Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
Craft is often forgotten — and occasionally abandoned — in deference to style. Style is what makes people take notice. When asked what makes a director’s films work, many people will point to the director’s visual flair, genre trappings chosen, and their movies’ overall tone. Kubrick had his obsessively perfect shot compositions and reverse tracks; Altman’s camera never stopped moving or zooming; There’s the stupidly named but not untrue “Spielberg Face”; The list goes on. Those are tangible things onto which a viewer can latch, and they often enhance the picture as a whole, but they are not what make a story work: rounded, imperfect characters whose decisions make sense given their previous actions, and a plot with every scene advancing the story in a meaningful way.
Film critic, historian, and director Peter Bogdanovich understands the importance of craft. He understands it so well, in fact, that his 1973 con artist film Paper Moon is an exercise in craft; everything he does is in service of the story and characters.
Bogdanovich wastes no time throwing the audience into the Depression-set tale. He opens at nine-year-old Addie’s (Tatum O’Neal) prostitute mother’s funeral as swindler Moses Pray (her real life father Ryan O’Neal) arrives late in a backfiring jalopy; he “knew” Addie’s mother with strong implications he may be her father. Her handlers learn Moze is heading to Missouri, where Addie’s aunt and soon-to-be caretaker lives. They convince him to escort her there safely, and he reluctantly agrees.
This exchange occurs in no more than three minutes. Nothing extraneous can be found. The audience learns the situation (an orphan needs to reach her remaining family, her “father” must get her there) and necessary characterization (despite his reservations, Moze doesn’t put up much of a fight when asked to care for Addie; she needs a parental figure). His cranky car and shifty attitude (and wispy mustache) provide enough of a mysterious hook to pull us in, and Bogdanovich expeditiously goes about answering our questions in their episodic journey.
The pair heads to a grain mill owned by the man whose brother killed Addie’s mother in a car accident and Moze demands money on Addie’s behalf. Moze is not great at doing this. Instead of bargaining for the thousands he requested, he eagerly accepts the $200 the man offers, surprised to have gotten any amount. After receiving the money, he pockets it. Addie, who had listened to the exchange outside the door, confronts Moze at a diner. She’s tough as nails and angrily demands her money from him, although he had already spent it. She tells him he has no choice but to earn her repayment with her by his side. What a cool nine-year-old.
That diner scene is emblematic of the film as a whole. Each character wants something: Moze wants to keep the money and continue with his life unburdened, and Addie wants the money owed her. Incrementally, it advances the plot while revealing more about each character (the child is stern and sharp while the adult of the pair is irresponsible and a little inept). The rest of the film follows suit.
From there we learn Moze’s profession. He’s a grifter posing as a traveling Bible salesman. He reads obituaries and swindles the deceased’s family by saying the dead person had recently put a down payment on a “deluxe” edition of the Bible and he’s at their doorstep to deliver it. Upon seeing Moze at work, Addie looks to improve his methods by casing the rich people and discounting the poor; it’s a liberal sensibility that speaks perhaps more to our current political climate than the 1970s, but that’s a discussion for smarter people than this writer to have in another venue.
The clockwork nature of the film boggles my mind. There is no fat on the script. Each time Moze and Addie enter a hotel, you know a pivotal character building scene will happen, with Moze’s paternal instincts growing with each room key that touches his fingers. Each episode — Moze and Addie carefree while selling Bibles, a dancer named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) wooing Moze into being her sugar daddy, and run-ins with a cop in the bootlegging business and a hillbilly family with a penchant for wrestling matches — serves to deepen the film’s central relationship.
Any film that acts purely as an exercise, no matter how well done, would still be a failure. Stylistic exercises like Kill Bill and Drive wouldn’t work without healthy portions of character work, and likewise a craft exercise like Paper Moon requires a lot of style to succeed. Bogdanovich and crew inject plenty of style into the film and achieve deeply felt resonance in the process.
While I think Bogdanovich’s direction, outside of the sharp black and white cinematography, could be described as unfussy, that would be misleading. He uses several extra wide shots throughout the film that not only look beautiful but also show us just how bleak a world Moze and Addie inhabit, which makes their fun loving nature more impressive. Noteworthy, too, is how little Bogdanovich zooms the camera. Instead, the camera dollies in and out and booms up and down, creating a retro look you don’t see much in filmmaking today; it is a neat callback to the camera techniques used in the time the film takes place.
Bogdanovich isn’t alone in the film’s success, though. The O’Neals take their father-daughter chemistry and create characters that never feel manufactured; you can imagine them having lived this existence. Moze is a man who disdains responsibility, to the point where he’s found a lucrative-but-unfulfilling business he would never outgrow if it were not for Addie, who seems to be destined to run a Fortune 500 company by the end of the film, given her shrewdness, eye for detail, and fairness in regard to those less fortunate than she. The character actors, especially Kahn as the seductress, make the most of their small screen time. Kahn’s heart-to-heart with Addie rings especially true; she’s an aging dancer trying to make the most of her fading beauty in a time when a woman without real world skills would be eaten alive.
Bogdanovich set out to make a film that fulfills every key aspect of storytelling. That sounds like a lofty goal, but it isn’t. By following the simple rules of (1) make every scene count in the grand scheme of the film, (2) make the characters grow in every scene, and (3) change the characters — for better in this case — by the end of the story, you will create an effective work. Paper Moon reaches transcendence, though, by utilizing actors who never hit a false note and visual techniques that feel both fresh and oddly antiquated at the same time. It’s a “full package” film if there ever was one.