Paris, Texas ★★★★★

Family is a curious and wonderful thing. It’s the groundwork on which most all our lives are built. It’s a small set of relationships that are so inexplicably strong that any damage to it can cause eternal damage to you. Handed to parents is an unbelievable amount of responsibility matched only by the pressure put on their children.

Most happy families are pretty comparable: a good marriage, close parent-child relationships, and absence of resentment. But unhappy families are marred in myriad ways: spousal, child, or drug abuse, mistreatment, stress, distance, indignation… The parameters of a happy family are so small that any misfire leads to inner and outer conflict. Every parent fucks up their kids—recall how Travis’s father insensitively teased his shy mother—but every kid fucks up their parents, too—notice how hurt Travis is when Hunter is too embarrassed to walk home with him. This circles back to that inexplicable strength of family, not necessarily in soundness but in power.

Raising a happy family in the American myth is harder still. There are few invocations of kitschy Americana, but the German-born Wim Wenders portrays a true sense of America, citing The Searchers and Taxi Driver as models for his unforgiving landscape and his protagonist led astray. There are screaming paranoiacs on bridges and desert roadtrips, American flags and Native American murals, tumbleweeds and Heinz ketchup, cowboy boots and baseball caps. There’s also a patent Western/city dichotomy between Travis and his brother.

Building a brand-new family is just fucking terrifying, and would be impossible if not for the blind bravery new love instills. This is Travis’s lost Parisian dream. But family can never leave you. It isn’t made through marriage or DNA; Walt and Anne aren’t Hunter’s real parents, but his loss hits them as if they were. Family is really made through years of heartfelt, shared experiences: through Christmases, dinners, hospital visits, conversations, confessions, gifts, and hugs. Even if you hate your family, that hate will follow you for the rest of your life.

Travis’s family never leaves his heart. It’s what started him walking like that through Wender’s primordial desert, and it’s what kept him going all that time. It’s why, after presumed years of nomadism and elected muteness, he stops in the road when he sees his brother. It’s why he wants to go to Paris, and it’s why he seeks out his wife and delivers that monologue, which is so poignant and final that it seems like his last words. To Jane, it is his epitaph.

He resigns himself to green-tinted alienation and loss. After this confession, Travis loses his family once again, not through arson and acrimony but through sacrifice and redemption. He knew their best lives would be led without him. He knew that for them to be together he had to be alone. Gone are his far-fetched dreams of his broken life pieced together. Gone is the hope housed in that polaroid of a vacant lot, empty so he can make it full. Gone is his happy family, but because of him a happy family is made possible. He returns to the road with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes.

Paris, Texas lives in the slow sadness it conjures, without gimmicks or Hollywood hooks. It is a first-rate masterpiece of resonance and care, of memories never faded and life made new.

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