Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few modern directors to be beloved by both critics, each of his films sweeping up awards, while also maintaining a devoted cult following. His picture's handle big, important themes while also maintaining an odd sense of humor and displaying the director's favorite quirks and idiosyncrasies. (He also has yet to win an Oscar, despite making some of the best films of the last two decades, which causes fans to treat him like a scrappy underdog of sorts.) A retrospective for Anderson has been coming a long time but I've kept putting it off. His films are great but they also leave me emotionally exhausted, making them difficult to write about. Well, it's about time I get over that. Let's dive in.

1. Hard Eight

In 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson would release a 24 minute short film called “Coffee and Cigarettes.” The short starred Philip Baker Hall as a character named Sydney, a mysterious man sitting in a diner. Anderson was obviously interested in Sydney. His first feature film would revolve around Hall's character. He even wanted to cal the movie “Sydney” at first. The studio insisted on the catchier “Hard Eight.” The film would garner positive reviews without getting too much attention. Anderson hasn't discussed his debut much since it came out. Yet “Hard Eight” represents the beginning of many of his stylistic and thematic trademarks.

Two men meet for the first time outside a Las Vegas diner. John is a destitute young man who came to Vegas to win enough money to pay for his mother's funeral. Sydney is an experienced gambler. He teaches John some easy ways to quickly win a lot of cash. They become great friends. Two years later, John and Sydney meet again in Reno. John soon falls in love with Clementine, a cocktail waitress and sometimes prostitute. However, the couple's wedded bliss is cut short by a violent event and some foolish decisions. Sydney is brought in to solve the problem. He succeeds but at the risks of exposing his dark past.

“Hard Eight” is about gambling but also isn't about gambling. There's a handful of scenes devoted to Sydney playing Keno or sitting at the craps tables. The title comes from the risky gamble Sydney performs several time with dice. The Hard Eight is a move that doesn't work often but pays off big when it does. This high-risk/big-payout philosophy informs Sydney's entire life. He has a reason for befriending John, for practically adopting him as a surrogate son. It's s risky endeavor but enriches both of their lives greatly. Before the end of the film, Sydney makes another bold decision, one that could go wrong easily. “Hard Eight' is ultimately about the risks we take in life. The risks we take opening our hearts up to love. The risks we take on what we're willing to live with.

“Hard Eight's” opening scene is, frankly, magical. John is sitting alone in his misery. Sydney swoops in, out of nowhere, and immediately goes about helping the boy. John is skeptical at first. He's expecting Sydney to betray him or rip him off. The audience is expecting this too, wondering what Sydney's plans are. By the end of the evening, realizes that Syndey's motivations are entirely selfless. He helps the guy out and expects nothing in return. At the end of the first act, the viewer feels up-lifted. Sometimes people are good for no reason, just because it's the right thing to do.

Eventually, we do learn that Sydney had a reason for helping John. He has a horrible secret that connects him with John, in a very traumatic, personal well. The dramatic tension in “Hard Eight” balances upon whether or not John discovers this truth. Yet Anderson subverts expectations in an interesting way. “Hard Eight” isn't about dramatic revelations changing the way people feel about each other. Instead, it's about what we're willing to live with. Sydney goes to great lengths, doing very dangerous and questionable things, to ensure John never learns the real reason why he helped him. Yet, the film seems to suggest, maybe this was worth it. Maybe we have to swallow darker stuff to get on with our lives.

This shift in the story matches a tonal shift in the film. The early scenes of “Hard Eight” are relatively light-hearted. When Sydney takes John to the casino, the audience shares in his exhilaration. He even wins some money at a slot machine. When Sydney meets a vulgar friend of John's, he calmly asks the man to leave, not enjoying his crass talk. “Hard Eight” isn't exactly upbeat but it's lived-in, charming. That mood changes suddenly when Sydney gets a call, going to John and Clementine's hotel. They've attacked a man, handcuffed him to a bed, and are crudely attempting to hold him hostage. Suddenly, “Hard Eight” is dark and violent. This sudden change is intentional. The audience is not prepared to follow these seemingly nice people into a dark place but we're dragged along because we care about them.

There's a little thing Paul Thomas Anderson's screenplay does in “Hard Eight” that I really admire. During a pivotal moment, a gun is pointed at Sydney. Usually in movies, when a gun is aimed at someone's head, they remain stoic. Action movie tough guys are never intimidated by being in the cross hairs. Sydney, however, reacts like a real person. He immediately starts panicking. He sinks into his seat, hands up, begging not to be killed. He's scared out of his wits, worried about his life. This realistic touch shows how committed Anderson is to portraying his characters as fully formed human beings.

Philip Baker Hall is a character actor that's been active since 1970. He's one of “those guys,” a face you know but a name you might not be able to place. Hall's greatest talent is his ability to disappear into any role, as acceptable as Richard Nixon as he is a random cop. “Hard Eight” taps into something great inside Hall. The character of Sydney is, more often than not, calm. He goes about his plans with a clear head and a quiet humor. Even when the character breaks down and cries, Hall holds onto Sydney's personality as a low-key guy. An important moment near the end has him admitting love over a phone. Most actors would go big. Hall remains tight and controlled, while clearly revealing the emotions beneath the cold exterior. It's a powerfully understated performance.

Years before his teddy bear lovability and massive charm would make him a comedic mainstay, Paul Thomas Anderson was utilizing John C. Reilly's innate humanity to great effect. As John, Reilly is almost child-like. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs in the world. He's emotional, prone to mistakes, approaching conflicts too simply. Yet even when John does something really bad, like smack his wife's mouth, Reilly's deeply empathetic performance keeps him likable. Gwyneth Paltrow similarly captures something innocent with Clementine. She's forced to prostitute herself to make ends' meet. She makes some pretty big mistakes too. Yet she's also capable of immense forgiveness. There's an immense vulnerability to Paltrow here, the soon-to-be-Oscar-winner appearing like a normal person.

“Hard Eight's” cast is small but features at least two other notable actors. Samuel L. Jackson was probably the biggest name in “Hard Eight,” since the film was released after “Pulp Fiction” made him a household name. Jackson plays Jimmy, a would-be hustler that attempts to extort money from Hall's Sydney. Jackson clothes Jimmy in red leather, which constantly makes him squeak. This draws attention to what a slippery, scummy person he is. Jackson, obviously, has no problem playing the shyster character. Also appearing in the film, briefly, is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman appears as a mulleted casino patron who attempts to beat Sydney at the craps table. Hoffman curses, jumps around, and generally has a blast playing as big an asshole as possible.

Even though “Hard Eight” was Anderson's debut film, his astute visual sense as a director is evident. There's a sense of motion driving all of “Hard Eight.” The director utilizes long-shots and handheld cameras to create constant movement. Yet this is never disorientating. Instead, “Hard Eight” seems smoothly assembled. This fits a story that is widely set on the floors of casinos, where people are always moving around. Anderson also knows when to sit still though. He pauses during dialogue sequences or lingers upon important images, allowing them as much impact as they need. In other words, “Hard Eight” looks incredible.

The soundtrack is provided by Jon Brion, who would go on to score several of Anderson's other films. The music frequently recalls the kind of soft listening you might here in casino lounges, drawing on boozy electric organs. This melancholy mood also draws attention to the loneliness and isolation felt by the characters. Occasionally, Brion's music dips into even darker veins. Such as Clementine's theme, a droning dirge accompanied by a funeral-like bell. Brion also co-write the song that plays over the end credits, “Christmastime” by Aimee Man. This was not only Anderson's first collaboration with Mann but also points out that “Hard Eight” is, technically, a Christmas movie.

“Hard Eight” was a difficult production for Anderson. The title change came about as part of an agreement with the producers, so that the director could maintain more creative control of the picture. Seemingly because of these problems, Anderson doesn't talk about the movie very much. The director has even allowed the DVD to go out-of-print. Despite his reluctance to discuss the film, “Hard Eight” is still really good. It displays how strong the director's writing, visual sense, and rapport with actors was strong even from the beginning. Whatever misgivings Anderson might have about “Hard Eight,” it was the first of several extremely good movies he would have a hand in. [Grade: A-] 

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