Thoughts On: Paris, Texas
Travis, a man who abandoned his son and wife, is found by his brother who slowly introduces him back into his family.
A phenomenal film. Concentrated, slow paced, but highly expressive. The only faults in Paris, Texas come down to performances by the child (which you can’t be too hard on) and moments in the performances of those who play Travis’ brother and sister-in-law. Other than this, there are a few eccentricities of the film that aren’t tied into the narrative very well; those being the references to France and French as well as the concentration on flags near the end. This produces shots that seem intellectually stimulating with the fact that this is a film called Paris, Texas and Travis’ father often played with the double-entendre, but, I see no depth to this assertion through imagery. It may hold some significance I don’t see, and if you think so comment below, but after multiple viewings, I can’t see the tie-ins. Despite these small details this is an incredible film. The main reason why is quite simply the third act and the meetings between Travis and his wife. This transforms the entirety of the previous two acts, giving them a point and much greater depth. Without the final meeting, the majority of the film is unjustified in the time it takes to reach a point where Travis can talk, can have proper conversations with people and actually introduce some action into the film whilst giving us some answers.
The key thing I want to talk about with this film, however, is my experience with watching the elongated scene of static dialogue between the Jane and Travis. With the one-sided mirror between the two, the slow pacing and length at which they speak to one another, their dialogue becomes monologues. This only speaks to the poignancy of the scene and entire narrative for this is a film about isolation and irrevocably disconnected people. Nonetheless, watching this scene, my eyes drift from the screen. This isn’t because I’m bored or disinterested, but utterly captivated. This scene, despite its beautiful mise en scène, has the image fall secondary to sound. The atmosphere generated by this sequence, the long shots and isolated sound, put me into something like a trance whereby my eyes don’t just fall from the screen, but I almost stop seeing. No, I don’t go temporarily blind, it’s as if my mind closes down slightly – like it does when you walk the same route day in day out for months or years; you find yourself getting to where you’re going having paid next to no attention to your getting there. In such, I mean to say that I become numb to the frame and focus only on the monologues, the stories Travis and Jane tell. The only comparison, other than forgetting monotonous routes, I can make is of reading a good book. You start to forget the squiggles you read and zone into a perceptual space of fed imagination. The paradox of this occurring in a film is that cinema is a medium by which stories are told through images. To stop seeing them as to have the story be told is almost nonsensical. I question if the film stops becoming a film at this point, if it becomes something tantamount to a podcast, audiobook or radio show. But, whilst such an assumption seems fitting, it doesn’t make complete sense. There’s two reasons for this and the first is that you couldn’t make a film that exists entirely in this atmospheric realm whereby you almost stop seeing the image. Such a concept is interesting, but I don’t know how you’d do it. Moreover, this idea is negated by the second reason why this sequence isn’t a radio show, podcast or audiobook. We need the image to get us to that place of abstraction. Wenders conjures this suspending sequence in an incredibly cinematic way; by providing great images and a story that crescendos to the mysterious and highly emotional climax. For this, I want to say that this end sequence is cinematic, but in a form that is somehow antithetical to a philsophy of pure cinema. However, in saying this I feel I only speak of a paradox.
Thinking further into this, I tried to identify other examples where this has happened to me. One sequence jumped at me straight away:
The repeated monologue in Persona as well as the story of Alma sleeping with a young boy also, through some undefined set of cinematics, cause my gaze to recede into a blankness filled only by an imagined realm constructed by the dialogue of the speaking characters. A similar thing can be said for sequences in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Nostalghia and Solaris…
It’s the poetic monologues and captivating long shots of Tarkovsky’s many masterpieces that consume you in a cinematic space, one that becomes stifling, one that becomes almost anti-cinematic in the way the image falls into the background of the story at points. It’s both Bergman and Tarkovsky, undeniable masters of the cinematic craft, that best create these strange cinematic spaces. It’s Wender’s penultimate sequences in Paris, Texas that wedge into this realm and really speak to me of this paradox. Another key sequence to reference here has to be from Her.
Though this sequence isn’t nearly as immersive as those mentioned so far, it consciously tries to apply this paradox. The sequence I mean to reference is the one where Samantha and Theodore first have ‘sex’. The deeper the two fall into one another as they talk, the further the image falls away from significance. To embrace this, Jonze cuts to an exterior shot and then to complete darkness as to let the sequence play out with just V.O. This is an incredibly significant example of both anti-cinematics and the monologue paradox. What it says about cinema to me is that film is not just about the screen, the image, dialogue or written story. Film is about the perceptual space these things can conjure and let us explore. What this really opens up for me is something Tarkovsky says in Voyage in Time: “You should belong to [cinema], it shouldn’t belong to you. Cinema uses your life, not vice versa”. (Link here to a clip). This quote means two things. Primarily it is a direct statement to directors, one that calls them to make movies about themselves and what they know. But, there is an implication in the first half of the quote that can be reversed onto the audience. If cinema uses us, then it seems to be a medium we don’t really control. When you watch so-so, bad or even just-good films, it’s incredibly easy to disagree with this idea. In seeing average films that don’t blow your mind, you can very easily see the mechanics of them, you can judge them as flickering pictures some guy created to entertain you. However, when we stumble upon great films, our favourites that do something unexplainable to us, the idea that films have this weird ability to not be simple and mechanistic things that do no more than fill time becomes all the more acceptable. When I watch a Tarkovsky or Bergman picture or stumble into a sequence in a film that conjures this monologue paradox, it seems that cinema has almost magical qualities. And for what we know of the human brain and imagination, it might as well have. I’m put in a near dream-state by moving images. Chemicals surge through my brain in a capacity that leaves me perceptually suspended – all because of images and sounds playing in a certain way.
I don’t know if I’m looking too much into all of this, but I only mean to delve into this monologue paradox as to ask how it works, what is going on and how can we maybe conjure it ourselves. At this moment, I have no answers. It seems like these great sequences mentioned are the product of flawless sound design combined with long and concentrated direction following an immersive narrative. These are complex and utterly ambiguous components, but what they do is create an astounding atmosphere. And such is the proverbial crux of the monologue paradox. Atmosphere, something invisible and intangible between ourselves and the film, must be made apparent, must become the focus of the narrative for the paradox to materialise and us to be absorbed by it.
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