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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Kevin Barry on watching Paris, Texas with his father

I could see that he was moved by the story, perhaps uncomfortably so.

By Kevin Barry

As I sit down to write about the film, and about the night that I first saw it, I can’t resist putting on my scratchy old record of the Paris, Texas soundtrack, and from the thin 1980s vinyl Ry Cooder’s melancholy slide guitar at once projects to the mind’s eye images of the west Texas desert – a great, haunted emptiness. And now a lone figure walks rapidly but uncertainly into view, a bearded man in a distressed suit and a baseball cap, and he stops up and stares into the void of endless space. We can read his trouble, and we know at once that it’s as monumental as the landscape around him, and we know, too, by the graven lines of his face, by the sorrow of his eyes, that a great love has been lost.

I was 17, it was 1986, and I watched the film on TV with my father. He was 42 years older than me and we got on well enough, but we didn’t talk to each other much – the generation gap left little to discuss. I could see that he was moved by the story, perhaps uncomfortably so. He was at that point already seven years a widower, and Paris, Texas is about a lost woman, and a child cut off from his mother. It was summer as we watched the film, the estate slowly going to dark outside, and vividly I recall a sense of being in the room with a truly affecting piece of art, the catch in my throat tightening with every scene, even if I didn’t know exactly why.

Paris, Texas was directed by Wim Wenders and adapted by Kit Carson from a story by Sam Shepard. The director, a West German, understands the American south-west as a mythic place, and he romances it. He lets the story swell out to fit the epic view. But it feels very much like Shepard’s film too – it’s a playwright’s film, with a great, resonant claustrophobia in its tense and sorrowful two-hander scenes, almost suffocatingly so when Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) at last finds his lost Jane (Nastassja Kinski) at a peep show in the desert.

It became a keystone film, one that my friends and I would watch over and over again on VHS, until the tape had thinned out and the picture had gone snowy, and soon we had learned off by heart the great Travis monologue from the climactic peep show sequence, the story that starts off as all great stories should start – “I knew these people, these two people, and they were in love with each other…”

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special