Chile avec Fromage (Chile con Queso)
A shorter version of this post was originally published on the Criterion Collection website.
In April, a new arthouse theater opened here in Austin, the Violet Crown Cinema. (Our city has several pet names and one of them is the “City of the Violet Crown.” Why it’s called that has been completely lost to history.) Local film director and cinephile Richard Linklater pick eight films from the Criterion Collection as a test run of their facility (and as a benefit for the Austin Film Society). Of the films he chose, the one I was most attracted to seeing was Paris, Texas. First, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the film but always remembered how much I liked it; and second, I needed to pick something for my post here and was hoping to be inspired by something in the film. And I was.
After the film ended, I was so pleased that it doesn’t seem dated at all and holds up almost as if it could have been made yesterday, not way back in 1984. The film so smoothly takes its time to unfold and is a joy to watch. Linklater and I agreed that Hunter Carson’s performance is one of the best child performances ever, perhaps.
But speaking of Wim Wenders and food, and if you lived in San Francisco around the years Wenders was making Hammett, as I did, you probably ate breakfast now and again at Wim's Restaurant. Yes, Wim's Restaurant. (I'm very upset as I've spent way too much time surfing the interwebs looking for a picture of this once famous San Francisco diner with no luck. If you have one, send it in and I'll post it!) Wenders was often seen around town in those years, as Francis Coppola's Zoetrope studio headquarters was (and is still) located on the edge of the North Beach district. Now there's a triangular building (the Sentinel Building, also now known as "Coppola's Cupola") right where Kearney & Montgomery streets meet, and at the base of the Sentinel was Wim's. If memory serves, Coppola bought what was a Zim's Restaurant (at one time SF's "largest local restaurant chain"), a good greasy spoon diner open 24 hours that was there, and replaced the "Z" with a "W," but kept the good greasy spoon diner just as it was. For years, it remained a fine place to get a stack of pancakes and bacon and coffee to nurse a hangover. The location is still owned by Coppola, but nowadays, like many places in San Francisco, it's been turned into a bistro, Cafe Zoetrope.
Paris, Texas is streamable at Hulu (with a Hulu+ subscription), is home rentable from NetFlix, and can be purchased directly at the Criterion website or at Amazon.
Walt: "This is it? This is Paris? Looks just like Texas to me."
Travis: "It is."
Walt: "Paris, Texas?"
Travis: "It's right here on the map."
Walt: "Is there really a place called 'Paris, Texas?'"
Let's start here... "I had been living on and off for six years in the United States; I had made 3-1/2 films there and still hadn’t been able to express what I felt," Wenders said.
Those years and films in the US leading up to the making of Paris, Texas were very tumultuous for Wenders, both personally and professionally, and, in many ways, this film, which would be his most commercially successful at that point, was the cumulation of all that tumult turned into a great work of art. Some have dubbed the time as his "American Period," beginning with Hammett (1978-82) and ending with Paris, Texas (1983-84). He said of those years: "I was young then and naive and figured I could make 'American movies' and maybe even become 'an American.' I learned the hard way that my profession was that of a European filmmaker, and that I was totally unable to make an American film. And I finally came to terms, in America, that I was a German in my soul, actually a German romantic, and I learned to accept that. Which was a good thing."
“America is something incredibly dear to me still," he said. "But especially working with Sam [Shepard] helped me to articulate my feelings in a way that it was impossible to do in, say, Hammett...."
The road to Paris, Texas began with Hammett. "Wim had originally wanted me to work on the screenplay," recalled Shepard. "I didn’t want to do that; I don’t like working on screenplays in a studio situation, when you’re kind of commissioned to do something, so I turned that down. And then he wanted me to act in Hammett, and we went through this series of absurd screen tests because [producer Francis Ford] Coppola wasn’t satisfied that I was the right one for the part." In the end, however, Wenders and Shepard vowed that someday they'd work together on something.
Hammett, though it is a watchable film, was in and out of production for three years. According to stories more than 70 percent of the film was reshot by Coppola. When it started Wenders had recently married actress/singer Ronee Blakley, by the time the film was released, she had been excised from the film, replaced by a different actress, and their marriage was over. During that time, Wenders also made two other films - Lightening Over Water, a "sort of" documentary of director Nicholas Ray's last days, and The State of Things, in which Wenders tried to deal with his frustations over making Hammett in a film about a conflict between a producer and a director. There are also two shorts, with one, Reverse Angle, in which Wenders also struggles to work through his frustrations and disappointments with Hammett.
"I didn’t take [Hammett] as a failure," Wenders said. "[O]n the contrary, I was amazed that I had the stubborn determination to finish the thing although there were plenty of reasons to drop it. I know they won’t let me make another film in Hollywood. But I don’t care to anyway. You lose too much independence. It’s terrible how they simply ignore so much talent and let it go to waste."
And then one day, Wenders was ready to put it all behind him and try to find his voice (or his lens) again. Perhaps he could make a European film in America, about America. But he still had fears. He told screenwriter LM "Kit" Carson, who would collaborate on Paris, Texas, that "nobody saw [my last three films]. I can't make another movie nobody sees."
Wenders sought out Shepard. First they tried to adapt Shepard's Motel Chronicles, an autobiographical short story collection - but it wasn't working. Then the two locked themselves in a motel room and just traded stories for a week. “The first element that began to come into place was Travis, then his brother, and then his son," recalled Wenders.
"We started with this idea of brothers: one a brother who is suffering from a kind of amnesia, although it wouldn’t be explained in those terms," said Shepard. "[I]t was kind of a... removal from the world and reentering the world — and another brother who’s very much in the world. These two opposites.... [O]ur first draft just went like wild, just went like a prairie fire, raced to the end. I guess about 160 pages after the first three or four weeks."
"The great thing with Wim is you can go down many different tracks with a screenplay and he will question it: 'Why do we want to go there? Why do we want to do that?' On my own I probably wouldn't question it as deeply. So it's good to have someone to bounce off of," Shepard noted.
“For once I was making a movie that wasn't meandering all over the place," said Wenders. "That's what Sam brought to this movie of mine as an American writer: forward movement, which is very American in a way.”
As with Hammett, "I repeatedly asked Sam to play Travis himself," Wenders remembered (PDF). "But at the time he was very adamant about not being able to play the part that we had written. I asked Sam on my knees, but he remained stubborn. And luckily, we found Harry Dean who made me forget my regrets about not being able to cast Sam."
"I didn’t feel confident enough as an actor to pull that off, and I thought Harry Dean Stanton was far better for the role," Shepard admitted (PDF).
Stanton had just been visiting with Shepard in Sante Fe and expressing his own frustrations being typecast as a heavy in movies and it was driving him mad. "I think that’s why he called me a few weeks later and said did I want to do the lead in his film," recalled Stanton. "I was very intrigued with the fact that Sam’s first description of Travis was as a guy who doesn’t talk."
At the same time, Dean Stockwell was also in New Mexico. He had pretty much given up on acting since he wasn't getting many jobs. He'd heard Dennis Hopper was in Sante Fe for the local film festival, and thought seeing his old friend might lift his spirits. Arriving in town, he also ran into Stanton, whom he hadn’t seen in over a decade. Not long after, Stanton called Stockwell and suggested he try out to play the brother in Paris, Texas, which he did and got the role which relaunched his career.
For the role of the son, he cast a 7-1/2 year old child who had never acted before but was from a showbiz family. His father, the already mentioned LM "Kit" Carson, and his mother, actress Karen Black. Wenders knew Hunter's governess (she had worked at Zoetrope) and suggested him because she felt he was an "honest kid." For the part of Jane, Hunter's mother & Travis' wife, he telephoned his "discovery" Nastassja Kinski. He had cast Kinski in his 1975 film False Movement, which was her first film performance. She had just come off a series of pictures, including Cat People and One from the Heart, and was pregnant with child (fathered by Vincent Spano). She agreed to be in the film, but could only commit to work a short period of time.
So filming would commence, even though the script wasn't exactly done yet. Wenders and Shepard had written hundreds of pages, but getting it to work as a film proved problematic. They had no ending (actually they had several endings) and not even all the dialogue written for what they did know. But this is the way Wenders likes to make movies - chronologically. "Kit" Carson said, only slightly joking, that Wenders' method of making films is "It's not fair to know the end of a movie when you start."
Wenders' cinematographer, Robbie Müller, said he prefers making a movie this way, but he only gets to do it with Wenders. “There is more of a development in everything [when you shoot chronologically]. You can invent new things and fit them in the film and you have no continuity problems. You can change the story halfway through without being bothered by an ending you might have shot already. You can really work from A to Z; you can grow in the film. Everybody goes with the story. When you shoot the end of the story the shooting is finished.”
So the production headed to Texas and spent three weeks filming the first few scenes of the film until the foreign producers got wind that Wenders didn't know where the film was going and pulled the money plug until they could see a completed screenplay, or at least a completed outline. On top of that, Sam Shepard - for all his talk about "lacking confidence" in his acting ability - had decided to costar with Jessica Lange in the movie Country.
"[A]s we started," recalled Dean Stockwell, "it was simply a synopsis, a breakdown of scenes – with no dialogue at all."
So Wenders and crew returned to Los Angeles to regroup. Shepard, however, was overextended, he couldn't give his attention to finishing the treatment. According to Carson, he told Wenders: "You figure it out. I'm outta here. I gotta go do this movie [Country]." So Wenders turned to Carson, as he was the closest writer to the production and they had already been bouncing ideas off each other.
"I knew that they had gotten started and that there was a stop date on the talent involved," Carson recalled. "I wandered into the office [in Los Angeles] one evening to see how it was going, and he was at his desk with his head in his hands. I said, 'What's the matter?' And he said, 'We have shot the beginning of the movie. It sets up this great mystery, and then the script explains it all away. And I don't want to do that. I want this movie to be about love, a movie in which love triumphs at the end, but it's not sentimental.'"
Wenders explained he had two versions of the last act to explain why the marriage had fallen apart. In one version, Carson explained, "Nastassja's father was a big Texas oilman, and his goons had gone and beat up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a penthouse. The other version was Nastassja's mother was under the thrall of a televangelist and, of course, he ran heroin dens and whorehouses, just like all televangelists do. His goons came and beat-up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a heroin den/whorehouse."
So, Carson told Wenders, "'Those are kind of corny." And he said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'What if they did it to themselves?' And he looked up and he said, 'Exactly.'"
Wenders made some calls, specifically to Shepard who gave them his blessings, and Carson began churning out pages for the second act of the film set in Los Angeles.
“While Wim films in one Valley house, I work across the street in another one," wrote Carson in his diary. "Each night after a 12-hour day, we confer on the new pages plus reexamine, change the scenes to be shot tomorrow..... Feels crazy-dizzy.”
They began writing what would be the final scenes of the movie, the Keyhole Club segments. There are so many stories about the writing and making of this film, however, this little bit is one of my favorites of how Wenders' mind works. Carson wrote: “I write [Travis] entering the front door and finding out gradually what goes on in this place, growing enranged/heart-broken. But Wim notes our birthdays are a day apart in August with Hitchcock born on the day between, and suggests a Hitchcockian structure: Travis goes in the back door, gets lost, has to figure the place out backwards, then breaks down. Right, Hitchcock plays it better.”
They returned then to shoot the third act in Texas. This is my favorite story of the making of this film. The film got shut down again by the Teamsters union, while shooting in El Paso. They went on strike. Claire Denis, who was assistant director on the film, recalled, "[The Teamsters] kidnapped the camera truck. And Wim won the camera truck back by playing poker with them. And then, Wim passed the exam to become a Teamster. And he made it so he was allowed to drive the truck [himself]."
Shepard is back on board and is phoning in dialogue at night, especially for the scenes in the Keyhole Club between Travis and Jane, which, I think, are some of his best writing captured on film.
The last scenes shot are the those in the Keyhole Club which they did over two long days. They had to be the last scenes shot - because they were down to only one 1000-ft. roll of film stock. “There was not enough time, not enough money, and we only had enough negative to complete the scene and no money to buy more. The last shot was also our last roll," recalled cinematographer Müller. (Though, actually, they returned to Houston to shoot the final scene in the hotel between Nastassja and Hunter.)
[SPOILER ALERT!] "In the end, I felt there were no options for me," Wenders said shortly afterwards. "I think the scene between Harry Dean and Nastassja in the peep show is the best thing I have ever done in the cinema, and the power of that scene brought to me the conclusion that to have any other ending would be to run against the grain of that scene and diminish the overall effect.... His greatest responsibility was to free Jane to accept the child - he is the only one who can ‘save her,’ as it were. I think pretending they could get back together as a family is the biggest lie we could have told.”
I can't end this without mentioning the incredible contribution of Ry Cooder's music to the film. Wenders originally had been considering Bob Dylan to do the soundtrack, but they had so little money left for music that was no longer possible. Wenders contacted Cooder who literally recorded the soundtrack in less than two days. He just watched the movie, laid down some guitar (based on Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)", which he once described as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music") and then embellished it. It remains one of the best film soundtracks ever. A decade later they would reunite to work on Buena Vista Social Club (a Chef du Cinema pick!).
Wenders was frantically trying to get the film edited in time for its scheduled screening at the Cannes Film Festival. “We worked nonstop with three editors and still only arrived in Cannes with the print on the day of the screening," Wenders remembered. It wound up winning not just the Palme d'Or, but also taking home FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film by the Golden Globes, and Wenders won best director at the BAFTA Awards.
“I think that in Paris, Texas, I was able to do everything I’d been wanting to do for a long time," Wenders said. "It’s rare to feel that way about a film, that you were able to do everything you wanted. Even when you self produce, and even when you are free to make changes during shooting, it’s not often in the end you can say, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to do.’ It’s the case for this film. I’m very proud of this film.... Everything I know, I put into this film.”
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
Filmmaker Allison Anders was a production assistant on Paris, Texas. At one point, Wenders told her: “Just remember, the production always reflects what the film is about.” She didn't think much of it at the time, but said, "I have always learned that he’s right. In every film I’ve made.... I think about it every time I go to make a film.” And while there are many filters through which to view this film, one to consider is, as Harry Dean Stanton's character asks at one point: "What does a father look like?" (If you’re so inclined, here’s another filter - a psycho-analytical examination of the film. Just saying.)
The obvious is the real life father and son relationship going on between writer “Kit” Carson and his son Hunter. But also "sons" were very much on the minds of other cast members at the time. Nastassja Kinski was pregnant with her son, Aljosha, while she shooting the film. You also have former child actor Dean Stockwell who gave birth to a son during the film's production - whom he named Austin (perhaps in tribute to the film?).
But with “Kit” and Hunter, the film reflected the production. In his diary, Carson, the father, wrote: “[S]omehow... Hunter has clocked our unspoken game on this movie - it’s is also sort of about us. I’m trying to speak to him through the movie-father some about my mistakes of fatherhood. Just watching the film of the first tentative father-son scene, it’s clear the kid’s putting his guts on the line, he’s open-eyed feeling it.”
After he’d divorced Karen Black, Kit recalled, "I moved to New York and didn't see Hunter for eight months. I felt there was some sort of crack between us. Then I came back to L.A. to take care of him while his mom was working. We slept in the king-size bed, and Hunter would sleep way over on the other side. After two weeks, I'd find him lying against me when I woke up in the morning. Kids don't hold any grudges. They move too fast for the pain to stick." This is mirrored in the movie when Travis first reconnects with Hunter in Los Angeles.
"Acting was hard," Hunter said, "but my mom helped me learn my lines. I felt like an actor when I was doing the movie, but now I don't know."
“Movie-making’s telling Hunter a lot,” his father wrote, “[H]ow to concentrate, how to read and memorize fast, etc. And one key lesson: that he’s valuable; he can be counted on to do a good job; that if he does something essentially spiritual (act good), he helps a group do something bigger.”
Wenders recalled how it was between Hunter and Nastassja Kinski. "It was like a painful flirtation between the two of them at first. At one point he came up to me and said, 'I don't think she likes me.' And she did the same. To let them get to know each other better, I piled them into a car and we took a long drive. I had Hunter and Nastassja shoot an 8-mm film of each other."
"I wanted Hunter to do the movie for one reason: to learn about working in a group. I wanted him to know he could be good and make people feel great. So it was a moral lesson also,” said his father.
Hunter made a few more films as a child, including Invaders from Mars, Mr. North, and was originally slated to play the son, Bud, on the TV series Married with Children. Since finishing college, he’s worked on a few films and most recently co-directed one.
So, at about the halfway point in Paris, Texas, Travis and his son Hunter are parked under a Los Angeles freeway interchange. Travis has decided to head to Houston, Texas to find his wife, Jane, and wants to know if Hunter wishes to join him on his journey. They are eating lunch while they discuss this. Hunter’s aunt (French actress Aurore Clément of Lacombe, Lucien fame) has packed some cheese for him to take to school which becomes a topic of their conversation:
Travis: "This is not bad stuff."
Hunter: "Anne puts it in lunch everyday. 'La vache qui rit.' Sticky."
Travis: "'La vache' what?"
Hunter: "Rit rrr rit."
Travis: "Rit rrr rit. I like it."
Immediately, I said to myself, “What is this la vache qui rrrrrit?”
When I got home, I dove into googling to seek out what the heck this “la vache qui rrrrit” was, and what could I possibly make with it, if anything. Well, while I didn’t know it by its French name (my French is worse that my Italian), I certainly knew it by its American name, “The Laughing Cow” cheese. Those individually wrapped triangles of pasteurized processed cheese food eaten the world over (at a rate of 4600 wedges per minute), and invented in France in 1921 by French cheese maker Leon Bel. “Aha!” I exclaimed. You know what else is a pasteurized processed cheese food product? Velveeta. Yes, you heard correctly. Velveeta. Created in Monroe, New York by Swiss immigrant cheese maker Emil Frey in 1919 – and which, is the basis of one of the most beloved Tex-Mex dishes, Chile con Queso. It is impossible to communicate why a bowl of melted processed cheese food with diced tomatoes and roasted chile peppers (preferably from a can - it has something to do with the juices its packed with) is so revered nor how it mystically seems to alter your perception. It defies explanation. It just has to be experienced in its natural habitat to be understood.
In an article in the Houston Chronicle, food writer Allison Cook proclaimed, “If Tex-Mex is our state’s tribal nursery food — a truth that I hold to be self-evident — then chile con queso is our mother’s milk.... [W]e Texans love our chile con queso of choice with a fierce and childlike attachment that flouts reason. It is consolation in a cup, a sacrament conveyed on a triangle of crackly corn.”
I tell friends when they first come to town,“We have a dish here we call ‘Queso,’ which is Spanish for cheese. And that’s basically what it is. Just a big bowl of hot, gooey, fattening, oozing yellow cheese.” They look at me like I’m crazy, until the bowl arrives and they stick their first tortilla chip in it and then ask how they can take some home with them as it dribbles down their chin.
These days there are a variety of The Laughing Cow flavors, but the original, a mix of Cheddar, Swiss and some kind of semi-soft cheese, should be used. You’ve got to keep your queso simple. And so, my experiment proved successful - melting Laughing Cow, with your standard chile con queso ingredients, yielded a mighty fine tasty dish. I’ll be bold enough to say it would be welcome as an appetizer in both Paris, Texas and Paris, France. As always.... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!
Chile avec Fromage (Chile con Queso)
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Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
18 ounces "La vache que rit" (aka The Laughing Cow) cheese, original variety (3 wheels)
1/2 cup tomatoes, finely diced (Roma, Grape, or Cherry)
1/4 cup onion, diced
7 ounces canned green chiles, diced
1/3 pound meat - See Note, optional
1 tablespoon butter (if not using meat)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 /2 cup nonfat milk - See Note
cilantro, minced - for garnish
French baguette, thinly sliced
Note: Meat is entirely optional, although some swear by it and other swear at it. Crumbled chorizo, pork sausage, taco meat, picadillo, or brisket are the typical considerations.
Note: You can use heavy cream or anything in between if you want. Using nonfat milk just makes me feel less guilty if you give yourself a heart attack from eating this.
Unwrap cheese and reserve. If using meat, sauté meat and onion in a nonstick pan until done, then drain away excess grease. If not using meat, sauté onions with butter until translucent. Add chiles and the cheese. Stir slowly and regularly over low heat with nonstick spoon so it doesn’t burn. Add milk and salt and continue stirring. Just as it starts to get nice and bubbly, add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Serve hot in a bowl (or preferably in a Fondue pot!), garnish with cilantro, with bread slices (since we’re going all French here), or with corn tortilla chips.
Criterion Paris, Texas site
LM "Kit" Carson on Paris, Texas @ Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts
Journey's End: Wim Wenders in Texas @ The Design Observers Group
Official Wim Wenders website
Official Dean Stockwell Appreciation Page
Nostalgia Kinky, a Nastassja Kinski Fan Site
A 9-year old Handful Named Hunter, by Jim Callo & Gail Buchalter @ People Magazine
History of Tex-Mex Cuisine @ FoodEditorials.com
Paris, Texas (The Criterion Collection) DVD/Blu-Ray
Paris, Texas OST CD
Paris, Texas: The Book, by Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders, et al.
The Cinema of Wim Wenders: From Paris, France to Paris, Texas, by Kathe Geist
The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition (Contemporary Film and Television Series), by Roger F. Cook & Gerd Gemünden
The Tex-Mex Cookbook, by Robb Walsh
Nuevo Tex-Mex: Festive New Recipes from Just North of the Border, by Robb Walsh & David Garrido