Taken by Amanda Porter-Cox

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. –While this year’s RiverRun International Film Festival at the N.C. School of the Arts offered film buffs dozens of new narrative, documentary and short features, it’s ironic that I would choose to see a film made in 1973.  On Friday, April 23, I rode the bus up a steep hill to the School’s ACE Theatre.  I didn’t know what to expect to find in “Paper Moon,” but as I stared up at the gorgeous black and white print, on loan from Paramount, I fell into a state of film euphoria.  “This,” I thought, “is why we go to the movies.”

By 1972, Peter Bogdanovich had scored back-to-back hits with “The Last Picture Show” (’71) and “What’s Up, Doc?” (’72).  So, at the height of his power, what does he do?  Bogdanovich gambled on directing a Depression Era story in black and white, the complete antithesis of the typical ‘70s picture.

Although Bogdanovich cast one of the most popular stars of the ‘70s, Ryan O’Neal, it didn’t mesh with the other stand-out films of that year like “American Graffiti,” “Deliverance” and “Soylent Green.”  Admittedly classic films, they were heavy-handed, unabashed products of their time that echoed the political and cultural divisions of the early ‘70s.

“Paper Moon” tells the story of nine-year-old Addie (Tatum O’Neal) and Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a friend of her recently deceased mother who may or may not be Addie’s father.  The film opens on an extreme close-up of Addie’s scowling face. It’s an opening more reminiscent of Sergio Leone than “The Grapes of Wrath” (’40), but right away, we know we’re watching something we’ve never seen before.

In the first five minutes, we know everything we need to know about our two characters.  Moses is a huckster.  He plucks the flowers from a nearby gravesite to place on his dead lover’s casket.  Later, we discover he prowls the obituaries to sell Bibles, deluxe Bibles, to the family members of the recently deceased.  He tells them the dead ordered it expressly for them.  Addie demands honesty… and her $200, which Moses swiped from under her nose.

Even among the period clothing, hairstyles, vintage cars and Jack Benny radio programs, there’s a definite modernist spin to the film.  Addie puffs away on her cigarettes like she’s eating candy.  She grew up fatherless, and seems to compensate for the loss by sacrificing her femininity.  It’s reawakened when she meets Moses (spelled ‘Moze’ by Addie), and perhaps the sweetest moment of the picture comes as she stands in front of the mirror dousing perfume on herself, shaking her hips.

The film’s appeal is also indebted to the extraordinary work of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (a Bogdanovich regular), screenwriter Alvin Sargent, and the supporting cast, including Madeline Kahn, P. J. Johnson and John Hillerman.

See it.

– Jonathan Michels