Paris, Texas: A Different Type of Western

Despite it’s specific title, Paris, Texas rarely sits still. Wandering from the barren bad lands of northwest Texas to the suburban sameness and phoniness of Los Angeles, California, the film’s main character Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) surveys the flatness of the desert and the sprawling, and spreading, congestion of California’s cities and suburbs. He looks for a place in the world, for his roots, his family, America itself. It might not have guns or horses or gingam,  but Paris, Texas is a Western, one that has more in common than John Ford and Sergio Leone than Jim Jarmusch.

Reflections of John Ford’s The Searches can be seen almost as soon as Paris, Texas begins. Stumbling through the Texas desert, alone and blistered, Travis appears in the rocky deserts of Texas. Similarly, John Ford’s eye frequently turns toward Monument Valley and the mountainous desert plains of Arizona. John Wayne’s character Ethan, The Searchers’ protagonist, feels at home in this world, much like Travis. Ethan goes into the wilderness to look for his niece. Travis’ brother, however, pulls Travis back into society to reconnect with his family, but Travis wants to wander the rocks.

Neither Ethan nor Travis play nicely indoors. Travis, on left, rejects his family's home and heads back into the wilderness. Travis, frightened by the interior of this bar, eats some ice and faints.

Neither Ethan nor Travis play nicely indoors. Travis, on left, rejects his family’s home and heads back into the wilderness. Travis, frightened by the interior of this bar, eats some ice and faints.

When we first catch up with Travis, he resembles Sergio Leone’s Man Without a Name or Blondie from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Travis can’t speak for the first half hour of the film, presumably culture shocked back to life. Travis’s brother may pull him different directions, but he’s his own man, surveying the American wilderness. He observes the culture and is affected by it, much like how Blondie’s stumbles into the Civil War in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Travis and Blondie are not participants in American culture as much as they are detached watchers of it, like ghosts. It’s no surprise that both film’s were directed by foreign directors and challenge the history of the American western hero.

Ultimately, all of these films, and the western genre on the whole deals with wanderers and outsiders, ghostly figures who slip in and out of societies cultures and are motivated by their own curiosities and desires, even if they can’t quite vocalize them. Neither Ethan nor Blondie, nor Travis have a home, though. They might reunite disconnected family members, Ethan brings his niece home and Travis hands his son over to his estranged wife, but they do not view society in the same way. It’s why Blondie keeps wandering. It’s why Ethan can’t walk through door. It’s why Travis views his wife through a window which portrays her in a variety of scenarios (a housewife, a prostitute, etc.) The western hero doesn’t sit still, because it has no home, and no plot of land can convince him otherwise.

Ethan finds his wife, Jane, in strip club where she performs for men in different settings.

Ethan finds his wife, Jane, in strip club where she performs for men in different settings.

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