REVIEW — Paper Moon (1973)

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:




REVIEW – Lisa and the Devil (1974)

LisaandDevilFilmJuice have my review of Arrow Films’ recent re-release of Mario Bava’s post-gothic fantasia Lisa and the Devil (a.k.a. House of Exorcism).

This review probably makes most sense when read in concert with my review of Bava’s earlier film Black Sunday. As I pointed out in my review, Black Sunday‘s Gothic imagery works solely because the film is shot in black and white. Lisa and the Devil deploys a similar set of Gothic tropes (skeletons, ghosts, sinister mansions) but because the film is shot on Eastmancolor (the successor to Technicolor), the film lacks any real atmosphere meaning that the Gothic imagery feels forced and slightly silly. One explanation for Bava’s decision to revisit Gothic tropes on colour film is that the sense of artificiality is intentional and used as a means of drawing our attention to the fantastical and unreal nature of the world the character has inadvertently entered. Indeed, while the film is ostensibly about a young woman who is lured to a sinister mansion by the Devil, one could also read the film as a meditation upon Bava’s career as a director. After all… how many women did the great horror director lure into Gothic mansions as a part of his job?

This feeling of artificiality is fiercely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and both works feel like products of an aging creator reflecting upon the theatricality of their own lives. However, while Shakespeare clearly identified with the aging wizard Prospero, Bava appears to identify with Savalas’ satanic butler, a character forever fussing with cheap special effects and grease paint in an effort to control what people see and how they feel. The melancholic nature of this identification is even more evident when Lisa snaps out of her reverie amidst wax dummies and ruined buildings: when the film ends, the audience picks up their stuff and leaves while the reality of the film decays in their minds and nothing is left but ghosts.

Another reason for picking up this dual format release is that Arrow Films have consulted a collection of critics who really engage with the fact that this film was released in a number of different places and a number of different forms.

One of the most prominent vestiges of auteur theory is the idea that a director’s final cut of a film is somehow more authoritative than alternate versions. Though rooted in the cult of the director-as-auteur, this vision of the creative process owes much of its popularity to Ridley Scott’s very public dissatisfaction with the original cut of Bladerunner. When the director’s cut of Bladerunner was finally released, people noted the improvement and internalised the idea that a ‘director’s cut’ is somehow better than a standard cut. Though certainly romantic, this idea actually has very little basis in reality.

Firstly, many films (including Lisa and the Devil) were cut and re-cut for multiple markets in a bid to extract as much profit as possible from the production process. Rather than shooting a film and putting all of their eggs in a single aesthetic basket, many exploitation film directors would shoot extra scenes that allowed them to produce alternate cuts tailored for particular markets. Thus, while the soft-focus and lack of real violence and sex suggest that this cut of Lisa and the Devil was made for TV, House of Exorcism contains a lot more sex, a lot more violence and an exorcism framing device that allowed producers to target the mid-70s American marketplace. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ version of Lisa and the Devil, there are only variations on a theme.

Secondly, directors have been known to revisit films at different points in their career. Indeed, while the director’s cut of Bladerunner may be closer to Scott’s original vision than the theatrical cut, it seems unlikely that each of the subsequent re-editions of the film are somehow more authentic than the last.Similarly, while Apocalypse Now Redux contains more material than the original theatrical cut, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Apocalypse Now Redux is somehow more authentically ‘Apocalypse Now-y’ than Apocalypse Now. A further example of this type of thing is Ruggero Deodata’s decision to provide an alternate edition of Cannibal Holocaust with all of the animal cruelty taken out of it. On one hand, this is clearly a more authentic rendering of the director’s feelings about his own film but it seems strange to suggest that this new cut is anything more than a publicity-generating afterthought.

Thirdly, more and more films are being produced with home release editions in mind. The most obvious example of this type of thing are the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies but one could also talk about the more sexually explicit home release editions of American Pie and films like Get him to the Greek which included additional scenes and different takes of scenes that appeared in the theatrical version.

The extras on this dual-format release go into considerable detail about the production history and how entirely different films were extracted from a single shooting schedule. Aside from providing a fascinating insight into how European exploitation films were made, these extras also confront head-on the idea that there might be a single, correct version of any particular film. There are no ‘more authentic’ cuts… only better ones.

‘From’ in which sense exactly?

One of the running themes of this blog since its inception has been my on-again, off-again relationship with the approach to film criticism.  In some cases I have argued that works should be seen as windows into the writer’s mind, in other places I’ve been happy to cast it into the dustbin of history on the grounds that a) if you buy into auteur theory then you really need to know quite a bit about the auteur before writing about their works and b) a lot of films become more interesting if you completely ignore what it was the director was trying to achieve.

Another reason for rejecting auteur theory is that it seems to be the case, in American cinema at least, that the clock has been turned back on the director/auteur in favour of a return to the days of the all-powerful producer.  The poster boy for this development is, of course, J. J. Abrams.

But I see it elsewhere too…

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