No more pretty face

Philip Horne

Wim Wender’s very pleasurable Paris, Texas (1984) is both an American movie and a European film. Its creative pedigree is mixed – all through the credits: the German Wenders as director, the American Sam Shepard as writer; the German Robby Müller as cinematographer, the American Ry Cooder as composer/performer of the music; the American actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell as the central Henderson brothers, the French Aurore Clément and the German Nastassia Kinski as their wives. For Wenders, a long-time lover of the Western and of American rock music, it was, as he has since told the French magazine Positif, the closing of a circle, the completion of his preoccupation with the USA. The last piece in his (embarrassingly titled) Emotion Pictures is a long, troubled free-verse meditation on ‘The American Dream’, written in 1984, in which he deplores the perversion of American ideals by what he calls the ‘state philosophy of “entertainment” ’. As in his exploration of the German condition in Kings of the Road (1976) – where his pair of heroes are the son of a small-town printer and a travelling cinema engineer, intimates of past and present cultural technologies – Wenders unobtrusively loads the two Henderson brothers with implications, makes the contrast between them richly suggestive.

At the start of the film one brother, Travis, stumbles out of the desert near the Mexican border and collapses, speechless and ragged. The other brother, Walt, is summoned from Los Angeles to collect him: he answers his portable phone in front of a giant painted image of Barbra Streisand – one of the billboard signs he manufactures. Walt, a nice, normal guy, flies off to get his brother out of a jam. The disturbed Travis, however, is obstinately mute, and keeps wandering off again whenever Walt leaves him for a moment; the Henderson brothers live in different American worlds. The cosily domestic Walt, with his sign-painting factory which is presumably to recall that of his Disney namesake, wants ‘Trav’ to come back in from the wilderness which calls him: ‘You mind telling me where you’re headed, Trav? What’s out there? There’s nothing out there.’ His own horizons are more limited: ‘It feels good to be in new clothes, huh?’ Travis, contrarily, numb with frustration and guilt on account of the jealous rage that broke up his marriage four years before, is forlornly open to the appeal of the ‘nothing out there’. He is alienated, lonely, capable of violence, and in this he is like a figure from an American cinema at the opposite pole from Disney’s – like another namesake, Travis Bickle, Martin Scorsese’s vigilante and Taxi Driver of 1975. The contrast between the characters is representative of the respective timbres of the directors’ work. Scorsese’s Travis takes out his frustration bloodily, on the streets; Wenders’s takes his out moodily on the road.

Wenders and Scorsese are hot properties at present: Wenders artily after the lyrical fantasy of Wings of Desire, Scorsese more controversially after the unfashionable but extreme heresies of The Last Temptation of Christ. They are therefore attractive figures for Faber, who are launching a welcome new series of director-based film books (they have been publishing screenplays for some time). Since the mid-Seventies, Britain has been lamentably served in this respect, with the decline or disappearance of the main series that flourished in the Sixties, the era of Bergman, Fellini and Godard. Secker had Cinema One and Cinema Two; Lorrimer did Classic and Modern Film Scripts; and Movie magazine, through Studio Vista, produced a couple of dozen Movie Paperbacks. These mostly gave way in the mid-Seventies to the theories of Screen and Macmillan, for whom film history was too often an abstract History focused on the means of production rather than the contribution, say, of a given producer (a bourgeois individual). It is only with the redrawing of cultural-political attitudes in the Eighties, and the growth of video, that a less doctrinaire interest in the cinema has revived – though a Briton can still be shamed, visiting a Paris bookshop, to see how thoroughly and interestingly the French cover the field. One new series, Ramsay Poche Cinéma, already has about seventy strong titles, including many judiciously chosen reprints. Perhaps Faber or Cambridge will pick up Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang in America or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Dreyer in Double Reflection, Rossellini’s Fragments of an Autobiography or Renoir’s Writings 1926-1971.

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