'Paper Moon' Is a Masterclass in Cinematic Storytelling
This comedy, starring Ryan O'Neal, should be mandatory viewing for anyone who aspires to make narrative films.
Paper Moon was never released on Blu-ray.
I came to this starting realization following the death of the movie’s star, Ryan O’Neal, last week. O’Neal’s career (and personal life) had a lot of ups and downs, but he starred in two of the best films ever made, and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he did ‘em back-to-back: 1973’s Paper Moon, an adaptation of Joe David Brown’s novel Addie Pray that was directed by Peter Bogdanovich from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, and 1975’s Barry Lyndon, an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel of the same name that was written and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick’s film is rightfully celebrated as a masterpiece on the regular. Barry Lyndon not only has a Blu-ray, it has a super-duper deluxe Criterion Collection Blu-ray, and it ranks highly on the British Film Institute’s prestigious Sight and Sound polls of The Greatest Films of All Time (both the critics’ poll and the directors’ poll) to boot. Bogdanovich and Sargent’s film doesn’t appear on either of those lists - but that’s actually less bothersome than the Blu-ray thing.
To be clear, I am not advocating for physical media (the movie is available for streaming, thankfully). I am simply inferring something sad from the facts. DVDs were introduced into the market in 1997; Blu-rays followed a decade later. If Paper Moon never got released in the next-gen physical format, it can only be because the studio that owns it, Paramount, did not make enough from sales of the film’s DVD to feel it warranted an upgrade. In other words, despite being a massive hit when it was first released, by the turn of the century, the public had effectively ceased to care about Paper Moon to any even semi-significant degree.
And that’s heartbreaking, because Paper Moon isn’t just a good movie - it should be mandatory viewing for anyone who aspires to make narrative films.
Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, Paper Moon is about a con artist, Moses Pray (O’Neal), who goes through the local obituaries, shows up at the home of the recently deceased, and claims that before they died, they ordered a “deluxe” Bible with a loved one’s name imprinted on the cover - and when the deceased’s loved ones inevitably want the Bible they don’t know the dead person didn’t actually order, they of course have to pay for it. Moses gets saddled with a little girl, Addie (Ryan’s real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal), who may or may not be (but almost certainly is) his illegitimate child. Addie’s mother, who we understand to be something of a “loose woman,” was killed in a drunk driving accident; Moses, who met the mother “in a barroom” (i.e., he slept with her), shows up at the funeral and is ostensibly guilted into helping Addie get to her only living family, an aunt who lives in Missouri. Initially, Moses tries to exploit Addie to make more money for himself - but Addie is too smart to allow herself to be exploited, and she basically becomes Moses’ apprentice. Naturally, the duo doesn’t get along at first, and then, as the movie progresses, they grow to love one another, until Moses finally mans up and accepts Addie his child.
There are two things one needs to understand in order to fully comprehend what makes Paper Moon so great.
The first thing you need to know is the rule of “but/therefore.”
See, in narrative, you want the story to flow, which means each successive happening must organically evolve from the event prior. In other words, you want your scenes to be connected by “but/therefore,” not “and then.” Good storytelling is, “I was going to walk to work BUT it was raining THEREFORE I tried to get a cab BUT they were all taken THEREFORE I had to take the bus BUT it got a flat tire,” and so on and so forth. Bad storytelling is, “I was walking to work and then I stopped to get a coffee and then I ran into an old friend and then it started to rain and then my doctor called and then I finally arrived at the office.”
Don’t just take it from me, some schmucky blogger - take it from the extremely successful creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon:
The second thing you need to know is, as I’ve said it before, one of the things that makes cinema unique is that no other medium allows for such efficient storytelling. A great filmmaker can convey a lot of narrative information in very little time, and because they can engage sight, sound, and intellect all at once, they can often do this without even really alerting the audience to the fact that it’s happening (to paraphrase the great film critic Mr. Plinkett: the viewer might not notice all the details… but their brain will).
There are a lot of reasons to love Paper Moon: the performances, the humor, the heart, László Kovács’ gorgeous black and white cinematography…
…but what really makes Paper Moon a true treasure is the way it expertly merges the law of “but/therefore” with the kind of economic storytelling only film can offer.
Take, for example, a pair of back-to-back scenes where Moses and Addie go to sell Bibles to the widows of recently deceased men. These two scenes use a whopping ten shots over the course of 113 seconds to tell something of a mini-story that illustrates two very important differences between Moses and Addie - specifically, that Addie has a conscience, and that Addie is far more observant than Moses - and does it all using “but/therefore”:
Moses’ hand knocks on a white door. The door is covered in dirt and scratches.
Moses and Addie stand side-by-side waiting for the knock to be answered. Moses fixes the bow in Addie’s hair. Without any dialogue, the movie has now communicated that Moses sees Addie as an important part of his scheme.
The newly-widowed woman answers the door. She has a small child on her hip and two more on either side of her. The door frame is in noticeably bad shape; the walls behind the woman are mostly bare, save for a painting, which has been hung at a slightly crooked angle. The movie cuts back to the side-by-side shot of Moses and Addie as Moses begins his usual spiel; when it cuts back to the shot of the widow, she is joined by three MORE children, including a crying baby.
Close-up of Addie looking deeply unhappy as she notes the ever-increasing size of this poor family. Just as Moses is about to tell the widow how she much she owes for the Bible her late husband allegedly ordered, Addie disrupts the conversation: “Daddy, this one’s already paid for! Mr. Stanley paid for the whole thing, don’t you remember?” Addie then hands the Bible to the widow for free. In the two-shot of Moses and Addie, Addie suppresses a satisfied grin, while Moses glares at her. Without any dialogue, the movie has now conveyed to us that Addie understands the widow’s family is poor, that she has given them the Bible out of the goodness of her heart, and that Moses doesn’t approve of this kind gesture.
Moses’ hand knocks on wooden door. The door is ornate; it has shapes carved into it, and includes a window, which is covered by a very fine-looking shade.
Another two shot of Moses and Addie… only this time, Addie is standing next to Moses, she’s sitting against the car, her chin in her hand - the universal sign of a displeased child. Moses gives her a brief, disapproving glance over his shoulder. Without any dialogue, the movie has now communicated that Moses has made Addie stay behind this time, lest she once again cost him more money.
Another newly-widowed woman, Edna, answers the door. She’s past child-bearing age, and the room behind her is anything but barren. Cut back to the two shot of Moses and Addie, and Addie is now standing and slowly approaching while Moses once again delivers his spiel.
Close-up of Addie as she gets even closer to the house, peering inside.
Addie’s POV as she observes the woman’s piano, chandelier, and jewelry. Cut back to that two shot of Moses and Addie, and Addie is now standing right beside Moses; she interrupts him right as he’s about to tell Edna what she owes for the Bible, jacking up the price by 100%.
A shot of Moses, Addie, and Edna all together, as Edna happily and unhesitatingly agrees to the price while Moses stares at Addie, shocked. Without any dialogue, the movie has now communicated that Addie recognized Edna’s wealth and seized upon it in a way that Moses never would have, and that as a consequence, she is now back in Moses’ good graces, standing by his side where she belongs.
Or how how about this moment - conveyed in two shots with absolutely zero dialogue, and using “but/therefore” - in which Addie attempts to please Moses by being less of a tomboy, with droll results? At this point in the story, Addie has come to believe Moses feels she’s not feminine enough. So she practices looking womanly in a mirror, and ultimately douses herself in her late mother’s perfume with a satisfied grin. We then cut directly to a close-up of Moses (no need for an establishing shot!) as he wrinkles his nose, smelling something - which we, of course, immediately understand is Addie’s perfume. The camera pans over to Addie, who turns and smiles at Moses; it then pulls back, allowing the duo to share the frame, as Moses opens the window, and Addie’s grin turns to a pout.
In fact, viewers know they’re good hands right from the first eight shots of the movie, which last a total of ninety seconds:
Close-up of a sad-looking Addie.
A coffin. We don’t know who is in the coffin yet, but we do now know why Addie is sad.
A wider shot of the funeral service in progress. It’s sparsely attended. Addie’s literal distance from the other mourners suggests a proverbial distance from those same people (no one is offering Addie comfort), as does the fact that she’s the only blonde in the group (these people are probably not related to Addie) and the only one wearing white (she’s SO dissimilar from them). Then - in the same shot - everyone hears a car loudly sputtering in the distance. One by one, they all turn to look.
The car drives along the road.
Reverse shot of the funeral service.
The car pulls over and Moses gets out, putting on his coat as he approaches the funeral. In the same shot, he quickly darts over to another grave in the cemetery and steals the flowers someone has left there.
Moses walks up to the funeral service.
Moses stands away from Addie and, in fact, does nothing to acknowledge her. In the same shot, the woman turns to look at Addie… and then asks Moses if he and the child are “kin,” while the camera slowly pushes in on the two of them, gradually framing everyone else out.
Eight shots - ninety seconds - four brief lines of dialogue - are all Bogdanovich and Sargent need to introduce our two main characters, make us understand who they are, and begin to prepare the plot: a sad kid whose only family has just died needs someone to take care of her, and along comes this asshole, who knows he’s supposed to bring flowers to a funeral but won’t pay for them and doesn’t even have the propriety to show up on time and not disrupt the proceedings. The table has been set faster than you can ask someone how to correctly spell “Bogdanovich.”
If this simple, economic storytelling style is what makes Paper Moon so effective, I suspect it’s also the reason the movie’s brilliance is so overlooked: too often, people mistake spartanism with a lack of effort. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. To make a film this ascetic requires an incredible amount of strategic planning on the part of the filmmakers. It does not happen by simply going and filming a scene from a bunch of different angles and letting the editor figure out how to piece it together during post-production. And it doesn’t allow for cheating via extraneous expositional dialogue. It’s EXTREMELY difficult to pull off.
Don’t believe me? Note how few films attempt such a thing - even other movies that are considered to be good.
The opening of the Sam Mendes-directed American Beauty, for example, is more than twice as long as that of Paper Moon; the exposition we need to understand what we’re watching is delivered via voiceover narration, not character action and mise-en-scène; everything is connected by “and then” instead of “but/therefore”; it goes through far more shots to tell its story, and those shots are often unnecessary (Why do we need a close-up of the protagonist’s feet getting into slippers? What does that shot tell us about the character, the story, or its themes?) and/or poorly thought-out (at the 1:17 mark, we see a man scolding his dog by a fence; at the 1:20 mark, there’s a separate shot of the man’s partner exiting their house and joining them at the fence - it’s ostensibly the same shot twice in a row, with minimal differences, because for some reason the filmmakers felt it necessary to see the second man exit the house instead of just walking into the pre-existing frame, and no one thought to get the front door in the frame of the original shot).
Or how about this scene from Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, another movie about a father/daughter con artist team? Compared to Paper Moon, how much vital information is actually conveyed during this sequence - and how many shots and how much dialogue did Scott need to convey it?
One more, just to really hammer the point home: this scene from David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, in which the main characters go to a diner for a dinner date. It only uses four shots - two mediums, two close-ups - but none of those shots actually tell you anything about the people in the scene or their conflict. Both characters are framed in identical manners, and that framing never changes; it doesn’t subliminally suggest anything, it just basically keeps everyone in focus, which is literally the least it could do.
Paper Moon’s mode of carefully calculated, fat-free storytelling isn’t the only way to successfully convey a cinematic narrative - heck, in some cases, it’s probably not even the best way to achieve that goal - but it is the one that most takes advantage of the elements unique to film as a medium: those scenes from Silver Linings Playbook and Matchstick Men could just as easily be in plays, and American Beauty favors the spoken word over visual language to such a strong degree that it might as well be a book. Paper Moon deserves a prime spot in the annals of film history; to treat it as a footnote instead would be an error most grievous.