This came to me via my DVD-by-mail club, so it had the voice-over
comments of Wenders himself. Though Wenders is German, this must be close to an archetypal Western film, not least because it was written by Sam Shepard. It's a Sam Shepard story -- another version of the demon father -- but glorified and sweetened by Wenders.
Most of what Wenders says is about the light and the way things look. The movie is in two main places: Texas (2 subcategories -- the Big Bend country and some other country settings) and LA. The outdoor rural places, esp. the absolute desert, is shot in a way that swings back and forth between the celestial (clouds through a polaroid lens -- too early for digital skies) and the lurid (sun rise and setting). The cities, the "built" environment, are as wonderful as the bizarre badlands for his eye. He loves the graphic qualities: the signs and murals, and the geometry of buildings. They are so new, so hard-edged, so slick. Early in the film there are motels that he claimed were untouched by scene designers, but that are remarkable: halfway between kitsch and stage sets: intense reds, vibrating blues, enamel stripes
and fuzzy surfaces. By the end, the Houston hotel room is almost like a Star Wars city set -- a plate glass wall looking down on traffic, skyscrapers fading off into cloud.
The story line explores that same "consequences of a confused, angry, alcoholic life" -- the same generational dissonance (old man, young beautiful girl, accidental baby) and need to travel long, long
distances to get in touch. In this movie it is rather remarkable that the steady, anchored brother is Dean Stockwell, who often plays tormented characters himself. Stockwell does a convincing job of being a typical California guy -- in a production niche (billboards) that pays well but demands total dedication, a little domestic nest that costs too much, a wife who also works, a Mexican maid --- to Wenders in LA only Mexicans are truly sane. The little house is remarkable only because it's up high and overlooks the Burbank airport. I know this view and it is again rather like Star Wars scenery. (With good reason, when you
think about it. Lucas is a local product.)
Wenders explains the whole thing as though it were just a good excuse for getting photos of stuff like gunnite dinosaurs and giant road-runners, but he really is channeling the American subconscious -- with help from Shepard. The closest written thing like it I can think of is Ed Abbey's strange double autobiography -- two parallel stories. Then again, part of the “channel” is German romanticism.
Harry Dean Stanton, everyone agrees, is the key to the movie: an
Ozarkian gaunt soul who, for all his tenderness, can't seem to connect reliably with anyone. But the other myth of the Edenic West is the redemptive little boy, played by a remarkable kid “produced ‘ by Kit Carson [sic] and Karen Black. He's a Hollywood duckling in familiar water. And he has a great sense of the cosmic, the imagination that goes with all these skies and modern buildings. He can't save Pa, but he does save Ma. That strikes me as an American choice -- surely a European would choose a father? Maybe until the 20th century wars anyway?