If you want to get a feel for infinity, drive west from Louisiana to East Texas on Interstate 10, through the rice fields and cypress groves, past the oil refineries of Beaumont and Port Arthur to the San Jacinto River, where the Houston Ship Channel bends south toward Galveston Bay. As you cross the bridge, the star-topped shaft of the San Jacinto Monument, commemorating the final victory of the Texas Revolution, offers momentary relief from the oppressive horizontality. But then the memorial is engulfed by the petro-landscape of barium lights and port terminals and chemical plants steeping in the humid bayou; and right there, amid the haze and hum, you can detect a tangle of skyscrapers on the horizon — the first glimmer of Houston.
In my experience no other American city seems so like a mirage. Despite its appearance in dozens of major films, it’s hard to remember what the fourth largest city in the U.S.A. actually looks like. Houston is not a place ingrained in cinematic memory. There is no equivalent here of the grainy montage that opens Woody Allen’s Manhattan or the majestic 70mm shot of the Golden Gate Bridge that pins Vertigo to San Francisco. There are no obvious landmarks like the concrete aqueduct of the Los Angeles River, which appears in countless films. Even in the Texas screen canon, Houston is easily outshined by the mid-’50s Hollywood epic Giant, with its desert-sublime images of the plains around Marfa, or by the indie classic Slacker, with its closely observed scenes of Austin, or even by the soap opera Dallas, with its aerial views of downtown towers and looping freeways.
So maybe it’s not surprising that the film that best captures Houston — its elusive anonymity, its persistent newness — doesn’t even reach the city until two-thirds of the way through. Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders and released in 1984, opens on a solitary figure walking amid sun-drenched canyons and wind-blasted calderas. We learn that this man is Travis Henderson (he’s played by Harry Dean Stanton) and that four years ago he left his wife and young son and has been wandering in the wilderness ever since. We don’t know why he left. All we know is that he is out of touch, out of place, maybe out of time. Soon Travis collapses in a rundown café near the old mining town of Terlingua, Texas. He is then rescued by his brother, Walt, a billboard salesman (played by Dean Stockwell), who brings him home to Los Angeles, where Travis is reunited with his young son, Hunter. Hoping to make amends for his absence, he decides to drive the boy back to Texas — to Houston — to reunite with his mother, Jane.
When Wim Wenders arrived in the United States from his native Germany in 1982, he announced that he wanted to make an American film. 1 And he found his America — or a lot of it, anyway — in the Lone Star State. “Everything I wanted to have in my film was there in Texas,” he said. “America in miniature.” 2 Indeed, Paris, Texas might be understood as a kind of journey, and not just for its characters but also for its director: an expeditionary record in the tradition of the literary or artistic European traveler who sets out to discover America (and himself). It’s a long tradition, spanning from de Tocqueville to Dickens to D.H. Lawrence to Reyner Banham. It also includes the Russian foreign correspondents Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who in 1935 drove across America in a rusty Ford taking photographs for the Soviet weekly Ogonek. Critical but not judgmental, warm but not sentimental, their travelogue was published as One-Storied America in 1937. A typical photo shows a gas station somewhere in a dusty middle-of-nowhere Western town. Ilf and Petrov write:
We would like to use this caption for this picture: “This right here is America!” Truly, when you close your eyes and try to resurrect in your mind the country in which you spent four months, you imagine not Washington with its gardens, columns, and … memorials; not New York with its skyscrapers, with its poverty and riches; not San Francisco with its steep streets and … bridges; … but this intersection of two roads and a gas station. 3
This right here is America! I’m not sure that’s how Wim Wenders felt while motoring through the back roads and small towns of Texas — the mood in Paris, Texas is more alienated and elegiac than enthusiastic or exclamatory — but that’s just how I feel when I’m on that westbound drive from Louisiana, heading for Houston. So as I watch the film, I re-experience my personal geography, tracking the highways and roads and streets of my own journeys back to Houston, the first city I called home.
In pre-production, Wenders took his own road trip through the American Southwest with two medium-format cameras, a Leica and a Makina-Plaubel, capturing images of buildings and landscapes that would set the tone and atmosphere for Paris, Texas. It was a case of life imitating art: Wenders’s first road movie, Alice in the Cities (1974), follows a German photojournalist on the American East Coast who spends his days taking Polaroids of gas stations and hotels in preparation for filing a story about the United States. 4 The Paris, Texas photos, which were exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in 1986 and later published as an art monograph, Written in the West, follow the trajectory of the film: restaurants, billboards, signs, motels, all dilapidating in the desert air. These images are not stark; they depict small-town buildings drenched in brilliant colors — turquoise, aquamarine, kiln-fired red, sunny yellow — that appear soft and ephemeral, in contrast to the austere landscapes, which are hard, unchanging, seemingly eternal. Later photos in the series are distinctly urban: brick storefronts, parking lots; a Safeway in Corpus Christi; the glass façades and parking garagesof Houston. In response to an interviewer who commented that his Texas photographs had an “end of world flavor,” Wenders said, “The way I see it, it’s a vital part of photography, seeing something and recording something as if it were the last possible chance to do so.” 5 Wenders’s still photographs trace a journey from desert to civilization that verges on the allegorical. When asked why his Texas photographs lacked people, Wenders replied:
Only a very few of these pictures have no trace of people. In most of them there is something or other that will no longer be there one day, something that may already have disappeared as we talk. Or in ten years, or a hundred. Take Houston: everything is so new, so very artificial. The buildings are like toys, like a Lego city, as if the architecture were a game. Inevitably you feel that it can’t last. 6
No wonder the Houston of Wenders’s movie (shot by his frequent collaborator Robby Müller) seems so dream-like — a sanitized assemblage of concrete and limestone car parks; of banks and hotels veiled in shiny reflective glass; of neon-lit interiors that shimmer as if otherworldly. The streets are empty. We hear only the occasional whoosh of a passing car. In Wenders’s vision of the American metropolis, Houston is utopia and uchronia, a city that defies place and time.
Cinema freezes the present and preserves it for future audiences. The final scene of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, shot in 8mm, is a film-within-a-film that captures Austin at a pivotal moment in its cultural history, before the town needed a slogan to keep it weird. In one of the more poignant scenes in Paris, Texas, Walt screens 8mm home movies to help Travis remember his past. The worn footage then becomes the movie we are watching. We see a slightly younger Travis and Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski) with an infant Hunter on a road trip to the Gulf Coast. The film flickers, suffused in a warm and honeyed light; Müller’s dashboard-mounted camera captures an old sign for U.S. Highway 75. (But even then this was a route that was vanishing: U.S. 75 connected Dallas to Houston and Galveston Island until 1976, when it was replaced by Interstate 45.) As Walt and Travis tenuously reconnect, the differences between the past and present are registered cinematically in the shifts from the soft-focus of the elusive past to the harder edges of the present; then and now seem as distant as countries separated by an unbridgeable expanse.
I was born in Texas, but spent my early years in Puerto Rico, Louisiana and West Virginia, each move reflecting my father’s rise in the managerial ranks of PPG Industries, where he’s spent his entire career. In Ponce, Puerto Rico, a sunny outpost on the leeward side of the island, we lived in a small white house with a flat roof and marble floors nestled in a plantain grove. Our backyard had a fence overgrown with magenta and white bougainvillea and a view of emerald sugarcane fields and a muddy creek bed. Puerto Rico is the first place I remember and I saw my first films at the Cine Santa María in downtown Ponce.
We moved back to the mainland in 1979, to a small, swampy town in western Louisiana, near Lake Charles, where you could hear radio programs in French. Two years later it was onward to New Martinsville, West Virginia. As I got older, I began to be aware of an America that extended beyond the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Ohio River Valley. This was an America on film, a vast metropolis of tall, sooty buildings set against viscous skies, an America of taxis cruising the wide avenues and gritty streets of a big and sometimes dangerous city. It was an America that I more or less equated with New York until the mid-’80s, when my family moved to Houston, and I had my first real experience of an American city.
So in the final scenes of Paris, Texas, I recognize my city; we are back in Houston, circa 1983, months before Hurricane Alicia ravaged the coastal plain north of Galveston, one year before a cargoload of tainted oysters caused a cholera outbreak along the Ship Channel. We had moved to a house in Seabrook, a suburb near the Johnson Space Center, and on our travels along Highway 146 toward the coast, past the gasometers and burning flares, it was hard not to catch a lungful of the tangy, citrus reek of the sulphur dioxide from the petrochemical plants. At night, on our front porch, I’d rock on a swing, plugged into a Walkman, the sounds of R.E.M.’s “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” drowning out the guttural rumbling of the trucks spraying pesticides to kill mosquitoes carrying St. Louis encephalitis. I was a student at Clear Lake High School, and there, in January 1986, I watched the Challenger explode on television during ninth-grade geography class. (Some of the crew’s children were my classmates.) During my sophomore and junior years, as I drove (or was driven) into Houston more often, I began to think of this sprawling metropolis as my home, my city.
I watch Paris, Texas often, and each time it carries me back to the Houston of my youth. Everything in the film seems a trace of something past. In one of the highway scenes I recognize the name of the rock station DJ that we see advertised on a billboard — a record of a moment, of a mere trace of a memory, retrievable only by film. But more often I find myself searching the movie frames for the things and places that haven’t changed, like the corporate towers and highway signs. Sometimes I like to imagine an alternate version of the film, one in which Wenders and screenwriters Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson really develop young Hunter’s obsession with astronauts and space travel. In this version of Paris, Texas, Travis and Hunter drive through downtown and head out of the city on the Gulf Freeway. They pass the strip of shopping centers and then veer onto NASA Road 1 towards Clear Lake City and the Johnson Space Center, where they’d be a short drive from my parents’ house.