Paris, Texas, and the Frontier of Heartbreak

by Guy Walker

Some years ago, I roared off in the middle of the night, driving the thousand miles from Los Angeles to Aspen in order to catch the ballet in time. I would have to drive fast to make it, in this very old Mercedes that was barely hanging onto life. Because this ballet dancer had broken up with me weeks earlier, and my friend and a shared bottle of whiskey convinced me it was a great idea for me alone to drive out there and surprise her. I had to ask my boss for a couple days’ pay in advance—three hundred dollars for gas and whatever else. Snacks, I guess.

It was my first time doing this—being in love, and being so busted up over our sudden split. And you don’t think straight when you’re still in love with someone who has totally vanished from your life. You become possessed somehow, completely deranged in the florescent midnight all around, the howling moon itself coursing through your veins and lungs. One would think driving seventeen hours would give you the time and momentum to think things over, to return even the semblance of your usual easygoing rationale. But that wasn’t the case. The hypnotic glow of the heart’s intoxication was thorough—there was no attempt to veer off course.

I hadn’t thought about this drive in a while. But all of it came back recently, the events played over like an old film reel you find in the garage behind bags of Christmas tinsel. When the pandemic first arrived, and scores of us were fired from our jobs, and told to huddle in place, barracked behind mildewed drywall and crumbling brick, watching house flies pester the confused space between the curtains and the window, some friends and I started a book club. This quickly and predictably turned into a movie club. We watched Kurosawa, and Truffaut, and Bergman, and all the usual ones you watch in that kind of group.

I had the group watch Paris, Texas, the 1984 western masterpiece directed by Wim Wenders, written by Sam Shepard. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and is arguably one of the best most redemptive love stories written for the screen. Wenders is a major figure in New German Cinema, who often tells stories of men who can’t touch the people they love. Wings of Desire is about guardian angels who crave real physical touch amidst their duty of quelling despair in humans. The American Friend is about a terminally sick man who commits a crime to leave money for his family. As a photographer, Wenders captures the grand desolate landscapes, places where humans have stepped back from and left abandoned, left in overgrown tumults of weeds and crumbling ruins. His documentaries, Pina, Buena Vista Social Club, and Salt of the Earth feature bright, mysterious worlds we as viewers will most likely never touch. And yet still, Paris, Texas is his greatest accomplishment, one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments. Because we are all trying to be in love in a world void of meaning; and the sumptuous materiality of this world is saturated in opaque dreams propped up against the wide open frontier.

I’ve seen this film countless times, and, until discussing it the other day with my friends, didn’t know why it continually left me crushed, wiping my eyes into my Covid-issued handkerchief, sitting there transfixed after the credits roll, reminiscing about life and love and the frontier of heartbreak. It’s arguable to claim that film criticism is too innately shallow and irreverent to be an actual legitimate vocation. We come away from a film, in passing discussion, saying if it was a good film or a bad film. I liked it. Or I really liked it. Or, it sucked. But from time to time a film comes around that fills you with all of life’s flourishing virtue, that stave off a crippling cynicism one more day.

The film begins with our hero, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), in a tattered unbuttoned suit, a red baseball cap, and a bristling beard. He’s walking through the desert, not aimlessly, but purposefully, looking forward determinedly as he marches across asphalt roads to continue in the infinite nowhere ahead. He doesn’t speak for the first thirty minutes of the film, but his face is saying too much for words. Shepard says that Harry Dean Stanton’s face is one of those that already tells a story. Stanton is a quiet, incredibly reserved man, much like my own father who was also an actor, who trained mightily in Chekhov and Shakespeare, as did Stanton. Shepard had written the script, and him and Stanton were drinking tequila in a part of New Mexico where my ex, the ballet dancer, now lives coincidentally. And Stanton mentioned that he wanted to play a role with some sensitivity and intelligence. And so that was Paris, Texas, the western of all westerns.

There is of course the sun blinded squint of Clint Eastwood in all those spaghetti westerns, a cigarillo gripped permanently in the corner of his mouth. Film critic, Pauline Kael, agreed, noting that the range of Clint Eastwood as an actor is severely limited as some kind of contrived seriousness. No one is really that cartoonishly cowboy. Or John Wayne’s sneering bravado as he punches the sordid air like an invisible bean bag. Harry Dean Stanton on the other hand, stares into the distance with a relatable brokenness and sad paralyzed gaze. He has been pushed to the edge, and by most judgment, been pushed over. A writer like Shepard is magically able to commit to sharp and immediate dialogue, unburdened by the usual bouquets of self-worship so many of us feel compelled to write, intoxicated by our own presumed wit and wisdom.

There’s an audio of Tarantino reviewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, in which he notes that the opening scene, when Daniel Plainview breaks his leg falling down the mineshaft, only to drag himself across the unbounded desert—that alone could be an entire film. Where others would have mercilessly died, dragging their bloody and broken selves under the bitter boiling sun, our hero, a soon-to-be oilman, a modern-day vampire, sucking at the throat of the earth—succeeds somehow. The same is true of course for Travis Henderson walking through the desert of the American southwest, stumbling upon a German doctor in the middle of nowhere. Who are these lonesome cowboys, and how did we get to our privatized states of desperation? Travis is the redemptive spiritual triumph of our ubiquitous quest for love. He is not the obvious hero, because he has a zen-like aesthetic to his beauty instead of being young and chiseled and handsome. He was in love. And he still is in love. But he does the impossibly difficult and noble order of not falling for a temptation so pretty and so pleading to be reunited with at the end of the film. It always and only makes the inevitable worse; the next breakup even more chaotic and cruel.

I didn’t know why this movie meant so much to me over the years. I’ve always idolized Shepard as a playwright and storyteller, for his own tender masculinity and stalwart elegance of the American man. For his fury and squall; for his accuracy of the mania of being alive. Similar to my worship of Walt Whitman, how I keep Whitman’s portrait framed above my writing desk. To write something so western, so American, to plunge a vile full of the hallmark American psyche through your veins, and see what comes out the other side. In writers such as these, there’s a redemptive quality to being a white man in America these days. At least, nothing is more western than to walk through the magnificent red archways of the American southwest, hawks and peregrines buzzing overhead, as you don’t know what’s ahead.

And then I remembered why it stands in another realm of importance to me. Some years ago, a ballet dancer and I were in love. She too was adorned with the shoulder-length bright blonde hair much like Nastassja Kinski’s character, Jane. We lived in this quiet beach canyon, and were foolish and fast in our love. We did everything together, and even the mundane became a feast of laughter and good trouble. One day—in the middle of the night—she broke up with me, right before driving off to a scheduled performance to dance in a ballet in Aspen a few weeks later. So a few weeks passed, and I got in my car, and roared off drunk into the abysmal cosmic night. My front window was broken, stuck halfway down; the sunroof wouldn’t fully close; no heater, no radio; just the dull caustic rumbling of my 1980 diesel Mercedes, joggling my testicles for seventeen hours into the dull and petrified seat cushion. The rain literally pouring through the cracked sunroof and onto my head; the higher altitude blizzard billowing through my open and broken window. I fell asleep so many times, jolted awake by the grated sides of the highway, I started to rely on it, getting sleep a couple seconds at a time. I carried on entire conversations with hallucinated ghosts sitting in my passenger seats, laughing hysterically at their jokes.

Much like Travis, entranced as he walked dutifully across the desert, I was possessed by the dreary aftermath of love, the stain of heartache I didn’t know was possible. I have always before and always since determined myself an impenetrable pessimist—this sorta thing doesn’t happen to men like me. For whatever contrived insecurity, I’ve barricaded my vulnerabilities behind dams of fury, trying in my own flailing and quiet mania to convince myself that it would be easier for everyone if I played no role in the rambling maudlin theater. It’s because of this selfish idiocy, I have unwittingly hurt many women along the way. I’ve gone silent and withdrawn when the trouble returns to the surface.

Travis went walking through the desert for four years; Jane moved to Houston, and made a living flirting with men in a peep show styled sex club. Men who couldn’t touch her through the glass; men, who she couldn’t see, or rather, wouldn’t have to see from her side of the one-way mirror. Day after day, she would give men what they wanted, barricaded behind the glass of anonymity, and she would presumably talk or flirt or give a striptease, the whole time staring at herself in the one-way mirror, confessing relishing details to no one but herself.

When Travis enters the establishment, he enters one of the curtained-off rooms at random, picks up the telephone and asks for a blonde woman. The wrong blonde woman enters, in a nurse’s costume, smudged lipstick and heavy eyeshadow, strung out and intoxicated. Thank god this isn’t the Jane that Travis and his son Hunter drove across multiple states to find. Because in every sense of the real world, it could have been. It’s been four years, and we are just bugs skittering about a stage of random, painstaking rot and decay. For most of us, it’s our once gorgeous and pulsating innocence that gets mopped up in the years of drink and drugs and sordid antipathy. But these are the movies, and this is a sad and beautiful movie, and Jane is still very beautiful and very sad, and perfectly worthy to drive across the country for.

In one of the greatest monologues ever written for the screen, Travis replays the story of his and Jane’s love and eventual loss. Stanton gives a movingly calm and stoic performance of it, an Aurelian deliberateness that seems so enviably out of reach to me. He is on one side of the glass, Jane on the other, unable to see him. At first, for her, he is just another pitiful customer who wants to talk, until the unraveling details of these “two people in love” reveal to her who exactly this man on the other side of the glass is, and who he is talking about. “He was kind of raggedy and wild,” he tells, “she was very beautiful, you know? And together they turned everything into a kind of an adventure. And she liked that. Just an ordinary trip down to the grocery store was full of adventure. And they were always laughing at stupid things.” Upon falling in love this first time, I had just returned after years of strange and deliberate lawlessness, having farmed in Thailand for many months and almost losing my dick in a terrible staph infection, having sailed to France with no money with some older family man who tried to fuck me, having been homeless in England for a time until finally I sold some paintings that allowed me to hitchhike above the Arctic circle, where I made surfboards in an abandoned fish factory in the fjords of northern Norway for some years. Which is to say, I fit the mold of being a bit raggedy at the time of falling in love. “He loved her more than he ever felt possible,” Travis continued. I was previously certain that what people called love was merely a compromise for loneliness. Whether they knew it or not, in a world void of meaning, they all just self-prescribed having a buddy around. Walking through a few decades of meaningless turmoil would somehow make it more palatable. But once again, my own dogmatism of negativity is wrong.

I arrived fifteen minutes before the ballet began, wiping my long nightmarishly windblown hair back into an unkempt ponytail, trying to contain my chronic bone-chilled delirium under my grandfather’s Pendelton wool coat. No amount of hot fluids could warm my insides again—disjointed popsicles for bones, viscous glugging of chilled blood just barely thawed in their veins. I hadn’t eaten much in the previous weeks, and felt my gaunt knobs of bone knocking against themselves while sitting there in the dark doom of the audience. And then there she was, the pristine heiress of dance itself, twirling under the spotlights of a preposterously ornate stage. This marbled athleticism, this animated and refined worship of the female form—this is what it’s all about, you tell yourself. A very beautiful ballerina is a goddess I’ll never know how to fully quantify. They have everything to do with sex and true mastery of an impossible vocation, and yet they have somehow transcended the meek mortality of us drunken peasants, as we collectively stammer in their awe and aura like pigeons.

There you are. An audience member, stuck like a mute and a prisoner in the dark, as she performs night after night, doing the same skillful routine, unable to see who’s watching her there on the other side of the lights. But just as in the one-way mirror at the peep show, there are moments throughout any ballet in which you’re convinced she’s looking straight at you, smiling, thrilled in the moment. Ah, this is no longer a vacuous performance, you tell yourself, she’s actually having a good time. She’s happy I’m here. The beauty pageant smile is a sad painful smile, like pornstars badly faking an orgasm; but the ballet dancer performs something righteously beautiful and redemptive, a protest of form that careens beyond any tiara and tutu.

Wender’s contemporary dance documentary, Pina, opens with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring performed on a square parcel of dirt on the stage. The first performance of this ballet was famously met with riots, or at the very least, critical and popular uproar for the ungentle stamping of dancers like they were untethered brutes, flailing tantrums of drama and horror. Because it broke conventions before breaking conventions was cool. It’s too bad that the dance I had to see was The Nutcracker, which is now just an obligatory ritual of nightmarish proportions—year after year, dance halls put on their reliable moneymaker season performance of it, and convince another generation of girls and boys that The Ballet is simply an orgiastic circus of cartoonishly horrifying costumes and faces lacquered in cement-thick makeup. Maybe I was just exhausted, but aside from seeing her dance and her smile, and seeing again those star-spangled turquoise eyes—besides that, the ballet was just about awful.

My drunken mania wasn’t wise after all. She was caught off guard by my sudden appearance, and was polite enough to hear my stammering admissions of love or whatever the hell I was trying to tell her. I had finally been snapped out of the sleepless delirium, and realized how mad and idiotic this all was. This wasn’t any knotted-up gallantry; it was embarrassing to finally be the crazy and trembling ex I had scoffed at so many others about. My god, I have become such an ass. Too bad. So she hugged me goodbye, and I slept in a dusty motel down the road that night. I checked behind the shower curtain for a hiding serial killer, ate Taco Bell in bed, watched Cheech and Chong in my underwear as the farts escaped without a sound. 

In Paris, Texas, Shepard keeps us in the dark about what exactly went on between Travis and Jane.  In Travis’ final monologue, we hear that he got increasingly drunk and paranoid with jealousy, thinking she was seeing another man. But why do they both abandon their four-year-old child? Why do they both abandon such a seemingly cherishable love of romance and friendship? Whatever the case, it was terrible and seemingly irreparable, an angelic innocence that burned off as quickly as summer’s morning fog. Shepard of course does this deliberately, demanding we imagine how those boiling and gasping remnants of love died at last. I too, under the given circumstances, can’t say why we broke up; it’s not mine to tell. And so, the reality of a world, in all its carnal and flourishing bursts, became just a memory package the size of a movie trailer where you can play the best parts over and over again until the memory is just a grainy Super 8 reel. Or, you just block it out. You delete all the pictures of you together from your phone, block them from your social medias, altogether banish them from the gates of your rose-clutching psyche. Because eventually, we all become heartbroken castaways shuffling through the sun-scorched frontier.

I remember driving back to Los Angeles, too forlorn and broke to do something reasonable like get drunk at Woody Creek Tavern since I was already in town. If I had money and the mindset, I could have kept driving, taken a trip somewhere, gotten to know what’s beyond all those wild unbridled sunsets, and seen if there was love or purpose beyond our broken starlit dreams, the cloistered avenues of delirium and decay here at home.

But I didn’t. I drove straight home, tailgating eighteen-wheelers best I could to save on gas, as they drove into the emergency lane to kick up gravel on my windshield, and threw their food scraps back at me, shredded lettuce and lumps of ketchup smeared with my wipers. Even some months later, I wrote idiotic blabbering messages to her when drunk and high on cocaine, and that all too familiar audible pain of waking up the next morning, and checking your phone to confirm that you indeed did send those messages. Not quite the calm warmheartedness that Travis performed.

When I eventually did run out of gas, I got out of my car and just started walking out into that same red frontier as Travis did, the impossible architecture of iron and rust-choked rock arching their way across the sky, a peregrine resting on the branch of a dead tree somewhere. I didn’t see Paris, Texas until long after my drive to Aspen, but there is a familiarity in heartbreak that goes beyond just the metaphor of being lost in a desert, something that Shepard surely knew firsthand. You can only write what you know, and then the writing will be as honest and true as it is. I didn’t go as far as Travis—a couple hundred meters rather than four years—but I wandered in other ways. Stories for another time.

Instead of the ballet, I soon became a regular at many of Hollywood’s burlesque bars, the sense of erotic familiarity as you stand there holding a whiskey, talking casually with an elegant woman in lingerie and an open kimono and eight inch heels. I knew most of them by name; they always let me cut the line or through the side or back door; I went to their birthday parties, and sometimes dated them or their friends. And as was the case with the peep show establishment in Paris, Texas, there were of course a few straggling ones that seemed sad and rundown, the currency of their moneymaking talents shambling under the decay of gravity and cigarettes. But far more often was the case that they prospered under a reeling fortune of faculty and flair—singers and playwrights and actresses, coquetting with those prodding chins of men to chuck their entire month’s savings at the stage like a snowball of confetti. In a way, strip clubs and burlesque bars are more honest than the ballet. Because expensive ballet dance halls are usually funded by oil tycoons like the Koch brothers, so we can lather ourselves in some cosmopolitan salad dressing, and rehearse how agreeable the libidinal twirls of parading-in-place was over a glass of white wine.

That’s what I told myself anyways. Who knows how I really felt. In reality, there’s no point to compare two dance forms—one doesn’t debate Bacon to Renoir, because they’re doing different things. But we are looking at ourselves through all of this. And watching a film as good as Paris, Texas is more than just a metaphorical reflection of your own experience of heartbreak. There’s an element of the literal.

The psychoanalytic theory of the mirror stage, as promoted by Lacan, says that an infant’s development from six to eighteen months is encouraged by their recognizing themselves in the mirror. Their obsession with standing hand-in-hand with themselves, dragging their cheeks and open mouths and tongue across the mirror is a realtime development of gaining a sense of self-identity. Who knows how long Jane has stared at herself on her side of the one-way mirror. Each day, she collects herself as a bouquet of starlit garnishes, not yet withered by life’s lonely fatigue. It’s what we all do, brushing our teeth in the morning as we stand in front of the bathroom mirror sometimes naked, herding ourselves back to ourselves. This is probably what selfies are all about. We never really leave the mirror stage entirely, because it’s all one sprawling recollection, trying to remember who we were all along.

Looking back, it seems like a movie. I imagine most of our memories work this way—the grainy retelling of important scenes in our lives, a kind of fractured storybook of pictures and cascading diatribes. You weave these in and out of the framework of your biases, your judgements, your contrivances, forming the resemblance of a very-long-but-hopefully-interesting-film. Your childhood is a cemetery of innocence and replenished naiveté. Your adolescence, a bombardment of libidinal angst and worship. But it’s the love affairs especially that crumble into the ruins of a bombed-out city. When there was love and friendship, and the sun was always coming low through the trees. We dismiss these memories because we have to, because we’ll drive ourselves insane, and drive our friends away if we keep at it, keep telling about how good it once was, how you had your ear pressed firmly against the heart of the universe, even for a few moments.

Even as I write this, I’m living in the same remote beach canyon, drinking a beer, eating a pile of plums I just picked from my tree, feeding three baby foxes some hunks of bagel on this completely private patio smothered in oak trees and flush succulents. I can surf anytime I want, and this entire canyon is populated with beautiful women who seem to live permanently in yoga pants. It’s not so bad. And yet I’ll still never be able to quell the general haunting delirium, the deafening strata of obscenity and glut. I can stamp it down pretty good, but the all too familiar voice of the insane babbling man still whispers in the shadows of your ears. 

How do any of these things end? In the 1990 documentary on Paris, Texas, Wenders admits that for anything to be called a story, it needs a beginning, middle, and end; and he’s “never been able to imagine the end of any story.” There’s almost a spiritual transcendental admission of this truth, in that there is no end to any of it—it’s all one cascading series of love and loss and longing, whether it’s very good cinema or our own lives impressing upon the others ahead of us, not yet born. Stanton was livid about the ending in Paris, Texas, admitting he “fucking wanted to kill [Wim]” for not letting his character end up with Jane and Hunter. For a time, I was livid about the ending of my own story. But it is the right ending—the most appropriate and challenging ending, in both cases. I suppose it’s one of those Marilyn-Monroe-is-still-beautiful-because-she-died-young type of things. If I carried on with the ballet dancer, or if Travis carried on with Jane, they would probably blur with the general mass of indifference. All our other relationships that went on too long, and became terrible in unspoken ways.

Things seem to mean more—for me at least—when they are bright and vivid for a time, like a fire raging embers into the big empty night, until almost all at once it’s gone. The warmth is gone, and all you’re left with is yourself. And somehow, that’s more beautiful than anything else in the world.