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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

First of Fourteen: Hard Eight

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films. 

I love the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, probably more than any other director. Boogie Nights was one of the first movies that I truly became impassioned about before I even had a glimmering of what good cinema could be. Since then, I've never missed one of his films. That aforementioned film, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and now The Master all have a special place in my pantheon of great films. I'm a bit more leery of Punch Drunk Love, which is interesting, as its the one piece that breaks from Anderson's typical themes. In of itself, it's not a bad film, and it has some really inventive break, but if I had to say he had a nadir in everything of his I'd seen, I would definitely make the argument that Punch Drunk Love was it. But as a filmmaker who has received waves upon waves of critical acclaim with only six films to his credit, the quality over quantity quotient is in evidence here. So now we come to Hard Eight, or Sydney, as Anderson would probably rather it be referred to. This was his 1996 debut and I had only had the chance to see it once before. I remember enjoying it, not loving; but as you do, if you're not in the right frame of mind, it's possible that initial impression may go awry. It was time to give it another go.

Hard Eight opens with Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) coming across a down on his luck John (John C. Reilly) outside of a diner in Reno, who had gambled away all of his money in an attempt to win $6,000 in order to bury his recently departed mother. Sydney finds his cause admirable, if foolish and decides to take him to a casino in Reno and teach him a basic scam that will ensure he at least gets a room and some extra money for the night. John decides he wants to remain under the wing of Sydney. The film then cuts to two years in the future, where John is never far from Sydney's side, and he also has an eye for waitress (and prostitute) Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose actions create major obstacles for the pair, as do the intentions of security consultant Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) whom John has befriended. 

Flawed father-figures seem to be the stock and trade of an Anderson film. All one needs to do is trace the relationship of Dirk and Jack in Boogie Nights, Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge and their respective children in Magnolia, Daniel Plainview and HW in There Will Be Blood, and to an extent Freddie and Lancaster in The Master. This trend began quite clearly in Hard Eight, where the relationship between Sydney and John is that of an adoptive father who wants to set his son on a path of some form of prosperity and happiness. While his actual reasons for doing this aren't made clear until Hard Eight's final act, there are moments of pure paternalistic relationship that simply cannot be confused with a standard amicable friendship. The best example being just how often Sydney bails John out everytime he gets in over his head, first with his deplorable situation at the film's opening and then in his assistance to John when he falls so head over heels in love with Clementine that he takes one of her "johns" hostage. Sydney plays that parent that is constantly providing assistance to his "screw up kid" who just can't quite get it together. There's an amazingly funny bit of dialogue where John's child-like qualities really come to the forefront when Sydney tells him that he and Clementine need to leave town to avoid police capture. Sydney and Clementine both suggest Niagara Falls, but John protests "but I've already been there!"

The comparisons don't really stop there nor do they lie only with John, as Sydney, who in a scene where he allows Clementine to say in his hotel suite after he notices her coming out of a client's room, refuses her advances. When she asks Sydney, "do you want to fuck me?", Sydney responds with "do you think I want that?" in a very admonishing way. In a sense, both Clementine and John are the stand-ins for his actual children. At no point do we ever really learn much about his family life prior to the events of this movie, other than the fairly dark past that is bubbling beneath the surface. From a conversation with Clementine, we learn that Sydney has two children, a son and a daughter from whom he is estranged, and the pieces of where both John and Clementine fit into his worldview come into place. When Jimmy confronts Sydney with damaging information at the cost of $10,000, that could destroy his relationship with Sydney were he to discover it, the two sides of Sydney begin to emerge. One end we have the Sydney, when held at gunpoint, who says "I love John, but all the moreso I don't want to have a bullet put in me", but when he finally acquiesces he says "when giving you this money I'll have done everything I can for John and Clementine" much as a father would do for his children to protect them. It's an engaging multi-faceted relationship that Anderson's script builds here and serves as a wonderful prototype for the kind of unusual familial relationships that are the main driving force behind the majority of his films.

Early in Anderson's career, a viewer could note some of the stylistic similarities between Anderson's camerawork and those that he idolized. Boogie Nights, with its slow tracking shots and thumping rock soundtrack recalls some of the finest and memorable moments of Martin Scorsese's super masculine style of film-making. Magnolia, on the other hand, carries so many elements of what one would see in a stand-out Robert Altman ensemble classic, recalling his work in Nashville and Shortcuts. Not coincidentally, Anderson was a protege of Altman's and even provided second unit work for him during filming of Altman's final film A Prairie Home Companion. While these influences began to wain as he started to adopt a more Kubrickian style in his most recent work, alot of the Anderson we saw in Boogie Nights is in clear evidence throughout Hard Eight. The first 20 minutes of the film is dedicated to conversation between Sydney and John, with just the briefest of brief humorous flashback. Sydney and John and framed just ever so symmetrically in the the diner, with John seated on the left side of the booth and Sydney on the right. This arrangement repeats itself when Clementine and Sydney have a similar conversation in another diner. In both conversations, it's the younger of the pair seeking guidance from the quiet and reserved Sydney who is willing to give whatever he can to get them on some form of the right track. With Anderson, its the little things he does that become so effective in how he measures up his photography and establishes character.

There's a point where John calls Sydney to come help at the hotel room where both he and Clementine are stashed with their hostage. At the time, the audience has no idea what could be behind the hotel room door as Sydney approaches it and we only see Sydney's side of the said entryway. After an agitated John, finally lets Sydney in the room, the camera stays focused on the two of them without panning to the rest of the room for a short while. This is again an example of how Anderson builds immense tension, "what could be on the other side of that room?" we ask. Having not seen the film in some time, even I couldn't remember what type of horror lay awaiting just out of vantage point. It was pointed out to me by a friend that this wasn't the first time that Anderson has used such dramatic trickery to assist in audience engagement. I recall in Boogie Nights that this was used to great effect, and this may have been the case in Magnolia as well. Within Hard Eight, we see real evidence of a master sharpening his tools.

Performance-wise, everything about the film is top-notch. Phillip Baker Hall, a vastly underused character actor who made waves in Robert Altman's Secret Honor playing Richard Nixon, is incredible here. Sydney is an assured, calming individual, and quiet to a fault in most cases; but there's clearly a darkness and danger within the character as we learn before the credits roll and Hall is one of those actors who embodies every aspect of the character flawlessly. Riley, on his end of the bargain, is equally up to the task of playing the child-like and somewhat irresponsible John. His desperation for Sydney's approval and innocence rings through in just about every line he utters. I got a good chuckle in a scene involving him and matches as well that reminded me of why I like Riley so much as an actor, particularly in humorous situations. Maybe the most shocking aspect of the whole affair was being reminded what a great actress Paltrow is when she's committed to a role and isn't simply coasting on her name. The downright inadvertent duplicitous nature of Clementine is a bit of range I haven't seen in Paltrow's performances in years, and I wish such a thing were more common. Jackson rounds out the cast in one of his post Pulp Fiction roles right before he himself began to coast a bit on his own fame, where so many of his performances became a variation on his work in Quentin Tarantino's ubiquitous film. He exudes just the right amount of menace here without being over the top. Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a hilarious cameo that isn't around long enough to steal the show, but it's certainly memorable.

Hard Eight had the general plot outline of a Casino-esque neo-noir, but instead of trodding that well worn route, Anderson chose to make a film about characters, family, and the scars that we just can't keep hidden. The film's plotline is quite minimalist, but the characters are so well drawn that even in moments where another film would reach tedium, the audience remains engaged. Some of the littlest, throw away moments are the most thrilling, but that's often the stock and trade of Anderson's career. While it certainly doesn't rank with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, it's a far better debut than most and is definitely not the worst film in his already prestigious career, which remains Punch Drunk Love. Even ranking in the lower quadrant of his film's isn't such a bad thing when you have a filmography as strong as this.

If I were to grade it, I'd give it an A-

Next up on First of Fourteen: I take a look at the Coen Bros' debut Blood Simple, and then Darren Aronofsky's Pi
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