Saturday, December 22, 2007


This week’s movie:


The tall man walked out of the desert.

When I was in junior high school, I wrote a short story that began with this sentence. When I wrote it, I thought it was pretty deep. The man later goes on to rob banks but I thought the opening was pretty good. Years later, in a college writing course, I wrote a short story that began with …..

A solitary robed figure emerged from the desert….

I thought the opening line was so good, that I wanted another shot at it. This time the man has amnesia. He can’t remember who he is, or why he was in the desert, and he robs only one bank. I’ve been thinking lately that I might try writing it again. Maybe this time, the man robs a bank THEN escapes INTO the desert. He wanders about for years – lost – until the statute of limitations runs out, then …….

Bearded and tattered, the solitary man emerges from the dessert.

There’s something compelling about this concept. It’s not just me. A few years back, reminiscing with an old high school friend, I brought up this story that I wrote. He told me about a story he wrote that started out almost exactly the same way. A year or so ago, talking to a friend about this film I just saw, PARIS, TEXAS. He hadn’t seen it but told me about a short story he’d written in which a man staggers out of the Sahara Desert and falls dead. The people in the village who find him try to fit clues together to figure out what happened to him. Why is this idea so universally compelling?

Because after he comes out of the desert, anything can happen. As an opening line, it ranks up there with “It was a dark and stormy night.” It sets an atmosphere but gives away absolutely nothing about what’s coming next. It says, a man has spent some considerable time in the desert, undergoing great hardship, with nothing but his own thoughts to keep him company. It’s not a new concept. Virtually every religious system has some story about a prophet, who wanders the desert seeking enlightenment. The process goes something like this: wander the desert; let starvation, dehydration, and sun stroke ravage you until you are near death and begin to hallucinate; wait for a very good vision, then get the hell out of Dodge. If you survive- you get to be a prophet. If you die – well ……probably not. Literally speaking, you can go anywhere from here – the possibilities are endless. No wonder religion has gotten so much mileage from this story.

So, if I ever decide to rehash the old opening line, here are some possible follow-up storylines.

1. Man walks out of a desert and into a Starbucks. He orders a grande Latte decaf and a scone, then walks back into the desert – disgusted by the rampart commercialism rife in the civilized world. He prefers the desolation of the wilderness – even though you can’t get a good scone worth a damn.

2. Man walks out of a desert and into a wading pool – drowns.

3. Man walks into the desert - unites legions of Bedouin tribes in attempt to overthrow British occupation. In a huge climatic battle, he ….what? ……Lawrence of what?

4. Man walks out of a desert and into a wading pool – drowns – walks back into the desert – unites legions of zombie Bedouin tribes in attempt to overthrow British occupation.

5. A young man walks across the desert accompanied by two droids. They’re in search of the legendary Jedi warrior, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in order to learn the ways of The Force. He needs the old man’s help to avenge the death of his father, but little does he know that …..what? What do you mean, “Star Wars”? OK, maybe a bit – not entirely per se, but maybe it resembles it just a little.

6. A young man walks out of the desert, accompanied by two droids, and into a Starbucks to get a double Moccachino and a scone. He needs to find and acquire the services of a starship pilot and his wookie, but little does he know ………..oh shut up!

7. A man walks across the desert to find the tomb of the Pharaoh. He finds it but accidentally unleashes a curse that animates the Pharaoh’s mummy. The solitary figure of a mummy emerges from the desert and into a Starbucks for a chai tea and a scone. “Damn good scone!” he thinks.

8. A man walks out of a Starbucks and into the desert. After a few days of no water and no scones, he says, “Bugger all this.”

9. A man walks out of the desert and into a Piggly Wiggly. He buys up their entire stock of sun-block and heads back. “Damn! This is one big beach!”

10. A man walks into the desert. After nearly a week, he is near death and he thinks, “Why do I have to always walk? Walk Walk Walk! What? I don’t rate a camel at least. A camel would be nice. I could eat a camel.” Just then he stumbles upon united tribes of zombie Bedouins. He begs them for water and a scone to eat – but they say, “We don’t have any scones. What do we look like? Starbucks?”. When he says, “Bugger all this!”, they fall upon him, mistaking him for an occupying British oppressor.

Director, Wim Wenders, is widely regarded as one of the greats. There’s an entire unit devoted to his work in most film schools. This is pretty remarkable if you consider that his entire reputation is based on essentially two feature films. Oh, he’s made lots of films – but really, only two of them were worth a damn (I’m not counting some of his recent documentaries on music, including the very excellent Buena Vista Social Club.). One of the two is Wings of Desire, highly recommended by this site. The other is this week’s movie PARIS, TEXAS. Both of these films exist on a plane that sits well above 98% of all other films. I’ve already discussed Wings of Desire in a previous article, thus I’ll focus my comments on this week’s movie. So, what is it about?

The solitary figure emerges from the desert.

We see him wandering the Mojave Desert. We see his gulp his last few drops of water. He stumbles into a truck stop/diner and collapses. He’s treated but they can’t do much for him – he’s not talking. They find a phone number on him – it’s his brother – who flies out to pick him up. His bother hasn’t seen or heard from in four years. Has he been wandering the desert for four years? His sneakers look like it. We don’t know – we don’t know anything at all about him. We don’t know WHY he’s been wandering the desert, or where he’s been, or why he’s wearing a necktie. All we know is that something terrible happen four years ago and it’s been troubling him all that time. Whatever it was, caused him to disappear, his wife to leave their (then) 4 year old son with the brother and then the mother disappeared.

His brother brings him back home where he is reunited with his son. Little by little, he begins to open up and we start to see clues about what might have happened. The genius of this film is that you unravel the mystery a little at a time. The man (his name is Travis), at first you think that he’s a little slow – maybe he was out in the desert just a little too long – but he’s not. He’s thinking – he has a lot on his mind. The final scene where he tracks down and confronts his wife – and the rest of the story is revealed is perhaps the most dramatic heart-rendering and masterly filmed scene in the history of cinema.

The film doesn’t judge Travis. It doesn’t decide if he’s a good or bad man, or if the decisions he makes are correct. It just says “the story is what it is and - you decide”. Someone people in this story will get a raw deal, others may get a second chance, and still others may get some peace. What more could you want in a film? (I’m sorry – but no one gets shot in this film, and nothing blows up.)

Wim Wenders has had a long love affair with American roots music. The film’s soundtrack is by Ry Cooder, whose haunting slide guitar background perfectly describes the desolate backdrop of the American Southwest better than words, more accurate than words.

Advisory: None. There’s nothing particularly offensive in this film. There’s no sex or violence. However, because of the slow but deliberate pace of the movie, small children (or impatient adults) will soon lose interest.

So – go out and rent this movie. It scores a 100% on the tomatometer. It scores 100% because they’re no allowed to rate higher. This film makes Steven Jay Schneider’s book, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”. In fact, it makes most film critics’ “must see” list. And, if you need more affirmation, you can read film critic, Roger Ebert’s, review here.

PARIS, TEXAS – It’s so good, that if it weren’t already in English, they’d make an English language remake of it.


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