‘There’s a difference between lonely and being alone.’
Two men walk out of the desert. Despite the 30-plus years between them, there is an air of familiarity. More than that in fact, a close resemblance. When they finally decide to talk they sound similar. Father and son? More likely long lost brothers… or simply kindred spirits. Both of their stories go beyond a midlife crisis and some form of finality, instead their journeys become a meditation for us all.
Harry Dean Stanton’s rare lead performances in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky (2017) galvanise the lone white male figure at the epicentre of American cinema. Stanton is the by-product of what the art form and, indeed, the American landscape have forged; encapsulating the blue-collar rogue who doesn’t so much work outside of the law, but simply chooses to ignore it. There is an aloofness in his mannerisms — his effortless approach of ‘saying little, says much more’ — and as with any archetype, Stanton’s features are a memorable part of how you tell a story in and of itself. Framed by every distinctive, craggy line, his delivery remained honest and truthful, no matter who he played. You can’t help but warm to his relatable persona because of the flaws and questionable attributes brought to his roles.
A Harry Dean Stanton double feature should start with Paris, Texas. Not only is this the perfect introduction outside of a myriad of supporting roles but also the perfect introduction to both German director Wim Wenders and actor Sam Shepard’s wonderful written work. As part of the German New Wave of the 1970s, Wenders is perhaps most well known for the iconic Wings of Desire (1987) — but it is in several earlier films that he explored his love of America when Francis Ford Coppola brought him to prominence stateside, producing his US debut, Hammett, in 1982. Unfortunately, the film was a commercial failure leading Wenders to seek European funding for Paris, Texas from homeland Germany, France, and the UK.
The late Sam Shepard brought the fragile machismo to the screenplay — his writing as spacious as Wender’s direction. Both men, tonally, fall into Jim Jarmusch territory, Shepard’s later (and criminally overlooked) film, Silent Tongue (1993) — in which he wrote and directed — feels very much like a precursor to the idiosyncrasies of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) delivering another perfect companion piece. Wender’s approach is to allow Stanton’s silence to permeate the film as much as possible — where the average viewer would struggle with its running time, those more appreciative are just happy to be in the company of the characters and learn to understand what has happened to our protagonist, Travis, and his family.
It isn’t to take anything away from the cast of Paris, Texas — they are all another perfect piece of the picture — as Travis’s brother Walt, Dean Stockwell provides the counterbalance; Aurore Clément’s sensitivity is a welcome break from the film’s latent manliness; and the debut of child-star Hunter Carson as Travis’ namesake son, Hunter, delivers an effortlessly real performance. It would seem that everyone involved brings some life experience to their role — something almost therapeutic — and once Nastassja Kinski arrives onscreen as Travis’ wife, Jane — knowing what we know of her alleged abuse by the hands of her father, Klaus — it makes her role all the more powerful.
Both films are very much character studies, Lucky, in particular, sidelining story and focussing on incidental moments where Stanton’s philosophy guides us through the film. Both stories centre predominantly on male figures, but it is Paris, Texas that treats the woman as an enigma, an almost spiritual presence that navigates Travis and reminds him of his shortfalls as a human being. Despite the limited time we spend with Kinski, Shepard’s script makes every second count, her reactions and final moment with her son delivering one of the most heartfelt scenes in the history of cinema.
Travis has searched for Jane. She is someone who represents every other female archetype of the Western — her corset and brothel replaced with a neon-pink angora and black tights; the artificial blonde bombshell framed like a pop art peep show. Her prison is the one-way box she is shot in — an artificial room that hints at domesticity and leads into Travis’s ‘bad romance’ eulogy. It’s the most we’ve heard him say. The contrast to his silence more than earned.
Mothers are important but seem vacant throughout as Travis appears guided by ghosts of the living and the dead. He not only carries his guilt but also his father’s and is potentially travelling the same path — a man who has always sought the love of a woman and needs to see it manifest in complex and emotional ways. Emotion in both Paris, Texas and Lucky seems as desolate as the landscape — geography is crucial — holding everything back until it needs to deliver. Where one film remains stationary, the other embraces the road movie in search for lost souls — the asphalt leading away from the traditional Western, echoing that straight line Travis walks to nowhere. No guns for hire here but searchers aplenty — defeated from the offset, not by the bad guy but seemingly himself.
The title ‘Paris, Texas‘ is the perfect nod to its European roots — a mix of sophistication and masculinity we would expect from each continent — not so much meeting head-on in a car crash but resting next to each other; delivering a film that restores some semblance of domestic ruse before it is lost forever. To locate a home it seems Travis has had to first walk away from it all before he attempts to restore what is left.
For Lucky, he is home alone from the offset and, much like Stanton, it is more than likely his (wayward) life choice. Both films, however, are still very much about detached men who, perhaps without realising, carry nostalgia on their shoulders as they begin to conform to the rugged stereotypes of the old west. Yet, as we travel, there is a clear transition as the landscape reveals the gas stations and motels, tower blocks and billboards that paint the urban imagery carved out of the frontier. This is where the romanticised nature of American cinema is left to dwindle like Travis’ own memory or a forgotten American Dream, much like the dusty plot of land he holds onto. Therefore, it is no surprise that Paris, Texas and Lucky feel isolated by the very nature of their characters, the environment and their stories.
With Lucky, actor John Carroll Lynch delivers a remarkable and understated directorial debut. Writers and producers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja craft a screenplay that doesn’t only reveal the trials of old age — death tapping on your shoulder while steering around loss and physical challenges — but also a deep and meaningful look at how we interact as human beings. There is a sense of spirituality that begins to cast aside comfortable habits, reminding us of Lucky’s tired old sofa that attempts to lay claim on him, objects echoing anecdotes and set pieces from Stanton’s films such as a tortoise ashtray and a red phone. Pure poetry — it’s as though Lucky could be the elder Travis.
Wenders’ use of colour is also poetic; specifically, the use of red that seems to become more prominent as Travis slowly awakens and attempts to bring his broken family back together. Cinematographer Robby Müller, paints the film’s interiors in neo-noir undertones to escape the overwhelming dry heat, while Lucky‘s DoP Tim Suhrstedt, only shows a brief glimpse of vibrant neon to highlight Lucky’s defiance — once again, a brief contrast to the baking Californian sun that has given so much life to American cinema.
In some instances, Lucky is very much the spiritual journey it was promoted to be — there is rich philosophy tethered to its centre through the eyes of an old man — except, those more familiar with Stanton’s work and his true character, know that his wry smile offers much more than his sardonic nature. It pays perfect homage to his life and career as he winks at the past and smiles at his own fate. From the offset the film delivers Stanton’s daily routine as Lucky exercises; cleans his teeth; drinks homemade tonic; watches game shows and sparks up a cigarette (Stanton was a chain smoker) before visiting his local diner to complete the latest crossword puzzle. Finally, in the evening, he visits the bar — modelled on Stanton’s local haunt, Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood, where he remained a loyal customer since its opening in 1964.
If you’d like to sit even closer to the man, look no further than Sophie Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) that would form the perfect interlude to these companion pieces. It is a beautiful portrait reminding us of Debbie Harry wanting to dance with him — it went way beyond the Blondie song (apparently) when they finally met — and if you stay long enough at Dan Tana’s you will see some familiar faces, including writer/producer, Logan Sparks, who, at the time, was a close friend and longtime personal assistant of Stanton’s.
In much the same way Stanton deliberates in Partly Fiction, Lucky contemplates with those around him. We watch as he learns that, “Realism is a thing.” When Joe, the bartender, pushes him, “Oh yeah? How do you mean?” Lucky explains, “It’s the practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.” The bartender attempts to sum it up more succinctly, “So, what you’re saying is, ‘What you see is what you get'”. Lucky, sharp as an old tack, replies, “But what you see is not what I get.”
In stark contrast, Travis has none of this — barely a soul left, let alone a routine — but both characters’ arcs are about discovering a soul. There is something ironic to Travis’ line, “I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of fallin'”, as he visits his brother Walt atop a billboard high above the freeway. There is something much deeper to the line that resonates above and beyond the film, echoing Lucky’s own fall, that ironically happens when his feet are planted firmly on the ground.
Having passed away at the age of 91, shortly before the release of Lucky, the film should be seen as Harry Dean Stanton’s swan song — unfortunately, the forgettable Frank and Ava (2018) was his final appearance — but Sparks and Sumonja’s semi-autobiographical approach delivers the perfect love letter placing Stanton front and centre rather than lost and forgotten. There is something ultimately meta about Lucky as Stanton interacts with characters played by those who know him personally; actors and directors who share much more than a knowing wink. Alien co-star Tom Skerritt arrives at Lucky’s local diner — a Marine Veteran cap thrown into view that tips the hat to captain Dallas — as they reminisce on their military career, Stanton’s own WWII experiences coming to the surface. It’s a beautiful scene from their initial connection to their obvious respect for each other on and off-screen.
Then there’s Lucky’s friend, Howard, played by frequent collaborator, David Lynch who delivers a tortoise monologue that is not only a standout moment in the film but also of any release that year. We forgive the wonderful auteur of weird for stealing a scene or two knowing that the lines he is speaking are directly influenced by the time Sparks and Sumonja spent with Stanton over the years. “There are some things in this world that are bigger than all of us… and a tortoise is one of ’em!” his own anecdotes peppering the script.
Once Lucky breaks the fourth wall and smiles at us we know full well that ‘Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky’ because, as the man himself has often stated — on the screen, he plays Harry Dean.
One man walks back into the desert… the tortoise not far behind.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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