National Cinemas: Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas

A note: Technically, Wings of Desire is the only one of these two films in the German language and the only which takes place in Germany, but both are thematically very similar and so interconnected it seemed inappropriate to reflect on one without the other. Plus,  Paris, Texas is a West German/ English co-production. So, despite taking place in the US (and, pointedly, in the most god-damn US state of all, Texas) and being filmed completely in English, it still technically qualifies. Allow me my questionable logic. Things will go easier from here if you do. 

As with many directors, Wim Wenders is a man above all interested in obsession. But Wenders was special for seeing obsession in the mundane. He fills his films with characters whose goals aren’t anything more than to exist in the only way they know how. Paris, Texas mostly features a man driving around, missing turns, making u-turns, going back, waiting some more, and talking to his son. Wings of Desire emphasizes the quiet melancholy of loneliness through staring, staring, staring, and conversations with a Peter Falk whose sole concern in life is to just find the right hat for the right role (when he tries on damn near 100 hats, all of which look almost identical, it’s a perfectly snarky reflection on the way actors obsess over the minutiae of their roles). Both films lack conventional narratives, plots of event and action. Instead, they emphasize mood and atmosphere, feeling, and impression. Above all, they emphasize the mundane, the way one minute sways into the next. They emphasize how little can happen in a minute. And how much.

Through this, through his long shots which emphasize the interconnectedness of people with their environments and the long, mundane stretches of a life predicated on what may seem simple goals and decisions, we see lives less than lived. But, in the minutes,  we find quests as important to the two protagonists as any quest in recorded history was to their participants. We see it in Harry Dean Stanton’s or Bruno Ganz’s eyes, their glazed over, empty look, and the dogged determination of their stares, captured by a camera as unflinching and single-minded as they. They look on, both of them, at what they do not have but which eternally beckons them.

People who have accused the director’s films of having no story miss the point. They have no plot, at least in a conventional sense. But they also center the greatest story ever told: humanity. Paris, Texas is about a man who wants to apologize to a woman he knew long ago, and Wings of Desire is about an angel that wants to be human. Both plots occupy one phrase. But their stories are as grand, indecipherable, deep, and all-encompassing as story gets: they each tell the story of lives put on hold and struggling to find their way in the lost minutes. They’re both people out of place looking to reclaim a place for themselves, or claim one they never had. If their plots are a clause, ten thousand words and a picture or two could not do their stories justice. There’s an existential anxiety and dread to both; the men ask themselves questions about what could have been to pass the time. Wenders makes the questions at once timeless and completely Sisyphian in their eternal tragedy.

For someone like, say, Jason (of the Argonauts), his quest entailed besting harpies, human eaters, a whole reality show’s worth of Olympian feuding, and a Cyclops with one ill-tempered father. For Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas it entails working up the courage to interact with what is lost, to interact with one’s past, and to just find the right words to say to someone which may in fact be yourself (the film utilizes mirrors throughout to capture Travis’ conversations as an external reflection toward himself). For Damiel, the angel at the center of Wings, it entails not action, but coping with the eternal tragedy of being unable to act with a human world he is forever doomed to watch from a distance.

Jason has far to travel geographically. Both Travis and Damien have a much less enviable and in some ways more difficult task; a perpetual closeness, a feeling of being just there but so far. Wenders’ slow-moving, languorous camera depicts the negative space around these characters and their goals – he widens the space lying between them and their goals even when they are physically quite close.  Their obstacles are of a different, more sinister form than Jason’s, the kind which we think they should be able to overcome but know they cannot.

There’s a poetic quality to both films; we’re not so much watching as being subsumed by the works. They paint tapestries of life and geography both space and time we can’t help but get caught up in. We don’t need dialogue to explain things, and Wenders doesn’t give us much (although Paris, Texas does feature perhaps the most transcendent, devastating monologue in any film ever made). These two men are after all the stories, and Wenders makes them into myths which occupy not a specific world or time but a limbo, stories that could be handed down over generations and not lose meaning. Stories that capture basic human emotions in profound, insightful ways. The dialogue isn’t necessary – it would change over time – but the images always capture the same human longing.

Paris, Texas is often compared to The Searchers, at least in the abstract: they both depict a man out of time and place searching for the only thing that connected them to that society. Both films likewise feature the very wide-open composed mythologies of the Old West, but Paris, Texas offers a different perspective on John Wayne’s quest in The Searchers. Both men, in fact, do not achieve what they set out to do. Ethan wanted to redeem his family by killing the now Native American Debbie. Ultimately he achieves only partial redemption, albeit not through his initial plan; he is, at the end of the day, unable to continue to exist in the society he desires to protect for his desire to use violence doesn’t belong in that society. Perhaps his own vision of redemption was in fact nothing more than him perpetuating racial inequality and violence, something he still fails to turn away from at the film’s solution – he sticks to his goal, his hatred and racism unresolved, but he puts them aside for the sake of his family in saving Debbie. The violence stills lies within, though, and he must leave.

Travis fails at redeeming his past based on his stated plan, but unlike the single-minded Ethan, eternally an actor, Travis comes to realize he had misplaced his goal in his very passivity. He finds instead an alternate solution: his son, who was with him all along, and with whom he can enjoy the world of those who act rather than wait and dream. Throughout the film, they develop a low-key relationship the likes of which Travis had foregone throughout life in his sole quest to recover his past through the woman of his dreams. He had, in other words, forgotten that in his present son, his past exists. Wenders uses the iconography of the Western, of Americana (this is Texas after all), to capture not a wonderful open space where men and women can stake their claim, a land of possibility. He emphases the human distance caused by the wide open land, and the mind. But Travis’ son was there all along, right next to him.

Both films are also keenly works about gender. They are about men who desire women but can do nothing to act on their desires except to dream of other lives. Wenders emphasizes their gazes, their single-minded focus, and their inability to interact positively with others, a loneliness their attempts to resolve may exacerbate. If The Searchers was a critical exploration of the male quest for power over women, and Paris, Texas updates this for a modern society, Wings of Desire sees something even more timeless. Wenders makes us feel the minutes of Damiel’s existence, but we too see the same in the everyday humans around Berlin. It is a shared, collective experience, but Damiel is haunted by knowing exactly how common and ever-present it is. He wants not necessarily to achieve his goal, for he knows being a human might not allow him to do this. He merely wants to know that he will not have to wait forever while failing. He knows that humans are as lonely as he – but they can at least fade away. That he achieves his goal of introducing himself to his object of affection doesn’t undo the fact that he spent so much time searching for her. In the film’s finale, even as Damiel achieves his goal of interacting with the woman he obsessed after for so long, a “to be continued” marks the temporality of his achievement, and how more is yet to come. The film is romantic, but it’s an aching form of romance, a wide-open, gaping question about the value of obsessing over a figure that does not know you exist.

Critics of Wender’s films see them as boring and event-less. They say “nothing happens here”. Indeed, the films are neither about technical precision nor intricate narrative plotting. He does not set out for the ruthlessness of a tight, perfect film. He’s about emptiness, space, mood, and wonder. His films don’t have events because they are about the event of life as it continuously unfolds. They are mood pieces, spaces for our minds to inhabit and do as we please. This could be to poke and prod around at the questions of life, or simply just to be, to sway around and let the currents of Wenders’ camera take us where they, or we, please. They are not so much about what the films have to say as they are about how we relate to the films experientially. And if they don’t have traditional narratives, neither do paintings, poetry, nor a fair bit of music. We value those forms of artwork for the moods and spaces they create – why not entertain the idea for film?

Score: 10/10 (both)

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