wilderness? Why does he come back to relationships that seemingly have failed? If he wanted nothing to do with his past, he would not have come back to Texas. Maybe he realizes that he cannot run forever from that which has been ingrained in his identity: Travis is a father and a husband. These connections—the connections made through family—cannot be undone.
Travis has a picture to prove it. Among his belongings that he carries with him at the beginning of the film is a snapshot of a dusty plot of land in Paris, Texas. “Paris” is the first word out of Travis’s mouth, breaking his silence in the road trip home with Walt. Through Walt and Travis’s conversation, we learn that Paris, Texas is the place where Travis’s mom and dad first made love. Travis bought the land, perhaps imagining that his family would move out there eventually. Even though that never happened, the land and the picture of the land are connected to his identity. Travis cannot separate himself from this place where his parents created him. He is a son: he exists because his parents made him. Likewise, Travis has taken part in the act of creation as well. He is both father and son. The picture of this empty plot reminds Travis that he is part of something larger than himself: the idea of family.
With all of these thoughts swimming around in his head, Travis is thrown quickly back into a familial situation. At the house in California he is a father again, even though he does not act like much of one. One sequence in particular drives home the point that Travis is not ready to be a father, one in which he embodies the qualities of a child.
It is the morning after Travis arrives at Walt and Anne’s home. Travis has polished all of the shoes in the house and lined them up like toys on the patio in the back. Sitting on the house’s back hill, overlooking the metropolis below, Travis watches the planes, trucks, and other items of interest through binoculars. Anne approaches him, putting her hand on his back in a motherly fashion, and asks if he would like some breakfast. He shakes his head. They have blueberry waffles, she says. Does Travis like blueberry waffles? He nods his head. Would he like some? He shakes his head. His gestures and muteness reflect the characteristics of a child, responding to the pandering of a mother. Hunter comes outside to get his shoes and gives Travis a strange look. Travis responds by giving an innocent “Hi.” Hunter walks away without a word, perhaps confused by his father’s childlike presence and demeanor.
Travis eventually becomes a father figure again to Hunter. In one scene Travis asks Walt and Anne’s maid what a father looks like. Before the maid helps Travis, he had been looking in a clothing catalogue for answers! Donning the appropriate dress for the role—a tailored, sand-colored, tweed suit—Travis walks Hunter home from school. However, Hunter’s acceptance of Travis in this role is not based on Travis’s efforts, which are juvenile at best. Wenders understands that children forgive easier than do adults; thus, Travis need not go to great lengths. Showing sensitivity to Travis’s position, Wenders notes on his commentary track: “It’s not easy to learn how to be a father, but enough to be dressed like one.” Back at home watching Super 8 movies of the family when it was intact, Travis and Hunter glance back and forth at each other, acknowledging their connection past and present.
But what of the future? Travis and Hunter set off on the road to find Jane in Houston and, we hope, reunite the family. Father and son working as a team over walkie-talkies, they spot Jane’s car and follow her to the sex club where she works. It is here where Travis must negotiate another long ill-used role: that of a husband.
The meetings that take place between Travis and Jane are dictated by the separation that is between them. Travis is the customer at the sex club; Jane is the one providing the service. Travis can see Jane through the one-way glass that separates them; Jane cannot see Travis. Travis is coming from the position of freedom after wandering in the desert; Jane is working in a profession of bondage. The setup of the booth at the club emphasizes this separation. The two are in separate rooms, making their speeches through a single thread of communication: a phone line by which they purge themselves of their version of the story. On top of this immediate situation, a failed marriage lies between them, as well as the last four years of hurt and confusion. They cannot look at each other while they tell their stories, such is the hurt they feel.
Their stories are filled with unsatisfied longing. Travis’s love for Jane consumed him. He would work for a time, and then quit for wanting to be with her every moment. Crafting wild scenarios in his head, he grew jealous and abusive, unable anymore to give and receive love. So he walked away. Jane, young and beautiful, longed for adventure, and maybe somewhere inside of her, for a father figure to love her. She talks about the time following the disintegration of the family: she used to have conversations with Travis, feeling his presence with her until, one day, that presence disappeared. Then she encountered Travis in a different way. She says, “Now I’m working here... I hear your voice all the time… Every man has your voice.” By the time their conversation ends, it is already well established that Travis does not plan on trying to resurrect their relationship. He has brought Hunter to her in a last attempt to bring his family together, but that family cannot include him.
No man is an island, but sometimes it seems that way. When we see Travis at the end of the film, standing alone on a rooftop and watching the reunion of Jane and Hunter, we see an island. However, we also see a human being, a son, a father, and husband. So which is he? Can a person be both an island and a connected human being? At the end of the day, trying to force the two poles apart is impossible. We are alone, connected, and every shade of gray in between. Travis declines the role of father and husband in order to reunite Hunter with his biological mother, but that does not mean these identities no longer define him. Ultimately, the complexity of the situation falls away, and we see the good intentions of a man trying his best to honor that something that is bigger than him: his family.
Tyler Beane is currently pursuing a MA in Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.