GEOGRAPHY AND TIME: THE SEARCH FOR PLACE IN ‘PARIS, TEXAS’ AND ‘WINGS OF DESIRE’
“Europe forgets too little. America forgets too much”
The USA in Central European Perspective
Geography is often the most important, or at lest pivotal, character in a Wim Wenders film. The environments in which his films take place: be it the road, the city or the desert, play a crucial role in reflecting and inspiring the hopes, fears, losses, pasts and futures of the characters within it. Wenders is a filmmaker examining and exploring both European and American film traditions. His films, when not international in scope, examine both Germans coming to terms with their past and Americans piecing things together in the vast frontier to assemble a future. In all of Wender’s films, the setting is not merely a backdrop, but also metaphor and a starting point for the films’ and the characters’ identities.
Wenders has a reputation for disdaining film theory (“I do not have a mind for theories”) and changing the subject in interviews when theory is brought up. Wenders will dismisses theory and champions reality by claiming that he simply takes responsibility in all is films to “preserve the existence of things” (Beicken, Kolker, 3). Hence, the world in which his films are set should be acknowledged, documented and represented to the utmost reality. There is a intervening connection between the individual and the environment. A prominent idea running throughout all of Wenders’s films is the coming to terms with one’s own culture and history while coming to terms with one’s self.
Wim Wenders was born in 1945 in Dusseldorf, Germany. His family moved frequently to smaller, more provincial towns on the outskirts of the dark, sophisticated urban center of Dusseldorf. His dislocation from German history, growing up in these Americanized suburbs, with jukeboxes, automobiles and banality, would lead to an idealization of American culture: from Rock N’ Roll to the Westerns of John Ford (Beicken, Kolker, 6). His coming to terms with Germany’s changing landscape and its complicated history would be a theme in films such as Alice in the Cities and Wings of Desire.
When Wim Wenders was 12, he was given an 8mm film camera by his father. Much to his father’s annoyance, Wim would set the camera in one place in a window and simply film the street and its happenings (Beicken, Kolker, 1-2). When observant and critical people grow up in nondescript environments, they naturally become keen observers of everyday lives and everyday people, perhaps unlike a child in Rome or New York, where monuments, history and excitement constantly abound. Post-war Germany was a nation rebuilding without a cultural identity. Filming the common, everyday restless actions of people searching for an identity, Wenders became well known for his “road movies.” Wenders became a very clever observer of everyday life- as seen in his films especially up to Wings of Desire.
Wender’s main characters are often reduced to spectators. Their worlds are often desolate wastelands void of any familiar reminders of their history or ideals. He sometimes juxtaposes these lost places with recognizable reminds of place, as seen in the monuments of Berlin in Wings of Desire. In Paris, Texas the African-Americanized mural of the Statue of Liberty on the building where Jane is working at the represents America’s own cultural confusion. Lady Liberty is an instantly recognizable symbol of freedom and opportunity that is merged with a race of American people that have been without it (Beicken, Kolker, 125). Wenders’s visions of the world expose a place of contradictions and contrasts, but not without horizons.
Wenders’s films have taken us on jet-setting journeys (Until the End of the World), to derelect Los Angeles slums (The Million Dollar Hotel), and non-descript Austrian small-town life (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). Among the films in this journey, two stand out as close-to-definitive for Wender’s observations of both American and German life, landscape and environment: Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, respectively. Both films crucially pursue their environment and place throughout the narrative, changing and undulating as its characters’ stories unfold. In Paris, Texas it is the vast, open, arbitrary and lost landscapes of west Los Angeles that reflect Travis’s unknown past and uncertain future. In Wings of Desire, Berlin’s bleak urban landscape ridden with complexity, contradiction, guilt, tension and division mirror the feelings of the observant angels Daniel and Cassiel, as they observe the imprisoned city-dwellers. Both films can be also be viewed as Wenders’s two visions of hope in complex and lost environments as well as his most direct and accurate critiques of American and German identity as expressed through both the characters and their natural and built environments.
Paris, Texas is both homage and a keen critique of contemporary America and American life. The film tells the story of a man, Travis, who emerges from the desert with no language, history or story. We watch as the story of his life is pieced together with his brother, Walt, and his family in Los Angeles. It becomes apparent that Travis longs to bring his family back together. Walt and his wife, Anne, have raised his seven-year-old son, Hunter, for the past four years (the time Travis has disappeared). Travis wins the trust of Hunter and takes him on the road to Houston to find his wife, Jane, who has vaguely kept in touch with Anne. In Houston, Travis confronts Jane through the glass of a personal viewing booth at a porno shop where she is working. They tell their stories, after which Travis tells her they can’t meet and sets up a meeting between Jane and Hunter in a hotel room. Travis watches the reunion from a nearby parking lot and then drives away from the sunset and the towering Houston skyline.
The story of Paris, Texas is Wenders’s view of America’s ability and history of starting over and solving its problems through mobility and escape. The American environment, both the controlled “frontier” and the civilized cities reflect the lack of memory and human interaction that Travis has experienced. In the film, its cities are a faceless series of highway overpasses and billboards and its deserts a frontier of endless forgiveness and mystery Travis feels lost in both- wandering aimlessly until he pursues the love of his son in Los Angeles and the reunion of his family in Houston, and on the road between the two sprawling cities.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “there is no second act in the American life”, but he was speaking from a New England point of view. America in the film is an open place. Is a young, clean nation: a place to start anew. Paris, Texas is the American frontier of the west. As the viewer pieces together the past along with Travis, we see America’s redemptive qualities as much as we see its lack of identity in this vast, faceless built environment. Essentially, Travis’s entire story is a second act.
America and its constitution were founded on learning from the mistakes and horrors of European history. A reaction to the cynicism and corruption of medieval Europe, America began as a sin-free, history-free land of opportunity and chance. The frontier of the West is still the prime example of this. Even today, America can be called an innocent place, but a place where the innocence within the garden relies on the ignorance of the horrors from outside the garden (Martin, 1). Turning a cheek and focusing on the good, optimistic qualities of life is a privilege America has had. The ability to start over again is seen as a right for most Americans, and Travis’s story is no different.
Exactly what the America Dream represents in 1984 is not confirmed or even apparent in the film, but rather lost in a series of freeways, advertisements, and diversions from anything authentic and lasting. In Paris, Texas America enters an age in which commerce, home ownership, and automobile travel become not only the American Dream, but also the everyday American nightmare. Walt is a fine example of what is remaining of the American Dream. He is a cog in the wheel of contemporary America. He is a good man, though his actions allude to a repressed temper and spirit. His job that is so important to him seemingly brings him no enjoyment or satisfaction. His nice home overlooking nameless Los Angeles suburbs is an example of his self-imposed displacement from society. When Travis and Walt pull up to the house for the first time and Travis compliments him on it, Walt simply replies, “I took a real beating on the financing.” Walt and America’s Dream is represented in a house that is an investment as much as it is a home.
Through his billboards, Walt’s job allows him to visually reach thousands of Americans each day, as they drive to and from their own jobs. The only thing he can express is at the mercy of the corporations that now fuel and profit from the contemporary American dream. In the film’s first shot of Walt, while on the phone with Travis’s German doctor at the Medical Clinic, Walt appears to be standing in front of a generic, box-like, nondescript office building. After the phone call, the camera pans back to show that the office building was simply illustrated on a billboard Walt’s company produced. Not only was the image boring and artificial, but it was to be used to sell or promote something (the viewer can assume) boring and artificial as well. If the American frontier is a fresh, open place to begin again, it is also a non-place with a lack of identity, authenticity, and human interaction- like Travis himself.
Walt’s billboards may be the first examples of the dislocations and sterile voids between contemporary Americans in the film, but many more follow. Hunter and Travis communicate through walkie-talkies on the road and in the bank in Houston. The bank is such a vast, automobile oriented drive-thru that the two need to split up and relay their findings (as seen through automobile windows) through mobile communication devices. The film’s resolution, the conversation between Travis and Jane in the porno house, takes place on the telephone between glass in two separate rooms, which are designed to keep the occupants from directly viewing one another. Travis watches Jane (as an image) through a two-way mirror as an image he will never directly encounter (Elsaesser, 252). Later, Travis views Jane and Hunter reuniting in the hotel room from an empty rooftop parking lot nearby. His viewing of such an emotional embrace through the window of the hotel, standing alone in a cold, lonely parking lot almost brings to mind television viewing where the viewer is isolated, frozen in the role of an eavesdropper (Cook, 126). He is then free to drive away from the scene.
Earlier, Travis spends his first morning in Los Angeles sitting on the front porch of Walt and Anne’s home, watching the distant city through binoculars. Travis is terrified to ride in airplanes, yet he is eager and fascinated to view them (Silberman, 222). Minutes later, when Anne is getting into the car with Hunter, Travis asks if he can walk Hunter home after school. Hunter looks apprehensive and pleads to Travis that “nobody walks.” Hunter’s means to avoid dealing with Travis, his father, is to escape into a car, be it Anne’s or his school-friend’s parents (which Hunter eventually manages to). When Hunter finally warms up to Travis, he is comfortable enough to walk home with him. They walk up winding, non-descript suburban streets to Walt’s home. Hunter’s plead that “nobody walks” may have been an excuse to avoid dealing with Travis, but it is apparent that the automobile is a means of avoiding and running away from problems in the America of Paris, Texas.
The final shots of Paris, Texas show Travis driving away from the glass towers of downtown Houston, having become a responsible adult and reuniting his family, excluding himself. He is essentially dismissing and walking away from his own flawed version of the American Dream. Ry Cooder’s dusty, barren soundtrack takes the viewer back to a time when Travis was also traveling alone, wandering through the desert, a place without language or streets, in the beginning of the film. Earlier in the film, Travis describes to both Walt and Hunter how his father used to introduce his mother as the “girl he met in Paris,” pausing before he admitted “Texas.” An image of the most romantic city on earth is juxtaposed with the dusty American outback. His father’s wishful joke may seem innocent, yet it obviously had a huge effect on the family and the manner in which he remembers his parents.
In a scene that takes place the night before Travis confronts Jane, he gets drunk and begins to fall asleep next to Hunter at a Laundromat- another boring, faceless staple of modern American life. He explains how his father’s longings for something else were a “disease” and that his father looked at his mother and “didn’t see her”. It can be assumed that from an early age, Travis and Walt had the idea that the American Dream has its domestic oppressions. By the end of the film, it is apparent that Walt has already “lost” to the American Dream, having the responsibility of a large mortgage on his house and to his business. Travis, on the other hand, now has the opportunity to live in the spirit America was founded on: learning forms the mistakes of the past and beginning anew. There is a bit of irony in the conclusion of Travis driving away with a smile on his face. In the beginning, Walt seemed the one who had everything, reaching out to Travis. Yet, by the end of the film, it appears that Travis may actually be in a better position than Walt. He is free to redefine his American Dream, while Walt is stuck in the creation of his dream and finances.
The state of the American Dream is represented in the built environment in Paris, Texas that Wenders critically features. What America has built is best described as a mere conduit. In the desert, Travis wanders along power lines and railroad tracks. “What’s out there, Trav?” Walt asks Travis. Neither knows. There must be some anchors and reasons for the railroad tracks and power lines, but they cannot be seen. Walt and Travis drive from the barren, vacant desert to the barren, vacant city of Los Angeles. There, where Travis gets his life back, the city is nothing but a series of freeways leading only to the vastness and void from which Travis came from. The travelers on these freeway channels are neither here nor there. They are on a journey, lost in a web of endless expressways, currently in a place unknown and faceless, but with their minds on a set destination, just as Travis in the desert, holding a picture of a vacant lot located in a town named Paris, Texas.
One scene that illustrates the arbitrary and impersonal American built environment, yet hints at some purpose and guidance to follow, is the time in which Travis and Hunter eat lunch before heading to Houston together. The freeway overpasses under which Travis and Hunter sit while the bed of Travis’s truck are turning and heading in unknown directions, much like Travis and Hunter themselves. Though traffic moves around them in all directions, the camera, Travis and Hunter remain still (Beicken, Kolker 131). This scene marks the transitional moments of the film in which the road and travel become a means of piecing things together and resolving problems, unlike earlier scenes in the film, in which the road and travel are a way of escaping problems and accountability. Wenders’s use of the built landscape in this scene is crucial to the cultural meanings and the unfolding stories of Travis and Hunter.
Both Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire meticulously examine environmental influence upon the film’s characters and stories. What the films and their contrasting settings, the postmodern American frontier and urban Berlin, both have in common is the manner in which they changed drastically after the Second World War. Both locations are in two of the world’s most developed and prosperous nations. Both locations reflect similar cultures that are known for their work ethic and their industriousness. German influence has been enormous in the United States since the early 19the Century and many Americans look toward their German heritage with much pride. By all means, America and Germany have always been, and remain, similar nations in many ways; however, one would have a hard time finding two settings and environments more contrasting than those two seen in Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire.
The built environment seen in Paris, Texas is the result of the rapid, general achievement of “the American Dream” after the Second World War. Beginning in 1945, cheap financing on suburban tract homes brought million of families to the suburbs. Cities became blighted, if not abandoned, and America spread out upon what used to be the farmland, open space and “frontier”. The mass-production of the automobile and their necessary roadway systems allowed Americans a personal individuality within their built environment unlike anything ever seen before. America then de-urbanized as quickly as it urbanized during the Industrial Revolution. This process that has drastically changed the way American live, work and think is still happening today.
Wim Wenders and his screenwriter Sam Shepard were very critical of the American landscape (both natural and built) and lifestyle in Paris, Texas. The lack of human interaction, the sterile and desolate cityscapes, the communication through wires and devices and the bombardment of images reflecting an isolating consumer culture are all highlighted and intertwines in the film. Walt describes his business and his home to Travis in very matter-of-fact and impassionate terms. The understated subtle script by Shepard and Wenders hints at Walt’s entrapment within the American Dream. When he and Travis arrive at his house and Travis complements him on it, Walt simply replies, “I took a real beating on the financing.” The financing, the factor that made the American Dream possible since the 1950s, has now imprisoned people such as Walt.
Three years after Paris, Texas, Wenders would examine another environment changed drastically after the Second World War. If the America of Paris, Texas is detached, isolated, yet essentially liberated from history, the Berlin of Wings of Desire is imprisoned by it. The angels in Wings of Desire are not simply guardians, but also witnesses. The environment they witness is far different from the vast, mobile, commercial and young America in Paris, Texas. The plot, which Wenders makes no pint of diving straight into, consists of Damiel wishing to be human. He talks with Cassiel, the other angel, about how it would feel to feel: to be able to feed a cat, or get ink from a newspaper on your fingertips (Ebert). His wish culminates in his infatuation and lust for a trapeze artist in a circus. His wish to be among the living is eventually granted and he exchanges ambiguous dialogue with the trapeze artist at a Nick Cave concert. The lack of focus at the abrupt end of the story falls short of the film’s earlier weight. However, the film can be admired for its simple observations of a city at odds with its own history and its uncertain future.
The angels, Damiel and Cassiel, witness Berlin from the tops of the tallest buildings, the heroic angel in the Tiergarten, and the towering ruined Gedachtniskirche Memorial Church, but also from the depths of the city’s blighted and mundane streets, a failing carnival and mobile sausage trailers. The angels begin perched upon monuments that represent memories and symbols scarred by Berlin’s Nazi past and descend upon non-descript neighborhoods that could never ascend to the glories and majesty of the monuments that today remind Berliners of its city’s lost history, in particular the Gedachtniskirche church, which was nearly destroyed in the Second World War and left in its ruined state as a reminder of the city’s and the nation’s scarred history.
The Berlin of Wings of Desire is a spatial link between the past and present, where history is preserved in the flesh of its inhabitants. An example of how Berliners carry the weight of their history is illustrated in perhaps the most touching scene in the film. Cassiel follows an elderly Berliner to the once-great public space of Potzdammer Platz, which is well remembered in the character’s youth, prior to its destruction and suffocation during and after the war. Homer, an elderly holocaust survivor Cassiel first observes at the library, goes on a search of his sense of place and the places of his old memories when he walks through urban center and another memory of when Jewish businesses were seized. What Homer finds now is nothing more than an enormous vacancy beside a large wall dividing the two Berlins. There, Cassiel hears Homer’s thoughts as memories of when the Platz was a vibrant urban center. What Homer finds now is nothing more than an enormous vacancy beside a large wall dividing the two Berlins. There is a thrown-out couch in the field where he sits and contemplates what happened to his Potzdammer Platz and to his memories. Meanwhile, people walk above and across the current void space that used to be Potzdammer Platz on a skywalk that enables them to avoid an area of the city that Homer remembers fondly and longs to experience again.
The voids of Berlin, the reminders and remains of what has happened to the once monumental city in Wings of Desire, are reminiscent of the vacant, built suburban landscapes in Paris, Texas that represent what happened to the American Dream and frontier. Wenders shows us an America that has built itself into a faceless, vacant land without a sense of place in Paris, Texas. The Berlin in Wings of Desire is a place that was robbed of its identity when its history turned tragic and sour.
“Berlin is divided like our world, like our time, like men and women, young and old, rich and poor, like all our experience…My story isn’t about Berlin because its set there, but because it couldn’t be set anywhere else. The name of the film will be The Sky Over Berlin because the sky is maybe the only thing that unites these two cities, apart from their past of course”
Excerpted from “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film: From the first treatment for Wings of Desire”
The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations
Today Berlin is an emerging and united, yet fragmented, global city that is back among the most important in Europe. This recent prominence comes after a period of division and insecurity, as seen by Damiel and Cassiel. Berlin was a city stripped of its cultural identity by the Second World War. Prior to the war, Berlin was a mecca for artists and bohemians. The City was despised by Hitler, who wanted to drastically alter its cityscape and seedy vibrancy. After 1945, Berlin was left in ruins. Over ninety-two percent of its buildings were destroyed. The struggles to rebuild and the divisions caused by political and ideological clashes resulted in the erection of the Berlin Wall (prominently featured in Wings of Desire) in 1961, dividing the city into two separate, impermeable fortresses- the city seen by Damiel and Cassiel in the film. The Wall, which the angels may pass through, is an obvious, yet never trite, symbol of the city and the film.
In many ways, Peter Falk plays the role that Walt played in Paris, Texas and Dennis Hopper’s Tom in The American Friend. Falk plays himself- an American actor in Berlin to film a made-for-TV movie. His confident, matter-of-fact role is typical of an American in a Wenders film. His performance and presence contrast the yearning, imprisoned Berliners controlled by their environment and identity. Falk is exactly what Damiel wishes to be- a free spirit in a divided, controlled city. Certainly, if Falk does represent America, or at least the classic American attitude, then Wender’s views and representations of America are much less harsh in Wings of Desire than in Paris, Texas. Falk does, however, have the priviledge of visiting a land entrapped by its history with a clean, confident perspective of an American. He can describe the pleasures of drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and not be weighed down by the historical weight of the city like Homer who has lived, survived, and will die in a city that will never be the same as he fondly remembers.
Both environments in Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire are inhospitable to human warmth and feeling, yet both environments isolate and oppress their inhabitants in differing ways. America in Paris, Texas is not divided. America in the film is fragmented. It is held together by wires, tracks and freeways. The pathways and conduit that we see in the film film are self-imposed by lifestyle, unlike the literal and figurative divisions in Wings of Desire’s Berlin, which are deeply ideological and geopolitical. Berlin’s imposing and imprisoning history oppresses and dwarfs its citizens, while the American frontier’s vast and faceless lack of history isolates them. Of course, in scenes more powerful and symbolic than any in Wings of Desire, the wall was pulled down in 1991.
Perhaps the most telling difference between the representations of America and Germany in Wenders’s films could be the literal translations of the nation’s attiudes towards what a home or place is. In America, the idea of a home is closer to the term “at home”. Home is whever you belong. From the old folk song “Home on the Range” to Tom Waits’s “Anywhere I Lay My Head (I’m Gonna Call My Home)”, Americans have grown to believe that a home can be found anywhere, as we see in Paris, Texas. The word “home” can be translated from the German word “heim”, which means a fixed place, as seen in Wings of Desire. The desire of Damiel in Wings of Desire is to truly belong somewhere; to leave his position of transient observer and to have a home in reality. His desire contrasts those emotions of Travis felt that led him to his position of wanderer in the first scenes of Paris, Texas. Restlessness, desperation and hysteria: his reaction to the destruction of him home life, drove Travis to run to Mexico, a land without streets and language, and disappear to the role that Damiel held at the beginning of Wings of Desire.
Place, memories and memories of place are the driving forces in a Wim Wenders fim. Wender’s America is a truly liberated and free from the constraints and memories of history. His America is a land without place, where the built landscape forgets and reflects its land’s and its people’s dislocation from history becoming a faceless drivel of commercials and conduits. Wenders’s Berlin is a city yearning for memories, lost and dislocated without them, yet with the hopes of new memories and beginnings. America is not yet hindered down by a past, as Travis proves in Paris, Texas. Europe, however, it is still overcoming a tumultuous century that will forever lead to doubt and uncertainty. Wenders brings a conclusion of optimism and hope in both films. The environments in the films remain consistent to the end, but the reactions of the characters to their geography is what decides their futures.
Beicken, Peter and Kolker, Robert Philip. The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Cook, Roger F. Postmodern Culture and Film Narrative: Paris, Texas and Beyond. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1996. 121-35. Taken from the Europe-Hollywood-Europe Class Reader.
Ebert, Roger. The Great Films. New York: Broadway, 2003.
Elsaesser, Thomas. Spectators of Life: Time, Place and Self in the Films of Wim Wenders. Taken from the Europe-Hollywood-Europe Class Reader
Martin, David. The U.S.A. in Central European Perspective. Transcript from a speech in Utrect on September 23rd, 2004.
Silberman, Marc. German Cinema: Texts in Context. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.
Wenders, Wim. The Logic of Images: Essays and Converstations. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.