The Girl in the Moon
When you and I as writers are looking to deliver a Big Moment, we often think it has to come in a rock-em-sock-em, five-star, dyn-o-mite scene in which characters are passionately declaiming at one another, if not firing guns, crashing cars, and blowing up the planet.
But often it’s the quiet scenes that produce the most powerful impact.
Let’s continue last week’s examination of Private Moments.
If you recall, here’s what we said about this type of scene:
A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.
We cited, last week, a scene with Robert DeNiro from the movie True Confessions.
Here’s another from one of my all-time faves, Paper Moon.
Paper Moon (1973) is about a father and daughter, Moses Pray and Addie Loggins, played by real-life father and daughter, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Moses is a flim-flam man, selling Bibles door-to-door in Depression-era Kansas. He agrees, for totally self-serving reasons, to deliver recently-orphaned Addie (who suspects Moses is her biological dad, even though he denies this vehemently) to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri—a trip, in Moses’ jalopy, that will take a couple of weeks at the least.
Along the way, Addie proves to be an unexpectedly clever and resourceful partner in Moses’ scams. The pair start to have fun together. They begin to bond. In the audience, it’s clear to us that Addie is Moses’ daughter—though he repeatedly and vigorously seeks to avoid acknowledging this. What would a man in his line of work do with a nine-year-old girl?
At one point in the story, Addie gets her photo taken at a booth in a state fair. She has to sit in a paper model of a sliver moon. She tries to get Moses to sit with her but he’s off chasing an exotic dancer, Miss Trixie Delight (Madelyn Kahn).
In the film’s penultimate scene, Moses delivers Addie to her aunt in St. Joe. He drives off in the sputtering, backfiring farm truck he has acquired, fleeing the law. Though Addie’s aunt is a decent, kind person, it’s clear that Addie will be miserable with her and that life would be much more fun if she could only somehow stay with Moses.
Here’s the Private Moment:
Moses has driven a mile or so down the deserted, two-lane country road. Something makes him pull over and stop. He lights a cigarette and sits pensively behind the wheel. Then he notices something on the seat beside him. An envelope. He picks it up and opens it. Inside is the photo that Addie had taken at the state fair. Clearly Addie has left this on the seat as a farewell token for Moses. The photo is of herself “sitting in the moon.”
Moses regards the photo. He doesn’t say anything. His expression alters only slightly. Clearly however he is thinking, “Have I made a mistake leaving Addie with her aunt? She is my daughter. I know it in my bones, no matter how vehemently I’ve denied it.”
I won’t ruin the end of the film for you. (There’s still a twist or two to come.)
The point is the power of the emotion produced in the audience by this spare, no-dialogue scene that relies for its potency on one simple prop—the photo of the girl in the moon.