Single Take: David Cale on “Paris, Texas”

The playwright and Light From Light actor looks back at the pleasure and surprise of going to the movies; in particular, one revelatory showing of Wim Wender’s classic at the Paris Theatre in New York City.


I first saw Paris, Texas at the Paris Theatre, New York City, in 1984. 

I was twenty-five and a big fan of both Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard. I’d read Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, from which I’d heard the film was at least partially inspired, but aside from that didn’t know anything else about Paris, Texas, except that it had received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and I was excited to see it. I never read reviews before I see a film, or anything really. I want to know as little as possible. I want to be surprised. And I don’t want someone else’s opinion running through my head as I experience it, unless maybe I’m seeing it for the second or third time. That’s also why I usually see movies alone. I don’t want to be wondering, or worrying, what the person I’m with is feeling about the film.

I’d never seen Harry Dean Stanton before, though I remember Repo Man, with him starring, had opened at the Eighth Street Playhouse a few months before and was causing a lot of excitement. (I just noticed Robby Müller was the cinematographer on both films.)

So I went to an afternoon showing of Paris, Texas by myself. There weren’t a lot of people in the theatre. I was immediately spellbound by the film, by Harry Dean Stanton, a lead actor and character like none I’d I’d seen before, and with whom I immediately felt a certain identification; by the stunning cinematography; the Ry Cooder soundtrack that sounded like no other soundtrack I’d ever heard and which also seemed like an essential off-camera lead character; by the naturalness of Hunter Carson’s performance; the loveliness of Aurore Clement; the expressiveness of Dean Stockwell’s eyes; and then by the arrival of Nastassja Kinski, and those monologues. 

The final scene in the peep show was when the tears started. I’d never wept in a movie theatre like that before. By the end of the film I was a wreck. I wasn’t sniffling or lightly crying — I was heaving with sobs. At one point, after the film had ended and I was the only audience member left in the theatre, I remember thinking to myself: you have to pull yourself together. The next showing is about to happen. You have to leave, and it’s still light outside. I remember wandering around sunlit Manhattan in a daze afterwards, and also speaking to myself out loud, emotionally saying, “It’s my favorite film. It’s definitely my favorite film.”

To this day I don’t fully understand how or why Paris, Texas had such an effect on me that day. Aside from the obvious fact that it’s a deeply moving film, with incredible, heartbreaking performances by Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski. I’d come out of an impossible, romantic relationship, my first real one, which had come to a distressing and sudden end, but that had ended a year earlier. Did the loneliness of the Travis character, and what Harry Dean Stanton brought to him, deeply tap into my own loneliness at that point in my life in some way? I was born in England and came, on my own, to live in the U.S. when I was twenty. Was there something in Wim Wenders’ European perspective on America? Or was it from Nastassja Kinski? As excellent as she is in the film, when the camera just holds on her as she’s crying is so extraordinary; I can still slightly detect a kind of otherness that isn’t from here, in the way I’m not. Was I deeply seeing myself in Harry Dean Stanton, who also projects here a kind of otherness and alienation? Whatever it was, and it doesn’t really matter exactly what it was, the film had a profound effect on me in that New York City movie house on that day. 

I write and perform monologues. I tried to emulate the peep-show monologues in my show Smooch Music. Do my version of them, without seeming derivative. A friend gave me the published script with scene stills. When it came out on video I bought it. When it came on DVD on a low-budget label I bought it again, and then subsequently acquired the English DVD because I thought it might be a better print. And then when Criterion released it, I purchased it again. I’ve seen the film probably ten more times since that first encounter, and still when those final scenes begin, I brace myself. And can’t wholly understand what the film has done and is doing that so deeply moves me.

It’s a masterpiece. It’s a work of art. It doesn’t need to explain.

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David Cale is the writer and performer of solo shows including The History of Kisses, PalominoA Likely Story, and Lillian. His recent works include the solo play Harry Clarke, starring Billy Crudup, and his solo musical memoir We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time, for which he wrote the book, lyrics, and co-composed the music with Matthew Dean Marsh. He appears in films including The Slaughter Rule and Light From Light.

Single Takes are short reflections on memorable viewing experiences. Read more entries.

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