Paris, Texas, is a fixed location on a map. A hundred miles northeast of Dallas, Paris is the only place in the world where you can visit an Eiffel Tower replica adorned with a giant cowboy hat. But to many obsessive moviegoers who have never been to Texas and live nowhere near it–and yet can draw an accurate picture of Monument Valley from memory, bluff by bluff and crag by crag–the film Paris, Texas is a state of mind, a polyglot, neon-lit American West that combines high art and hardscrabble vernacular, freshly pressed suits and ragged dusty roads. The Sam Shepard-scripted, Wim Wenders-directed sauerkraut western is sentimental and breathtaking, the work of a camera-toting traveler besotted with virgin territory, never wanting to go back home.
The film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984, feels deliberately inauthentic. A doctor on the Texas/Mexico border speaks with a German accent. A lead character’s wife is French. The Southern sweetheart Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) sets out to reclaim is played by Nastassja Kinski of Berlin. Travis calls attention to his mother’s Spanish ancestry and sings a Spanish-language tune while washing the dishes. Shot by the Dutch master Robby Müller, the film’s sunsets look a bit too orange, its motel-room colors a bit too distinct, its breathtaking vistas too omnipresent. Ry Cooder’s jagged, plaintive slide-guitar score–probably the best movie music ever–still sounds more “Western” than Western. “It all goes back to a German writer by the name of Karl May, who wrote in prison in the late nineteenth century,” Wenders has said. “He wrote fifty novels that all take place in the West, though he never left Germany. There’s no German who grew up without reading those books.”
Paris, Texas is unabashed tourist cinema, cobbled together from Edward Hopper tableaus and discarded ten-cent picture postcards; not surprisingly, it served as a direct influence on U2’s The Joshua Tree. I’d wager that Wenders, an old German New Wave icon who cares more for pretty pictures than facts on the ground, chose Shepard as his Americana tour guide because nobody else in American letters is more obsessed with cowboy authenticity. (Michelangelo Antonioni also tapped Shepard to write dialogue for his Zabriskie Point, another European mythmaker’s first tour of the American West.) Shepard’s best plays offer an engaging dissection of masculine machinery, but often the author seems to be peeking over his shoulder at an imaginary judge in a ten-gallon hat and jangling spurs, inquiring, Is this the real thing? “Why?” asks a character in Shepard’s famous two-hander, True West (1980). “Because it’s got horses? Because it’s got grown men acting like little boys?”
Kicking a Dead Horse (Vintage, $11.95), the new Shepard play that had its US premiere in June at the Public Theater in New York and finished a two-week run in August at the Almeida Theatre in London, contains both. It’s the playwright’s most elemental (and pointedly unsubtle) discourse to date on what it takes to be a Marlboro Man–and whether it matters. Shepard’s proxy is Hobart Struther, a Manhattan art dealer who made his millions collecting western murals and cow portraits from Wyoming saloons and selling them to the highest cosmopolitan bidders. By the time the play begins, Struther has ditched his bourgeois trappings and lit out for the West, only to find himself stranded on the Lone Prairie when his horse keels over. James Joyce sagely divined that “horseness is the whatness of allhorse,” and Struther’s crisis is nothing if not a horseless reckoning with his own whatlessness.