Monday, February 08, 2016

Irreconcilable Differences

Yet another take on the auteur theory:

Without debating whether films are made by an individual or collectively (thus negating any claims of sole credit), I stubbornly cling to my lifelong collector's compulsion to enjoy memorizing all of a director's works and the year they came out. Am I the only one who gets a kick out of the publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock next to a tower of the screenplays to his films, with the titles printed on the spines, in order?

I thank my lucky stars that theaters have shown retrospectives of individual directors since the 1970s as far as I know. Getting to see a director develop while their skills improve is a joy, whether they seem to make the same thing over and over again or constantly reinvent themselves.

Furthermore, theatrical exhibition provides several advantages. Often a film will only be shown once, so you can't afford to let your attention wander. And sometimes you may never get to see it projected in a theater again, so all you will keep is your own memory of it, like the sweet Celine and Julie find in their mouths after leaving the ghost house and coming back to reality.

But the obvious benefit is the size of the image. Showing certain movies intended for theatrical release on a TV is assault.

The sixth film I've seen shown from the theatrical retrospective of Wim Wenders put on by AFS.

The screen is all black.

Atonal metallic percussion sounds ominously, gently mourn from some place beyond like Native American spirits attached to their homelands. Vibrant red saturated text appears on-screen displaying the brief opening credits. Red will play a strong role in the rest of the film.

A helicopter shot of the closest Texas has come to looking like Monument Valley floats through a desolate canyon with no signs of life, until the next shot links this POV to a hawk in the sky.

A steel guitar strums wobbly, as if drunk or about to pass out from dehydration, just like TRAVIS HENDERSON (Harry Dean Stanton).

Travis walks. His pinstriped suit dusty, ragged. His beard, shabby. He wears a red ball cap and carries a plastic one-gallon jug of water that's just run out. His eyes are haunted. He's barely staying afloat in the wake of a devastating trauma in his past.

Travis slinks in between the wires of a barbwire fence and twists the knob on a spicket. Nothing. Dry. He enters a bar, then collapses on the floor.

WALT (Dean Stockwell), Travis's brother, flies in from LA to help him.

This past weekend I had the fortune of attending both screenings of Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders) from a 4K DCP restored by the Wim Wenders Stiftung in 2014 and projected in its OAR of 1.66:1.

Paris, Texas is the reason I came to this series. It's the one I'd been looking forward to. Many consider it Wenders' best known work. It also won the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes film festival. And some trivia: Claire Denis is first assistant director on Paris, Texas. She is now known for many a great movies in her own directing career beginning with Chocolat (1988, Denis). And Agnès Godard is first assistant camera on Paris, Texas. She will go on to serve as Denis' director of photography on nearly all of her films.

Robby Müller is the cinematographer of Paris, Texas and shows his skilled craftsmanship with every camera set-up in the film. After Walt lands in TX he fills up his rental car at a gas station, with uncorrected fluorescent lights overhead casting green light on him while in the background the sunset is such a deep red one wonders how such a shot was even possible. How was the sky that red?

Terry Malick tells his camera department not to photograph blue skies. Thats' one way. It's understandable that he prefers his movies to feature overcast skies so they don't look, say, too much like a postcard. Paris, Texas opens with blue, often cloudless skies, and commit to that choice anytime there's a daytime exterior (with the exception of a rainstorm shot). Paris, Texas is a cinematography movie, despite my guess that its makers would probably say that their intention was not to distract the audience with the way the images were photographed.

After Walt leaves the doctor's' office where Travis was last seen he leaves in search of him. There's a shot of a blacktop highway that leads to infinity and a shot of a caliche road winding towards a backdrop of mesa. Walt chooses the caliche. Travis walks through green pastures. Some black cows graze. The magnitude of scale is staggering. And somehow Walt pulls up, like it's the most ordinary thing in the world. As Walt looks at Travis he comments: "What the hell happened to you anyway? You look like 40 miles of rough road." This comment not only alludes to the subtext of the previous scene--Walt guesses the rough road will lead him to Travis, which it does. But the comment also describes Harry Dean Stanton's iconic visage.

Stanton as the docile soft-spoken Travis and Stockwell as the kind and gentle Walt's performances are the foundation of the cast. Paris, Texas is serene, but something's at the core of it that is revealed to be a damaging wound that can never be healed. The first half of the movie is Walt finding Travis after he'd been missing for 4 years. Even when Walt finds him Travis refuses to tell him what happened. But it's also Travis finding his son, HUNTER (Hunter Carson).

When Travis gets to Walt's and Hunter walks downstairs, all dressed up, nice white shirt, hair combed, and pauses on the banister, it's the first big moment. We get it. There's no further explanation needed. Hunter says "hi." Travis says "hi." Hunter hasn't seen his dad in four years and he needs some time before he warms up to him. The morning following Travis' arrival he offers to walk his son home after school. Hunter complains to Anne, Walt's wife: "I don't wanna walk home. Nobody walks. Everybody drives." When Hunter gets out of school and sees Travis waiting across the street, he opts for a ride home with one of his school chums instead.

I grew up in South Texas. Nobody walked anywhere. I moved to Portland, OR when I was 19 and stayed in a big house in SE called The Dustbin full of punkers, rockers, DIY artists, Reedies, and intellectuals. All sorts of people passed through. One night there were these 3 guys who were from MN who I thought were fun to hang out with that invited me out for a walk, and I asked where. They told me nowhere. At the time I couldn't understand why someone would walk somewhere for no reason. I asked "how far?" and "when will you be back?" But I went. I think we just walked up Woodstock from 39th to 52nd or past the Plaid Pantry. I'm older now and I love to walk. For no reason. With nowhere in mind.

The same complaint can be appropriated for movies nowadays: "Nobody walks. Everybody drives." Paris, Texas walks.

Walt threads up some Super 8 film of a young Hunter, Travis, Walt, Anne and JANE (Nastassja Kinski), whom we glimpse for the first time in the film. This choice of film stock sets the images apart aesthetically, but also suggests something profound in the way it depicts the love between Travis and Jane frozen in the past. We'll never see Travis and Jane together again. The only thing left of that love is a strip of film, a memory.

The second half of Paris, Texas is Travis and Hunter going back to TX to find Jane. Okay I just gotta highlight one more of my favorite Robby Müller compositions: when Travis and Hunter eat burgers and fries in the bed of the Ford Ranchero underneath the winding snakes of highways looming over them. God that's fun to look at.

Travis finds that Jane works in a peep show where individual booths have a phone and customers make various requests as they watch her or other workers through a window. They can see her but she can't see them. We see quick fleeting glances of Jane leading up to Travis finding her by taking the role of customer in one of the booths.

Nastassja Kinski's appearance as Jane in the small room is maybe the most beautiful MCU in film history; with the soft overhead lighting, the set decoration, the color scheme, the magenta angora sweater, the choice of lens and distance of the camera to her. But this scene is also painful, especially if one is susceptible to the aftermath of losing someone from a passionate romantic relationship that ended badly. The metaphor of Jane not being able to see Travis, but still there for anyone to play out their romantic fantasies with, for only a small fee. And that it's that simple. And that there's that permanent barrier that will always keep him from ever being seen by her again.

But it's the second visit Travis makes that explains it all. Sam Shepard's insight through the dialogue into the process of pathologizing in detail how a relationship disintegrated.

Jane still doesn't realize it's Travis talking to her at this point, doesn't realize that he's talking about them. Until he gets to the point where he describes when he "used to yell and throw things in the trailer." When she hears that word "trailer," she snaps to recognition. Everything about her tone changes. Memories long forgotten come flooding back.

I have this theory that I know is going to sound crackpot but it goes something like: the color red is code for the mutual love of a parent and child in Paris, Texas. When we first see Travis lost in the desert he wears a red ball cap, but its faded. When he and Walt stop in a motel the sheets on the beds are bright red. It's like Walt has that love and he's trying to take Travis to find it. Where Hunter lives, at Walt and Anne's the blinds are red. In the Super 8 movie Anne swaddles child Hunter in a red shawl. But when Travis goes to meet Jane the final time there's no more red anywhere. And the reunion between Jane and Hunter is seen by Travis outside, from a rooftop, where he's drenched in green with a sunset in the background. And the final shots of the film find Travis weeping, in a frame where we only see part of his face, from behind, and red spills into the frame from somewhere. It's like it's behind him now.


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