Monday, 11 May 2015

paper moon

peter bogdanovich started out as a film critic who learned filmmaking the fast way through working with roger corman, most notably on the boris karloff classic, targets (if you haven't seen targets, you should seriously check it out). bogdanovich went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation. paper moon was made at the height of that acclaim and is considered by many to be his best work.

the story follows travelling con man moses pray (ryan o’neal) who visits the graveside of a former lover only to find himself agreeing to take the woman’s orphaned nine-year-old daughter, addie (played by o’neal’s real life daughter tatum o’neal) cross country to stay with her aunt. it’s not long before addie has not only worked out how moses makes his money but also decides to help him. as they near their destination the usually cautious moses is pushed into bigger and more risky cons by his young protégé.

paper moon is a fascinating film about family, loyalty and greed and the depression-era setting perfectly captures an america on the brink of disaster. moses pray’s america feels almost like the wild west, as he drifts from town to town always on the lookout for the next mark. the roads he and addie travel seem almost as empty as the towns they find along the way and there is a real sense that something has failed; that the american dream didn’t work out and now everyone has to do whatever they can to get by. addie takes this idea to a new level.

in the opening minutes, it appears as though paper moon will be a story of innocence corrupted. addie is a girl who has no one, and now she’s stuck with a con man for a father figure. however, the balance of power soon shifts when moses tries to put addie on a train to make the journey alone and she practically blackmails him into taking her with him. as their relationship develops, moses begins to learn more from addie than she learns from him, although for her it is clearly a game in which she never has to face the consequences. for moses, there is much more at stake and in the end he is more likely rediscover his own lost innocence than addie is to lose her's.

there is a key scene in the film around the mid-point that neatly summarises the themes of the story. moses becomes enamoured with a carnival dancer named trixie delight and decides to bring trixie and her 15-year-old black maid imogene along with them. addie isn’t particularly happy with this arrangement and she and imogene work out a plan to separate moses and trixie. when the plan works, moses tells addie they’re leaving and she waves to imogene as she skips along the hotel hallway to be with her surrogate father. the camera follows addie, but never loses focus on imogene standing alone behind her. this is a story about people who do what is best for them and only them, and addie is sometimes just as guilty of that as moses is. this adds more tension to the film’s central dramatic question – will moses take addie with him in the end, or will he abandon her with her aunt?

paper poon is also an incredibly well-crafted film and is a great example of a talented directed working at the height of his power. the black-and-white cinematography, by famed cinematographer laszlo kovacs, seems to somehow add a vibrancy to the story rather than simply emphasising the bleakness of the period. the contrast of the setting and the photography next to the sentimental and seemingly light-hearted plot is an interesting juxtaposition and one that produces an unsettling feeling that things are about to go horribly wrong at any moment. ryan and tatum o’neal give career-defining performances in the lead roles, and tatum actually went on to become the youngest winner of an academy award at the time.

this is one of those rare titles that manages to tell a great story without compromising on emotional depth or complexity. the story on the surface of a young girl being taken in by a con man is an entertaining and at times funny and heart-warming romp that moves at a satisfying pace. at the same time there is so much more complexity and nuance under the surface that it is easy to imagine watching this film over and over again. in summary, paper moon is a genuine classic and definitely worth revisiting.

paper moon is released on blu-ray in a dual format edition as part of the masters of cinema series on 18th may 2015

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