A look back at Wim Wenders's masterful film about solitude, wandering, searching, and America.
It's August, 1977. NASA launches the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts out into infinity. Carried by each Voyager are gold-plated phonograph records containing sounds and images intended to represent Earth and human existence to any far-off species that might discover them. Laughter. Thunder. Frogs. Volcanoes. "Welcome, beings from beyond the world" recited in Polish. Footsteps. Heartbeat. A picture of the Taj Mahal. An X-ray of a hand. "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry. A Navajo chant. Three different Bach arrangements.
And then, the second to last track: "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," by Texas gospel singer "Blind" Willie Johnson. The song takes its title from a hymn about the crucifixion. According to Johnson's wife Angeline, when Johnson was seven years old, his father beat his stepmother because he suspected she had been unfaithful. As revenge, the stepmother threw lye in Johnson's face and he went blind. He grows up poor. He meets Angeline in Dallas and they get married. They get older but they're still poor. Their house burns down, but they have no place else to go, so Willie and Angeline lay newspaper over their mattress and sleep there in what remains. Willie gets pneumonia. The hospital won't treat him because they don't treat the blind. He goes back home and he dies.
Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee that selected the Voyager Records' contents, said the song "concerns a situation (Johnson) faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight."
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" has few components, just the urgent picks on a bottleneck slide guitar and Johnson's occasional, indecipherable wailing into the void. The song is the sonic interpretation of standing in the wind with your hands in your pockets. It is the sound of loneliness, of a man both in search of something and tranquilized by the search itself, perpetually lost and found.
It's 1984. German director Wim Wenders brings a cut of his next film to guitarist Ry Cooder. Wenders has used "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" as a placeholder score for the film; he tells Cooder he wants a similar composition used for the final cut. Fourteen years earlier, Cooder had recorded Johnson's song for his own album. "Blind Willie Johnson is in the ether somewhere," Cooder once said in a 1990 interview. "He's up there in the zone somewhere." Cooder creates for Wenders something tingling and relentless. The film is Paris, Texas; it wins the Palme d'Or. On November 9, 1984, it's released in the United States.
A simple description of the film is, "A man goes looking for something." The man is Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton. The film begins with Travis walking the yellow-brown Texas desert; the ground is not cold, but the nights are still dark. What he's looking for isn't the point, really. It is a film less about discovery than contemplation; a meditation not on loneliness but on solitude. It is a film about walking, departure, escape, liberation, what catapults us from one thing to another, the oneness we should feel with all of it, pain and joy both, walking with this against our chests, our nightmares and our wounds, sometimes across the middle of nowhere. Cooder's score lingers with Travis like either a guardian angel or the devil on his shoulder; you're never sure whether Travis is doomed or headed for salvation.
In an interview with Criterion, Wenders said, "If you are not alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking."
Travis hasn't seen his family in four years. He was married once, to a much younger woman named Jane, played by Nastassja Kinski. They had a son together named Hunter. Travis started to drink, and then he kept drinking, the way you might if you looked like an old man and your wife looked like Nastassja Kinski. One night Travis wakes up and runs away from them; he doesn't stop running. A time passes. Jane decides one day that she can't keep Hunter anymore either; she leaves him with Travis's brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell, patient as a kindergarten teacher), and Walt's wife. Hunter is eight-years-old now. Travis passes out at a trailer encampment somewhere in the desert. A doctor calls Walt in Los Angeles to come pick him up. Walt finds him. They drive from Texas to California together.
"In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it."
—Harry Dean Stanton
Stanton's performance is so casually devastating—slack jaw and concave cheeks, clothes that don't fit, permanently in need of a shower. He speaks little during the film (it takes almost 26 minutes until he says his first word), but he communicates more explicitly than anyone. The way he nods, the way he sits on the edge of a bathtub, spine curled, the way every muscle in his face seems to collapse at a glimpse of Jane, even on 8-mm home movies, seeing the two of them together on the beach, building ugly sand castles. He is a walking closed caption. *A man is devastated* *A man is cautiously optimistic* *A man is fondly remembering strawberry waffles.* For most of the film, he wears the look of someone who has been walking in the rain for a while and recognizes his clothes cannot get any wetter. Somewhere between anger and acceptance. Mostly he just looks tired, empty.
Stanton's initial response to Sam Shepard's script was, "I was totally intrigued by this because I think people talk too much anyway."
He plays Travis as exactly the sort of grim fatalist he was in real life. Asked once in a Guardian interview if he ever felt unsatisfied by his career trajectory, he said, "In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it." Asked about his relationship with his parents, he said, "I don't think they had a good wedding night, and I was the product of that... (My mother) even told me once how she used to frighten me when I was in the cradle with a black sock." He tells people who don't recognize him that he's a retired astronaut.
Wenders brings Travis and Walt through an America that is totally pure and ethereal. There's barely even traffic. Wenders presents America as something gaping and desolate, yet also vividly magnified, straight roads that disappear over the horizon, the perfect mathematics of plateaus and parking structures, and then sweaty bars and feet touching under a dinner table. Men in the type of motels you end up in when you want to buy either drugs or a blowjob. Motels where the walls and lampshades and upholstery are bright and alive, as if to distract the people inside from their own darkness.
On the way to find Travis, we see Walt at a gas station, under a red sky that looks like melting candle wax. A man not saying anything, just so intensely there, on planet earth, and then gone. A man driving, drinking shit coffee, following shit directions, winging it deep into the night. Many sequences of the film are like this, someone alone, fermenting. Here, usually, is where we find out who we are: moments of tedium, moments when we wish we were somewhere else.
Wenders shows us America's surreal dichotomies, the transparency of consumerism juxtaposed with unspoiled, vast expanses.
What is lost in the paeans to America as a land of prosperity, of glossy, wish-you-were-here optimism, is that it is also a means to sustain a grueling mediocrity. Cheap beer and cheap diners and pay-phone calls of great importance. All sorts of illicitness peddled beneath neon lights. Here are towns that seem to only contain signs pointing you in the direction of other towns, telling you how much farther you have to go, and places that sell hamburgers to eat on the way.
Wenders shows us America's surreal dichotomies, the transparency of consumerism juxtaposed with unspoiled, vast expanses. Abandoned, rusted-out yellow cars in a valley somewhere. Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes the color of cloudless skies, whose doors close with heavy thunks, the sound of steel meeting other steel, the sound of AMERICA. Signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken glowing in total blackness. Construction workers carefully hoisting up pieces to assemble a billboard in the thick California haze: a tanned woman with cleavage smiling and telling us to buy Evian water.
"I started out as a painter and some of that has survived in me," Wenders once said in an interview. "And I've always thought that films—the very thing, movies—have been invented in the first place to witness the twentieth century. I've always been very attracted to documentaries, but have always thought that feature films are in a way the true documents of our time. Especially when they're outrageous fantasies."
In Los Angeles, Travis knows he doesn't belong. He stays up nights, washing dishes at Walt's house and singing songs in Spanish while everyone is sleeping. He organizes and polishes all their shoes, obsessed with what they represent, what they say about a person, where we are headed, where we came from, the odometers of our lives. He refuses to fly but sits on a cliff and looks through a pair of binoculars at planes leaving the runway. Once, watching Hunter eat a leaf of crunchy lettuce, he smiles. Mostly, though, he only smiles thinking about what used to be.
One afternoon, Travis takes Hunter with him. They're going to find something together. Parts of the drive Hunter rides shotgun. Sometimes he rides in the bed of the pickup, talking to Travis over walkie-talkies. Hunter explains to Travis the big bang theory. Later, Travis demonstrates for Hunter how to fall asleep drunk in a hotel lobby.
In the final minutes of the film, Travis leans against his car door and watches from a distance as Hunter resumes a life Travis knows cannot be his own. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is disappear. The sun is setting, a tangerine peel stuck behind the skyscrapers. The pickup is winding down a ramp and out a parking garage now. No one is riding shotgun and no one is on the walkie-talkie. The slide guitar is back again, louder and louder. Headlights are coming at us. Redemption is hard find. Usually we just get a drive home.
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- Vice Blog