Leave it to a German director to make a film that creates a new myth of the American West. Lone-wolf heroism is replaced by a quiet yearning for lasting communion with others, the romanticized historical past disappears behind an advertising- and McDonald's-studded present, and rugged natural vistas are spiderwebbed with high-speed freeways and power lines. When Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) staggers out of the Texas desert at the beginning of Paris, Texas, he may be a Man With No Name, but that is only because he seems to have willfully discarded it out of shame.
Back to those power lines: they become a powerful image for what underlies Travis's shame and self-imposed exile. Four years earlier, Travis abandoned his wife and young son, and the physical distance between them has grown great. Their family bond has become tenuous, but it still connects them, stretching across dry emptiness and silence like those lonely, thin wires. As Travis wanders in the wilderness, he follows the straight lines of cables and railroad tracks, as if he's trying to get back to the family he left behind without quite knowing how.
There is no easy road to the reconciliation Travis craves. A hand-lettered sign in the film's second scene suggests the hopelessness of his wandering: "The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through or whatever." He is a penitent whose penance never concludes. His dust has come to stay, and he has all the time in the world to resign himself to it.
Tarkovsky famously referred to filmmaking as "sculpting in time," and Wim Wenders molds it to perfection here. Paris, Texas takes its time with its characters, drawing us into its world and letting the thread of Travis's story unspool gradually. This thread consists of two strands—the mystery surrounding his past desertion and his slow growth into a man who can atone for it—and both of them terminate at the same point in the film. By the time that happens, we notice that the thread has become wrapped around us, binding us closely to the characters who have spent the entire story longing for closeness. Their renewal becomes ours. To watch Paris, Texas is to be reconciled to a world that holds both the desert and the hope of leaving it behind.