In the first of a new series celebrating some of our favourite scenes in cinema, we take a look at the peep show scene in Paris, Texas.
A woman enters the peep show booth she dismally works in and, for the next 20 minutes, is taken back to the life that left her. On the other side sits a man, who, for the first hour of the film, has been virtually silent. That silence will soon be broken however, because what transpires in those 20 minutes amounts to one of the greatest of all cinema monologues. The booth is stripped of anything sexual and instead becomes a confessional, a reconciliation box, a place for the reparation of two former lovers.
This is the dénouement of Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders’ quasi-existential tale of alienation, loss and redemption. The picture is scripted by Sam Shepard – in what is one of the great screenplays of our time – and it is his dialogue which lifts the film into masterpiece territory, his dialogue which lends the scene in question its heart, its aching beauty.
The peep show scene serves as perhaps the finest example of film being an auditory medium just as much as it is a visual one
There is an often-argued case that cinema is primarily a visual medium, a treat for the eyes over the ears. The peep show scene in Paris, Texas – though wonderfully shot, with Robby Müller’s camera lingering on Jane’s (Nastassja Kinski) face for extended periods, capturing the gloop of a mascara-tinted tear form in the corner of her eye, or silhouetting Travis’s (Harry Dean Stanton) face onto hers through the mirror – serves as perhaps the finest example of film being an auditory medium just as much as it is a visual one. “I knew these people, these two people,” Travis begins, before embarking on his monologue, his confession and admittance of jealousy, alcoholism and abuse.
There’s a line in Shepard’s short story, The Self Made Man – written a decade after Paris, Texas – which sums up perfectly what happened to Travis before the film begins, and why he opens the film wandering nomadic in the desert: “Something separated and fell away”. This is what Travis explains to Jane, who slowly begins to realise that it is him on the other end of her line – that they separated and he fell away, ran away, into the night, leaving his wife and son behind. What Travis doesn’t know is that Jane also fell away, that every man she meets “has his voice”. These are fractured feelings; there is little action, but still we feel them. Still we recognise that this is a departed love, one ripped apart in the American desert.
Paris, Texas is a powerful reminder of the redeeming value of cinema. Harry Dean Stanton reaches levels of poignancy rarely seen on screen
The performances by Stanton and Kinski in this scene are nothing short of miraculous. Stanton, with his sunken-eyes and his gravelly voice, reaches levels of poignancy rarely seen on screen, whereas Kinski, striking but timid, manages to perfectly capture her character’s yin and yang. On the one hand she is a sexual performer, there to titillate. On the other hand she is a wife and a mother. She hasn’t been one for a while but it’s still there, in her, and, like in the super 8 he watches earlier in the film, Travis sees this. Jane appears through a screen, but still he sees it. Jane appears to be a stripper, but, like his son Hunter says whilst viewing that Super 8, “that’s not mom, it’s just a woman on screen, that’s not who she really is.” Travis understands this, and his decision to leave Hunter with his mother is justified.
At the time of first watching Paris, Texas the film resonated with me, and generally became synonymous with a girl I can’t quite shake. For that reason it will always deeply affect me. The fact remains though, that, whether on a personal level or not, the film – and especially the scene in focus – is a powerful reminder of the redeeming value of cinema. It’s one that isn’t concerned with will they, won’t they and eventually they do, but rather with the fact that they did, and just because they won’t again, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less important.
All images: Axiom Films