FilmJuice have my review of Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon, a film I did not expect to like but wound up absolutely adoring.
The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? left me with what I consider to be a healthy scepticism of American films set during the great depression. Though many a director has set out with a head full of social realism and the urgent need to capture what things can be like for capitalism’s victims, most of them wind up getting distracted by the slang, the hats, the music and the endlessly photogenic poverty. Add a few fast-talking grifters to the mix and what you have is a recipe for self-mythologising nostalgia: Sure the excesses of capitalism can destroy communities and drive people from their homes but these are also moments of opportunity for the kind of lovable rogues who not only benefit from other people’s misery but actively legitimise the capitalist system by proving that America is still a land of opportunity for those who are smart, lucky and charming! I approached Paper Moon expecting another lesson in America’s capacity for economic re-invention but what I found was a beautiful and genuinely funny character study of one fucked up little girl:
Aside from the film’s gritty look, what keeps the film on the right side of sentimentality is its willingness to share Addie’s profound distrust of human relations. Only child of a woman who made her living as a bar room honey, Addie’s skinny frame, ugly clothes and fondness for cigarettes display all the signs of historic neglect. Before Addie even opens her mouth, we are shown the ‘warm-hearted’ Christian neighbours who are so desperate to get rid of her that they literally dump her on the first stranger who passes through town. Addie is desperate for family but rightly wary of people who would proclaim their righteousness only to reveal their hypocrisy in secret, she warms to Moses precisely because his displays of piety are understood to be nothing but an act.
And when I say ‘beautiful’, I mean genuinely jaw-dropping. This Masters of Cinema release is dual-format but the screener I received was DVD-only, which genuinely surprised me as I can’t remember the last time I saw a DVD look this perfect.
Consider, for example, this shot of a factory from early in the film, it’s not just that the buildings themselves look amazing, it’s also the composition and the attention to detail as Ryan O’Neal gestu8res to his daughter while workers toil in the background:
Despite producing three back-to-back hits that made a shit-ton of money and won people armfuls of awards, Bogdanovitch’s place in the canon of American filmmaking is far from guaranteed. It’s not just that the quality of his films seemed to decline as his career progressed, it’s that his ability to produce great films seemed to evaporate the second he parted company with his wife and production designer Polly Platt. Both Peter Biskind and David Thomson float the possibility that Platt was the real talent behind Bogdanovitch’s directorial throne and the complexity of Paper Moon‘s art direction certainly supports this theory. For example, look at how much detail is crammed into this image from a short scene in a diner… It’s not just the composition and how the straw in the bottle of Nehi seems to split the screen, it’s also the positioning of extras so that the men are clustered on one side of the screen while women are mostly clustered on the other:
The Masters of Cinema release comes with some interesting discussions of the film and one of the point that people make is that Paper Moon is a film in which everything is always in focus and how the positioning of background details not only aid the composition but also help to create the impression of a real world. The extras point to this exquisite combination of shots from when Moses tries to get rid of Addie by sticking her on a train:
Note Addie looking sad in the background and compare it to the shot that immediately follows it:
Look over the ticket-seller’s shoulder and you’ll see kids playing with a ball. This not only echoes the shot of Addie looking sad, it also foreshadows the questions posed in the final act about whether Addie is actually in a position to make her own decisions and whether she is right to stick with Moses. In the context of these two shots you have a sad-looking Addie standing next to Moses and a pair of kids playing happily on the other side of the rail road buildings.
Another thing the extras reveal is that Platt not only convinced Bogdanovitch to work on Paper Moon and dressed the sets, she also served as a location scout meaning that all of the film’s evocative scenery was chosen by Platt rather than Bogdanovitch. Bogdanovitch started his career as an actor before falling into film criticism and many people seem to associate him with the rise of auteur theory in American film-writing. The auteur theory would certainly struggle to account for a production designer with the capacity to pick up on locations that are literally idiot-proof:
I’ve come rather to the view that auteur theory is lazy. It’s easier to discuss directors, and requires far less knowledge, than to discuss the impact of the much wider team contributing to a film (many of whom will have jobs those of us outside the industry may have little knowledge or understanding of).
Paper Moon is a fabulous film, utterly charming. I think it’s unfortunately inspired a lot of bad kid buddy movies, but that doesn’t detract from the original.
I think part of what makes this work where others don’t is it’s honesty, it’s ability to look straight at things, plus as you say it’s sheer beauty. I hadn’t thought before of the downward curve that follows, though you’re right, but I think with this and Last American Picture Show his reputation should survive a while yet.
I’ve long been of the opinion that the best place to study film is probably a business school as I suspect that they have theoretical tools designed to deal with complex authority and decision-making structures. Auteur theory makes sense when it’s a writer/director and a very small crew but it’s completely unworkable with respect to contemporary Hollywood.
I think Bogdanovitch is someone who benefited enormously from his choice of friends. The extras for this disc feature a fascinating anecdote in which it is revealed that Orson Welles happened to suggest that they shoot the film in black and white with a red filter. Bogdanovitch made a load of friends and worked those connections really well until his ego inflated and his marriage fell apart. I suspect the later films are a reflection of what Bogdanovitch could achieve without the assistance of various cinematic luminaries, hence the decline.
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