Paper Moon (1973) October 2nd, 2022
I took an English class in college focusing on The Great American Novel. The Great American Novel is a superlative bestowed on only the most exemplary works of American Fiction encompassing an essential aspect of the American experience or an element of its national identity. Notable examples included “The Great Gatsby”, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, and “The Grapes of Wrath”. Upper-class Americans from over a century ago felt the United States’ nascency contributed to a lack of homogeneous national identity. A deficiency magnified when compared to other countries on the world stage. These ancient civilizations with rich histories spanning thousands of years full of significant cultural touchstones that, when considered together, established the vibrant tapestry of each nation’s national identity dwarfing America’s meager cultural output. Forgive me if this is historically inaccurate, I’m drawing on lessons from a class I took over a decade ago and in the time since endured enough historic moments to wipeout all memory of most other significant historic events save those documented in classic films like Patton, Apollo 13, or Private Parts.
Modern America’s cultural dynamo influences every corner of the globe except the most reclusive South American tribes but let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time before they’re buying our blue jeans and listening to rock ‘n roll like everyone else. Yet we are still divided as a nation. Separated by class, race, and politics the ideal of a Great American Novel seems further out of reach than ever before. Why limit this unifying American experience to one medium? Perhaps the time for the Great American Novel has come and gone, perhaps we need a debate on the Great American Film (Look I’m not naive, the time for the Great American Film has long since passed too. The best we could hope for now is the Great American Episode of Chopped, humor me). While I’m not suggesting we undertake that massive challenge now, I would like to humbly submit Paper Moon for your consideration.
Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray alongside his real-life daughter Tatum as Addie Loggins. The two meet at Addie’s mother’s funeral. Moses arrives late and with flowers he’s snatched from a nearby grave. He’s compelled by the other funeral guests to deliver Addie to her Aunt’s house in Missouri, these same guests note Addie resembles Moses and question whether he may be her biological father. Moses begrudgingly agrees and the two head on their way. Before they leave town Moses has an idea. You see he’s a traveling conman drifting from town to town selling bogus bibles to newly widowed marks, and no conman worth his weight in pyrite would miss out on an opportunity to score. He sees one such opportunity in Addie’s misfortune, so he marches his 9-year-old companion to the front office of a factory who’s driver recently struck and killed Addie’s mother. Moses quietly threatens the owner with a lawsuit on the girl’s behalf but settles for $200 to walk away. He takes it with no intention of sharing with Addie. He splurges on new tires and a fancy hood ornament for his old car but eventually Addie gets wise and demands he pay her back the $200 he obtained on her behalf but spent on himself. He agrees and after seeing how helpful a cute little girl could be in turning simple cons Moses proposes the two go into business together and before long they’ve accumulated more than four times what he owes Addie. Paper Moon is so delightful I’d hate to be the person who spoiled it for anyone so please pick up here after you’ve checked it out.
A great movie starts with a great script and Paper Moon has one of the best. Efficient and light on expository dialogue, Paper Moon’s script is masterfully improved by director Peter Bogdanovich’s skillful showing, not telling. Much of the story is suggested and inferred through context. For example, Moses never speaks a line of dialogue wherein he expresses doubt that he may be Addie’s father but the countless moments where Ryan O’Neal gives the impression his character is giving it heavy consideration speak volumes to how she is undeniably his. It’s fair to say most of the information in Paper Moon is delivered with indirect poignancy.
Another example, the middle chunk of the film finds Addie developing her skills as a contributing con artist and not the dead weight Moses feared she could be. Their fates take a turn when Moses’ attention turns to women. He picks up an exotic dancer/prostitute named Trixie Delight (played by Madeline Kahn) at a local carnival and brings her along with them as they drive through the dustbowl frivolously spending money and justifying it all as part of a “vacation” from crime. Addie strikes up a friendship with Trixie’s servant Imogene to break up the two lovebirds before Moses is bled dry. Imogene explains Ms. Trixie usually beds a stranger for $5 but would probably risk the free-ride with Moses if the right guy would pay $25 for her services. Addie seizes the opportunity to rid herself of Ms. Trixie’s incessant pee-breaks and concocts a con culminating in Moses walking in on Trixie in the act with another man. This sequence conveys significant information about our characters far beyond their direct actions. Briefly, by developing and executing a complex plan to rid herself of Ms. Trixie, we learn a number of important things about Addie. Under Moses tutelage her skills have advanced to the point where she can complete a con from start to finish without him. Addie takes to conning with such ease one wonders if perhaps she’s genetically predisposed to the art, maybe… from her father’s side? We learn Addie cares for Moses so deeply she’d risk him being unhappy with her to save him from wasting all his money on an oft urinating floozy. Now that I’ve mentioned Trixie’s urgent restroom breaks twice I can finish off the last in the rule of three by explaining that no, Trixie doesn’t have an exceptionally small bladder but is, through context, at best suffering from a UTI and at worse a life altering STI. Either way Addie’s saved Moses in more ways than one.
After they ditch Ms. Trixie, Moses and Addie get mixed up with bootleggers and end up on the wrong side of the law before Moses decides it’s time to leave Addie with her Aunt as originally intended. Many of our lingering questions about these characters are left purposely unanswered by Paper Moon’s end. Are they father and daughter? What was Moses’ relationship to Addie’s deceased mother? What will happen to them once the film ends? The answers aren’t spelled out yet they’re conveyed in the side glances and facial expressions you’ve seen throughout the movie.
As a Great American Movie, Paper Moon is on its face a fantastic story and an exceptional film but it also needs to exemplify what it means to be American. That experience is about resourcefulness, the cunning American will use their guile to endure and recklessly overcome overwhelming challenges leaving whatever and whomever in their wake. I think those values are core to the American identity. Without cunning Americans wouldn’ve never pioneered electricity, the combustion engine, or harnessed the power of flight and in so doing doomed our planet to irreparable climate change that melted the glaciers and ushered in a new extinction level event. And without our ruthless tenacity Americans would’ve never tamed the West and in so doing pushed our continents indigenous peoples to reservations and hunted the American buffalo to extinction. Moses’ selfishness lead to his ultimate happiness at the cost of Addie’s mother… who he used and discarded like the glaciers and the buffalo. In the mind of the triumphant, who writes the story, a happy ending.
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