Madelaine Lucas on Sam Shepard and Paris, Texas

My own love affair with Shepard’s work began with Paris, Texas, which I watched for the first time at 19, reeling from romantic rejection. It is a slow-burning film starring Harry Dean Stanton—another cowboy gentleman who died last year at the age of 91—in his first role as a leading man. It’s difficult to imagine the film without the gravity and grace he brought to the character of Travis or the profound and ethereal presence of Nastassja Kinski when she appears as his estranged wife Jane, in what may be the most iconic sweater on film. If Paris, Texas is a love letter, it is one that positions heartbreak as an existential condition, reflected by the burned-out landscape of the Southwest—a desolate but dreamlike purgatory of highways, diners, motels, payphones and railroads always on the brink of being swallowed whole by the desert.

Shepard once stated that it was not these places themselves that interested him, but their connection to the past, and at the heart of the film is the cruel joke Travis’s father used to make about his mother—introducing her to people as “the woman he met in Paris … Texas” as a way of shaming her for failing to be the worldly, glamorous woman he wanted her to be. For Travis, the road offers a route of return and the hope that we might come to understand who we are through where we’ve come from.