Yeah, yeah, I know. How could I possibly have spent the last seven years working for one of the preeminent film sites on the Web without watching every single one of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films? Repeatedly? Professional cineastes are supposed to have Anderson’s joints on a constant loop, right?
I promise we’ll get into the particulars of how I ended up developing this particular cultural blind spot later in the series. For now, suffice it to say that with The Master looming on the horizon, now seems like as good a time as any to finally delve into the P.T. Anderson filmography — so for the next six days, I’m going to write about my journey through his work, starting today with Hard Eight. Without further ado…
Right from the old-school opening credits of Anderson’s first film, you know you’re in the hands of someone who loves cinema — these days, nobody opens with white type over a black background unless they want you to take them seriously.
It’s an attention-getting maneuver, and one that Hard Eight rewards pretty quickly. Anderson’s movies contain a number of common threads; one of the biggest is his fondness (and his gift) for establishing a mood of steadily mounting dread, and Eight gets down to business right away, with an opening shot of a stranger (Philip Baker Hall) offering to buy a cup of coffee for a young man (John C. Reilly) balled up on the sidewalk outside a diner.
On the surface, it’s just a random act of kindness, but the way Anderson frames the shot tells us there’s literally more going on than meets the eye — in what will become a recurring motif, he crops it so that Hall’s facing away from us and his head is out of the frame. We can’t see his eyes; we can’t look for his true intent.
Overall, Anderson’s control of the camera is one of the movie’s main strengths. He obviously hadn’t acquired the confidence (or the budget) he’d bring to bear on subsequent projects, but every shot has personality and a genuine point of view, and his use of light borders on the genius — this is just a low-budget indie, but he takes advantage of his technical/financial limits. Most of the movie takes place in windowless casinos or at night, and it’s cast in harsh neon hues that make everything seem used up and a little unreal.
Hard Eight also quickly establishes Anderson’s masterful use of music, contrasting a short, ornate burst from its Michael Penn/Jon Brion score against the seedy environs of the diner where Hall’s Sydney Brown ultimately offers to show Reilly’s John Finnegan how to turn $50 into a meal and a room. It seems like a small thing, but it’s rare — just look at some of the negative reviews for Hope Springs to see how music can work against a film.
The performances are strong across the board, as you’d expect in a movie starring Hall, Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow (as a cocktail waitress whose presence alters Sydney and John’s relationship irrevocably), and Samuel L. Jackson (as Jimmy, an “associate” of John’s who casually oozes menace). Reilly, in particular, does terrific work selling a character who’s written as sort of an idiot; early in the picture, he uses nervous motion to convey John’s magnificent levels of awkwardness, but as he settles in during the third act, you see him doing more work with his face and eyes. One scene in particular — a pivotal phone conversation between John and Sydney — is outstanding.
At the time, the critics who disliked Hard Eight dismissed it as warmed-over Mamet, and while it’s easy to understand where they’re coming from — some of the lines here are distractingly square and awkward — it’s just as hard to deny that there’s something going on here. Using Las Vegas and Reno to underscore a world where everyone is always being gamed, Anderson explores themes he’d return to repeatedly: Fathers and sons, the struggle of love versus insincerity, the past’s annoying way of resurfacing at the most inconvenient times, and the devastating consequences of avoiding the truth.
All in all, an auspicious beginning. Tomorrow, we move on to Boogie Nights.
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Saturday: The Master