Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders
Still Courtesy of Criterion

Exiting the Comma: On Liminality and Redemption in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas

In Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Travis is adrift, caught in the comma between the liminal ‘Paris’ and the redemptive ‘Texas’, between lost futures and the impermeable present. 

Paris, Texas
Wim Wenders
25 January 2006

What often gets mistaken for liminality is more accurately kenopsia, or the eerie atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned. Liminal spaces, meanwhile, are no-places, or between places, transitory stations. While the two are not entirely unrelated, and one may even act to enhance the feeling of the other, there are essential differences.

Wim Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece, Paris, Texas, is concerned with the liminal. Its opening shots are of the Chihuahuan Desert as the camera drifts through the Agua Fria Mountains. Jagged red peaks jut out of a dry arroyo. Their slopes are piled with loose rock and sand, ready to be washed into the Rio Grande the next time a desert storm rolls through west Texas. Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis Henderson is picking his way through this landscape. This desert is not kenopsic; it has never been bustling with people. Kenopsia is detained, most often, to human constructions. The landscape we are presented with in Paris, Texas, is anything but. It results from long-dead volcanoes and pitiless floods, sun-scorched, wind-beaten, and hopelessly ancient.

The Chihuahuan Desert is a between-place, a temporary way station to human visitors. Those who dwell there are popularly imagined to be more archetypal than flesh-and-blood. Archetypes and symbols are images concealing their shifting meanings. True meaning must be retrieved from the underworld, but access has been largely sealed. Rituals once provided entry, but such tunnels now are largely restricted to art and dreams.

The man, wearing a ragged suit and red cap, walks through this inhospitable vision with little more possessions than an empty plastic jug. Where his journey might have begun is unknowable. It is as if he has always been walking here or as if he has been beamed down from someplace beyond. In that way, he seems newly born. He has no language, no name, seemingly no memory, and little ability to affect his surroundings. He is guided, in the beginning, by thirst. His feet bring him to a dry faucet and inside a nondescript cantina, where he procures himself a handful of ice directly out of the ice machine before collapsing.

Anthropologist Victor Turner developed his concept of liminality’s vital importance through fieldwork with the Ndembu people in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He built upon the work of French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold Van Gennep, who pioneered the study of rites of passage, or the specific rituals constituted by transitions from one state to another. By “state”, Turner carefully points out that he means a “relatively fixed or stable condition”. While the rites include a time outside of such fixed conditions, this should not be considered a state unto itself but rather “a process, a becoming…even a transformation.”

In Van Gennep’s model, rites de passage are marked by three distinct phases: 

separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation. The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure or a set of cultural conditions (a ‘state’); during the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject…is ambiguous; he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state; in the third phase the passage is consummated. The ritual subject…is in a stable state once more and, by virtue of this, has rights and obligations of a clearly defined and ‘structural’ type.

In a sense, Paris, Texas, is the story of Travis’ rite of passage. Wenders, like Turner, is most interested in that second phase. We are only given the pieces necessary to understand Travis’ initial separation in one of the film’s final scenes. In the heartbreaking revelation for which the film is perhaps best known, Travis recounts the break-up of his family to his estranged wife and the mother of his son, telling their story in the third person to great effect. Love stirred jealousy, which drove him to paranoia, alcoholism, and, eventually, abuse. When Travis saw what he had become, he longed to be “far away, lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language or streets. And he dreamed about this place without knowing its name.” This almost literally defines Turner’s liminal stage and marks the beginning of Travis’ rite.

Turner writes that rites of passage reach their maximal expression in small societies rooted in stable cyclicality, where change is more connected to biological and meteorological rhythms than technological innovations. Wenders reminds us in Paris, Texas, that this is not the world we, or Travis, inhabit. Imprints of technological innovations are deeply encoded in the film. Natural spaces and manmade places are constantly being juxtaposed. By the film’s second act, we have traded in the far corners of Texas’ Big Bend country for the suburbs of Los Angeles. By the final third, we inhabit the alien architecture of Houston, seen at its most uncanny through the foreign filmmaker’s outsider view. 

The encroachment of modern technology has reached even into the most remote corners of the map, and ritual has become more obscure. Those with any remaining power are basically esoteric, their power is deeply personal and somewhat cobbled together. Because of this, there seems to be no clear way back from what Travis has done. The first stage of his journey, separation, was easily enough accomplished. He simply ran for five days “until every sign of man had disappeared”, but then he became lost in the margin for four years, leaving his young son to be raised by his brother and sister-in-law. The society he was a part of failed to encode symbols with messages capable of bringing him back. He becomes lost even to himself, a grub trapped within its chrysalis, metabolized into a soup but unable to give himself a new form. 

British criminal justice professor Shadd Maruna has explored the difficulty of reintegration for former outcasts in contemporary Anglo-American societies. While “status degradation ceremonies,” such as courtrooms and sentencing, involve extreme ritual behavior, there are practically no rituals in place for re-entry. The outcast, instead, is lost to an almost permanent liminal space, especially when imprisoned, where individuals are stripped not only of their autonomy but their identity: “The prisoner has to define and establish himself without recourse to a spouse, a brand of clothing, a distinctive car or home; all the identity materials that the rest of us rely upon for establishing our individuality are stripped away.”

Such conditions are typical of the marginal stage of a rite of passage. In properly structured rituals, the liminal stage offers ample opportunity for what Jungian psychologist James Hillman calls soul-making. “It works through destruction, the dissolving, decomposing, detaching, and disintegrating processes necessary both to alchemical psychologizing and to modern psychoanalyzing.”

A somewhat profane version of this soul-making has reached the general public via a popular trope often found in superhero films. The hero will lose their suit or otherwise have access to their powers cut off and must find a way to save the day without them. In so doing, they unlock an even greater inner power, leveling up, if you will, or, as Turner puts it: “The arcane knowledge or ‘gnosis’ obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state. It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being.”

This gnosis is not easily obtained. The liminal period represents a journey to the underworld. There is no time in the underworld. “There is no decay, no progress, no change of any sort. Because time has nothing to do with the underworld, we may not conceive the underworld as ‘after’ life…The House of Hades is a psychological realm now…It is not a far off place of judgment over our actions but provides that place of judging now, and within, the inhibiting reflection interior to our actions.”

This is not an easy journey. The type of shadow work suggested by Hillman is rarely encouraged in our day-to-day but remains essential to growth and transformation. In an ideal world, individuals might have access to a basically limitless level of this system, which both digs down into depths and expands outwards towards potentiality, filling the participant with personal meaning and installing a society that can provide such conditions with moral value. However, access to such conditions is highly limited today, especially for the convicts with which Maruna is primarily concerned, as well as on a general scale. “All of us have attended… ’empty’ or ‘force’’ ritual– routinized ceremonies involving the endless reading of names and distributing of certificates without emotional investment…Such events are ‘energy draining’, not emotional energy creating.”

This energy drain is at play today, both in our world and the world of Paris, Texas. There is a general malaise, a central lacking, and questioning what this is all for. This spiritual hunger is not difficult to pick up on for those attuned to that sort of thing. People are turning in all manner of directions in an attempt to satiate this hunger. Ritual once helped fill this need. Without it, as Maruna writes, people are left confused: 

The primary work of a rite of passage is to ensure that we attend to such events fully…unattended major life passages can become a yawning abyss…engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it. Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts…hover.

Meaningful ritual requires investment, and investment cannot be faked. For that reason, old ceremonies and rituals can rarely be revived. It is better to form new ones, or at least adapt old ones, so that participants can feel an honest connection. This author has gone around the maypole and draped ribbons in trees to mark Beltane without the least stirring of emotion. This is no shortcoming in myself, but merely that I do not belong to the life-world that engendered these rituals with meaning. As such, I cannot see or experience them similarly. 

Punitive rituals, however, are deeply encoded in the American imagination. From arrest to sentencing, the whole drama is well known, if not from first-hand experience, then from television and film. Nothing in American society is more real than the outcome of these rituals. Despite the weight of these judgments, there is nothing on the other side of a sentence that served to counterbalance the legal ritual. There is a clear demotion but never a clear promotion, not even a return to the earlier state. 

While Paris, Texas‘ Travis is not an ex-prisoner, he has crossed moral boundaries and become an outcast. It is unclear where he is meant to be going at the film’s opening. He appears to be suffering from amnesia, but on some level, it would appear he wants to be found, for he carries his brother’s phone number in his pocket. It is his collapse and subsequent delivery to the local doctor that spurs the beginning of his transition out of the marginal stage. Receiving a phone call, Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell), flies from his home in Los Angeles, probably to El Paso, where he rents a car and drives to Terlingua. Upon arriving, Walt discovers his brother has disappeared again, walking from the clinic back into the desert. 

Walt tracks him down, but when he finally does find him, Travis shows almost no recognition, though he is easily convinced to go with his brother, who leads him, fittingly, like a child, for “the passivity of neophytes…their malleability…their reduction to a uniform condition, are signs of the process whereby they are ground down to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to cope with their new station in life.”

Vital to the liminal stage are symbols, images encoded with deep meaning meant to act as a map. During this period, metaphor acts as a medicine, giving moral shape to the experience and authority to the society that provides it. As a student of Carl Jung, James Hillman’s work concerns dreams, which he considers to be a bridge to the underworld. He emphasizes the image, for dreams are made up of images: “The underworld and its imagery holds the deepest riddles and eventually becomes the prime concern of anyone engaged in soul-making.” Whatever else Paris, Texas might be, it is a film of images. The cinematography is stunning, thanks to the astonishing work by director of photography Robby Müller, “who believes that the magic of the film image depends upon the viewer believing in the reality of the light.”

Müller’s attention to the imaginal connects Paris, Texas, to the work of James Hillman, who proposes an alternate title for his book, which could have been “The Dream Between World and Underworld”. The Dream Between Paris and Texas takes place in the comma. Paris is an empty patch of land representing Travis’ past, where he began, and the unrealized potential of a lost future. It is a patch of land where he might have built a house and lived with his wife and son, but that is gone and unobtainable. Texas is the reality Travis is not yet able to inhabit, not yet accepted, nor accepting. He remains adrift, caught between lost futures and the impermeable present. 

Maruna is careful to point out that reintegration is a “two-way dynamic” in which “the possibility of forgiveness [allows] for repentance.” That two-way dynamic must be opened. “If a status passage involves the movement from one ascribed role to another, the person will frequently be required to act out…the internal change they have supposedly gone through to deserve the new status.” Travis does this in the time he spends at his brother’s house, reconnecting with not only his son but his brother and sister-in-law, with whom he was once quite close, as we are shown in the bonafide dream imagery of a home video of the whole family taking a trip to the beach town of Port Arthur many years prior. This viewing allows Travis and his son Hunter to begin rekindling their relationship. Shortly after, his sister-in-law, Anne (Aurore Clément), rewards him with information proving to be the key that allows him to find his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who works at a peep show in Houston.

“Accepting (even welcoming) former outcasts back into the fold of wider society is not…easy…and appears to be particularly difficult in the United States where prisoners face a particularly punitive and unforgiving penal landscape.” There is a general lack of public imagery, which Maruna suggests may be as much a cause as a result of the extremely punitive sentiments of the general public. In popular cinema, redemption arcs are typically capped by a sacrificial death. Despite purportedly Christian roots, there is little room for the redeemed. Against tradition, Travis completes his reintegration ritual largely because Jane is open to it.

“An essential outcome of a successful ritual is the generation of ’emotional energy’: feelings of confidence and enthusiasm in the participants. Rituals should involve a kind of cathartic, emotional contagion, allowing one to transcend the mundane.” Anyone who has seen Paris, Texas‘ final scenes between Travis and Jane can attest that the preceding sentence sums it up. Although their encounter does not bring the whole family together, as Travis might have hoped, an unspoken peace is brokered, reuniting Jane and Hunter, mother and son, after four long years apart. 

At the end of Paris, Texas, we see Travis passing through the final stage of his rite of passage. He has undone much of the damage he wrought and transitioned into a stable state, ready to return to society. Indeed, far from his first appearance as the lone figure in a vast landscape, the film ends with a close-up of Travis driving a car, merging onto an interstate, and disappearing into traffic. No longer caught in the comma, holding onto lost visions of Paris, he appears finally able to accept the reality of Texas.

Works Cited

Guest, Don, and Shepard, Sam. Paris, Texas. Filmverlag Der Autoren. 1984.

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. Harper and Row. 1989.

Maruna, Shadd. “Reentry as a rite of passage“. Punishment & Society, vol. 13, no. 1. January 2011

Scharres. “Robby Müller and Paris, Texas“. The American Society of Cinematographers (En-US), The American Society of Cinematographers. 10 March 2023.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Routledge. 2017.