In the spirit of The New Yorker Magazine Summer Movies essay series, I present my own contribution to this wonderful exercise….
Like most teenage summers, the summer of 1985 was full of anticipation. It was the summer before I began High School, fraught with all the attendant anxiety of what that leap would mean. I was a smart and confident fourteen year-old kid with a big mouth, uncomfortable in my own skin but with a brash sense of humor that I used to forge a barrier between myself and the outside world. Instead of physical confrontation, I courted verbal conflict like a knight errant, happily jumping into the fray of someone else’s argument to pontificate about my atheism, left-wing political views, tastes in music, whatever. At the time, I had no idea how a foolish 14 year-old boy looked while spouting off what he’d read in books or come to understand through his minimal life experience, but this was the joy of that age; The fascistic certainty of a high contrast world where things operated as pure dialectics. This or That. True or False. Period and end of.
I think my certainty and interest in the limited grown-up things I had experienced and enjoyed (jazz, punk rock/’college rock’, reading) lent me an air of maturity, or maybe there was something so convincing about my self-confidence that adults were as certain of me as I was myself (there is a lesson in there somewhere), but my mom and step-dad entrusted me with a great deal of responsibility that summer; I was frequently left in charge of my 11 year-old brother Chris as my parents pursued their passion for Duplicate Bridge tournaments.* While they traveled the country (and Canada) playing cards on the weekends, I would whip up baloney sandwich lunches, down insane amounts of Diet soda (a habit which I still am fighting to break), and Chris and I would watch movies on the VCR.
Flint, Michigan was pretty much a cinematic wasteland all year long; relatively small multiplexes (Genesee Valley Cinemas, the Showcase West), mall-based theater chains (Small Mall, Eastland Mall), the giant, single-screen Flint Cinema on Dort Highway, and the occasional trip to the Miracle Twin Drive-In (which is still in operation) were the primary choices, and like most towns of Flint’s size, the screens were all taken up by the same movies. When Michigan Video opened its doors just a few blocks from my house (on the corner of Miller Rd. and Ballenger Highway), it instantly became our primary source for entertainment when the parents were away. We rented everything we could get our hands on; Ridiculous horror films (I Spit On Your Grave!, Zombie, Last House On The Left—the more lurid the box, the most desirable the rental) and action movies (Chris was a big fan of Sylvester Stallone), and we’d sit in cushioned chairs only inches from the TV screen, the windows wide open and the muggy Michigan air brushing against us by way of a single oscillating fan.
Late in the summer of 1985, I rented Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. I had seen the box in the video store and had paid the film no mind at all, but earlier in the summer, a friend’s parents had rented it and had left the box out in the living room. I hadn’t noticed Nastassja Kinski on the box before, but I remembered her instantly from some photos I had seen around the time Polanski’s Tess had come out and then seeing her in the flesh in Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake; I am not sure any 14 year-old boy could have resisted her charms, but I certainly wasn’t willing to try. She was amazingly beautiful, eyes and lips that you would never see in Flint in a hundred lifetimes; when I saw her on the box of Paris, Texas, I knew I had to see it. A Friday afternoon in August, and Chris and I rented our usual stack of videos and we watch a couple on Friday night. Saturday rolls around, my brother is off to play with his friends in the neighborhood, and I pop in Paris, Texas.
I can only describe Paris, Texas in retrospect; It would have been impossible for me to articulate any realizations about the impact the film had on me at the time. A couple of things I do remember: The vast, empty desert scrunched down to fit my 19” TV was still as powerful a metaphor as I have ever seen. And when Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, in his greatest performance) and Jane finally meet on opposite sides of one-way glass, I started crying. I was deeply embarrassed, red from the shame of it despite being alone on a sunny Saturday afternoon. No 14 year-old boy would admit to crying in a movie and I probably hadn’t cried since Ricky Schroder hugged Jon Voight’s dead body in The Champ**, but that cold piece of glass between Travis and Jane was too much for me. I understand it now; This was LITERALLY the first time I had been confronted by interiority in art. Travis’ journey was everything I knew about my own feelings and could never articulate; whereas I used words to keep people at bay so I could manage my own inner life by my own rules, Travis used silence and physical isolation to much better effect. I connected with his character in a very profound way, having gone through my own parent’s divorce ten-years earlier and now feeling the loneliness of adolescence. The movie wasn’t about me (obviously), but it felt like something I already knew about myself and had never understood. It also gave me my first real taste of the most important feeling I could know; uncertainty.
And then there was Nastassja, older now, made to look world-weary and exhausted. When Travis saw her behind the glass, I was looking with my own eyes, a once inconceivably beautiful woman fallen down to the world of mortals. She was no longer an object or fantasy to me, but suddenly a person, an actress, both concrete and beyond comprehension. I won’t suggest that there was something in my crying that was motivated by my own feelings upon seeing Nastassja Kinski made human, or by the profound confusion that this moment of sexual longing and deep sadness inspired in the 14 year-old me, but at the same time, Nastassja was like a bucket of heartbreak spilled on the floor, and seeing her, untouchable behind the glass, it blew me away. This is love? What were my tears all about? My idea of myself reflected in the saddest heartbreak, the empty desert, the long walk to nowhere, the selective amnesia (and the rejection it implies), the restoration of son to mother? Why did I suddenly (and for many years irrevocably) feel so alone?
Because I was alone. Because watching Paris, Texas on a steamy afternoon in Michigan and discovering yourself is entirely that feeling, articulated in every line on Travis’ face, every empty desert road leading to God knows where. I looked up from the TV screen and there was all of my parents stuff, their things filling the living room; I was something else entirely. That is life, inside of me and around me. I simply hadn’t seen it before. When Travis finally does try to connect, he still can’t be seen, he’s trapped observing the woman he loved, longing for a different result, a feeling he simply can’t have. It was an impossible moment. That was the moment I fell in love with movies.
Longing, Made Flesh: Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas
It was definitive for me. I still utilize the framework of movie-going to sort out my emotions and feelings, to give myself permission to ask myself questions about my life. It is the singular reason that film is so important to me; movies have become a way of self-examination. The more a movie makes me feel, the closer I get to understanding myself. That may sound like made-up bullshit, but I assure you it is true; I feel more alive in a movie theater than I do almost anywhere else. Paris, Texas was the first time I ever had that feeling, so important to me now, of discovering something inside myself of which I wasn’t conscious. Since I played that movie on my parent’s old VCR, the pursuit of that feeling has consumed me, and movie-going has become an addiction, a quest to constantly discover mirrors on the screen that reflect an unseen self-image back at me, each moment connected to the last time, each moment in anticipation of the next. Has the screen become the glass between the outside world and me? Not at all; I simply harbor certain parts of myself that I can only give over to cinema. The rest? That’s my secret.
*A story in and of itself.
** Any kid who says he saw The Champ in the theater and didn’t cry is lying.