Directed Viewing: Paul Thomas Anderson and “Hard Eight”

Welcome to the first season (we’re calling them seasons now?) of Directed Viewing for 2012. If you haven’t seen the previous season, Directed Viewing is a series of articles that takes a look at a particular filmmaker by watching their entire filmography, hopefully in order, to try to suss out greater meaning from having done it all in a row. It’s often the height of indulgence, wrapped in presumptions about auteur theory that maybe don’t always apply, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

This first of probably multiple seasons this year is going to cover the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. This reason is threefold: one, it’s short and I’m stalling before committing to a bigger project; two, it was one of the directors recommended to me when I asked for suggestions; three, I’ve seen two of the five movies at present in Anderson’s career, and would love to fill in the gaps before the movie he’ll hopefully release later this year.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve seen both Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, which I’ll elaborate on when I get to those movies. I do intend to rewatch them for this project, but going in I feel I should be up front about what drew me to Anderson in the first place. Spoiler: I love both movies a ton, and think they have a lot in common, which I’ll get to. Anyway, let’s start the show way back where it all began.

Hard Eight (1996)

This is a movie about poor choices. From the moment we are introduced to our protagonist Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) as he comes across John (John C Reilly) seemingly by accident, we are introduced to a world of hard luck cases. John lost all his money in Vegas trying to raise $6000 to bury his mother, sitting outside a roadside diner with nothing. He’s young and idealistic to the point of dangerous stupidity. Sydney can’t offer him the money, but he offers him the opportunity to learn how to get it and more.

Sydney is the opposite of John, and in many ways the opposite of everyone else in the film. He’s aggressively middle aged, always in a neat suit and tie and never without a quiet, soft-spoken confidence that you’d swear went out of style decades ago. If he’s a hard luck case, he has the good sense not to show it. You get the feeling he’s been there, more times than anyone could bear, but these days he’s disarmingly earnest and charmingly no-nonsense. You’d want him to be your father, except you get the vague sense he would never put up with your shit long term.

He shows John how to con a casino into comping him a free room on no more than $150. It’s a great scene, described in detail without giving away what’s happening until the audience figures it out. This is how all cons should be done in movies, making the audience feel like the target until they cross over to understanding and feel like the perpetrator. By the time John picks up on what’s happening, he’s the slightly slow son Sydney seems to want to groom to carry on his legacy, and our sympathies are deeply in this inscrutable gambler/con man/who knows.

This is the introduction to Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie. As far as first movies go, it’s frankly an amazing piece of film making, assured and confident in the way few first directors are. Anderson came from the same movie fanatic self-taught school as Tarantino and Soderbergh and many others that sprung up in the 90s, but unlike them his first film has none of the rawness of many of their first features. What Anderson birthed seems fully formed, taut and polished.

The most modest of beginnings for this film and this project.

We skip ahead to two years later and John is suddenly Sydney’s shadow. He knows most of the ropes but still seems like a dope. He meets a cocktail waitress named Clementine played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who flirts with a wide-eyed desperation and turns tricks on the side. John and Sydney are schemers, not outright defrauding anyone but seemingly taking the shortcuts to get at the money behind the scenes in Vegas. John, his enthusiasm overreaching his better sense, befriends a guy named Jimmy. Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) claims to be a security man, but compared to Sydney he looks like a two-bit crook, all smooth talk and grinning shyster confidence.

What follows is a low-key game of bluffing between Jimmy and Sydney for what is essentially the affections of John, who treats both men as people to look up to but who recognize each other as totally incompatible. This is compounded when John ends up marrying Clementine and holding a customer hostage when he won’t pay Clementine, leaving Sydney to clean up the mess and get the two of them out of town. Then it’s just him and Jimmy, who knows too much about too many things but doesn’t tip his hand until late into the film.

Hard Eight is essentially a movie with four leads, all of whom seem to be fundamentally messed up people trying to present a front to the world. Clementine does it through seduction and flirting, a combination of manufactured innocence and scared world-weariness that Paltrow pulls off with a surprising amount of grace. Reilly’s hang-dog expressions make John a pitiful man you feel almost angry for being suckered in by. He’s a loser through and through, but on some deep level the movie presents him as the one everyone wants to love, because he represents who they wish they could be.

The surety shown in filming Vegas rivals that of Casino. And from a first-time director!

Jimmy is probably the most complex, though, as he’s never defined aside from how he juxtaposes against Sydney. Where Sydney is reserved and careful, Jimmy talks unprompted about everything, telling stories about things he maybe shouldn’t be telling you. But you get the sense he knows exactly what he’s doing, over-sharing strategically to get you to trust him. He’s rude and loud and seems happy to overstay every welcome because nobody is willing to call him on it so long as he pretends everything is cool. Sydney’s expressions alone are enough to make you hate him, a weary sigh and a stare of “Just who does this asshole think he is?” It’s an amazing role, the kind of fool’s gold monster that Samuel L Jackson used to play before he became a cliche, not entirely dissimilar to his equally amazing role in Jackie Brown.

But this is fully Philip Baker Hall’s movie, and in the end it’s a movie about a man who has lost everything so many times he seems to have almost forgotten how to be the monster you sense he was. He just wants people around him, even if those people will be the end of him. Every other character seems to try his patience, but he seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way. In the end, being uncertain and gambling it all on other people is better than the alternative–endless days spent playing the conservative gambles at casinos who all know his name.

That performance is what makes Hard Eight so wonderful. It’s hinged on people we understand without the movie trying too hard to explain to us, a character driven piece that has the tension and intrigue of most crime or noir dramas, boiled down to its fundamental sensibilities of conflict with the plot mostly just hanging out in the lounge drinking the comped drinks. It’s frankly damn amazing, not just as a first picture but as any picture, and it is the most auspicious start to this project I can imagine.

If you don't like your movies quietly cool and very talky, don't even think about this one. These kinds of shots make up the bulk of the film.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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