"I know a woman who looks like a bullfrog but that don't mean she's the damn thing's mother." -- Moses Pray (Paper Moon)
Anyone who speaks to me for more than five minutes knows that I think that this time we are living in is the worst time in the history of American film. In fact, I did write about it in two other posts. So if you’d like more details you should look at those.
I will say that I am not alone in my assessment: legendary screenwriter William Goldman says the very same thing. And so does filmmaker Alexander Payne. In fact, Payne dates the demise of American film around the same time I do—around 1982.
This does not mean that there have not been good films since 1982, but it was the last great film year:
• E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
• The Verdict
These films were all released in 1982. If just two films of that quality came out this year I’d be amazed. These movies were all huge hits and all very different—there was also more diversity of subject matter back then.
Anyway, whenever I get on my soapbox about this someone always asks me what films I like. I answer with a few names of classic films and they will (always!) interrupt and say, “Yeah, but what have you liked lately?” The answer is not much. Some years it’s nothing. There was a level of story craftsmanship in older films that is almost nonexistent today—outside of Pixar.
But because people always want to know what I like and why I like it I’ve decided to recommend a film every now and then.
Some of you who read this blog are younger and have a problem with older films. The acting styles are different, the color may appear strange or, god forbid, is nonexistent. The music cues may seem over the top by today’s standards. The special effects may be corny because your eye is used to CGI.
I’m going to ask you to try to look beyond all of that to see the craft underneath. I want you to see the craft that transcends style and taste. I want you to see the quantifiable quality of these films.
I will start with a film I wish I had made—Paper Moon.
Released in 1973 and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this film is one of my all-time favorites. Nothing like it is made today. It was written by Alvin Sargent, who wrote Spider-Man 2. And actress Tatum O'Neal became the youngest person ever to win an Oscar. She still is. When you see the film you’ll know why.
What does the film do well? Everything. The big question is what makes a father: biology, or loving and taking responsibility for a child? You will see that right away the question of parentage comes up in the very first scene and it never stops. The film never forgets what it’s about. Listen to see how often it comes up blatantly or in more subtle ways, like how alike the “father” and child are. Also look for great visual storytelling. See how much is told with pictures and not words—first class screenwriting.
In this film you care about the characters and what happens to them. Films today don’t make you feel as much as they make you think. We seem to have made a collective decision that thinking is better than feeling. But sometimes the emotion of a situation is the truth of a situation.
Nowadays when I ask people if they liked a current film they say, “Yeah? It was good? I liked it.” They are tentative when they speak. The film may have made them think, but they felt nothing. They are afraid that they may say the wrong thing and say they liked a film that is not “smart” enough.
When Paper Moon came out people liked it. Period. And they weren’t afraid to say it. They said, “It’s great, you should see it!”—the same way they were later with Jaws and The Godfather.
Unlike many, many films today Paper Moon does not rely on a gimmick that pulls you out of the film. You will not have to have read the book. You will not have to have to go to a website to find information on something you didn’t understand. You will not have to know that there is a special shot in the film that no one had ever done before. You will simply have a great time and you will be moved.
Today, they may make hits, but they almost never make classics.
Enjoy Paper Moon.