Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson

 

Hard Eight is the story of a friendship that begins when an older man meets a young man, down on his luck, and offers him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and, eventually, a path to a new lease on life. John (Reilly) is sitting on a curb outside a diner, having come to Las Vegas to win money to bury his mother, when he meets Sydney (Hall), a longtime card shark who sees something in the desperate young man, and offers him help. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature begins simply, lacking the bombast and import that would come to define his masterful later work. It’s a small, character-driven drama that explores the seedy world of small time cons and the seedy characters who pull them in casinos and pool halls. It’s an aimless, meandering sort of picture for the first hour, allowing the audience to really get a sense of who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and to completely get a sense of place as the action shifts to small town Reno, Nevada. The film’s final act picks up the pace, providing a few surprise reveals and some violent retribution, but at its core, Hard Eight is a movie about four desperate people and their desires and shortcomings. It isn’t a pretty movie, or a fancy one, but when I’m looking to briefly dip my toes into the type of world peopled by figures both sad and seedy, it’s a perfect choice.

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I’ve written about a lot of first features and debuts in this space, but I think that Hard Eight is the most accomplished yet. Though it offers only fleeting glimpses of the cinematic mastery that Anderson would eventually display, the film stands on its own as a tight and entertaining caper. The thing that I’m always impressed by when I return to Hard Eight, which I do fairly frequently, is the efficiency with which Anderson builds up these characters and their relationships. A few lines of perfectly written and delivered dialogue are enough to make the audience feel that they know each of the principals and their motivations. Though each of them keep secrets until the end, these characters are familiar and, mostly, endearing. In a way, these characters are tropes – The Benevolent Grifter, The Down-on-his-Luck Loser, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold – but Anderson’s narrative subtlety and the excellent performances of the entire cast, elevate them beyond thin stereotypes.

Anderson managed an impressive assemblage of talent for his debut feature. Hall, who also starred in the short film Sydney, from which Hard Eight is adapted, is perfect in the role of the paternalistic, wise conman. His lined face speaks to the years of experience Sydney has had and the things that he’s seen in those years, existing on the fringes of underworld societies. Watching Hall take a long, patient drag from a cigarette is akin to taking a master class in world-weariness. There is a hardness at the core of his performance, but it never registers as cruel, rather that hardness is earned through experience, and in his interactions with the other characters, it manifests itself as a persistent, paternalistic care, especially for Reilly’s John. The two make a good pair of foils, obviously forming a father/son pairing as Sydney takes the place of the father who John lost many years ago. John is a typical Reilly character, kind and sweet, but more than a bit naïve. I’ve always been impressed by the vulnerability that Reilly often shows as an actor, and that openness and vulnerability is on full display here, as he plays a character completely set adrift in the world, looking for any harbor.

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Though the film is, without a doubt, the story of Sydney and John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast and are each given a few scenes in which to shine. Both characters are used to reveal deeper characteristics of the two principals, with Paltrow’s Clementine falling for John, and vice versa, and helping to introduce a stronger, more independent side to his character in the film’s third act. Clementine has an inner strength that’s belied by her made-up exterior, a quality that Paltrow fully puts on display in the film’s pivotal scene. She and John have beaten and kidnapped a john who refused to pay Clementine after sex, and they call Sydney for help. Though she’s understandably emotional and hysterical, Clementine is pulling all of the strings in the scene, urging John and Sydney to kill the man, remaining singularly focused on her money and her besmirched dignity while John is spinning out of control in the face of a situation he can’t comprehend. This is Paltrow’s only featured scene in the movie, but she makes the most of it, revealing a nuance to her character that wasn’t readily apparent earlier in the film. Likewise, Jackson isn’t afforded many opportunities to really shine in Hard Eight, but he plays the role of Jimmy, a small-time hustler and keeper of an important secret, perfectly. Jimmy’s big scene comes near the film’s end, when he confronts Sydney about a secret from his past, and demands that Sydney disappear. To this point, Jackson has played Jimmy as an affable, if sleazy, character, whose sinister side is well contained. However, when he confronts Sydney in the parking lot, he seethes rage and righteous anger, delivering the sort of monologue that Samuel Jackson has become known for. Jimmy is intimidating without ever becoming unhinged, and his malice is all the more potent, because Jackson’s restrained performance gives the impression that it could be wielded as a club, if need be. It’s a short scene and a small role, but it’s vintage Samuel L. Jackson, and the venerable character actor nails it.

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Beyond just crafting realistic, relatable characters, Anderson also brings Las Vegas and Reno to life in subtle ways. His casinos feel lived in, a bit worn down at the heel, but authentic. He isn’t interested in the glitz of the strip, but rather in the second-rate casinos and the seedy, extended stay motels that proliferate throughout the rest of Las Vegas. Hard Eight does every bit as much examining and extrapolating on the character of Nevada as does Casino, but the stakes here are smaller, simpler. When Sydney introduces John to a particular hustle early in the film, the object is not to get rich quick but to get a comped room, and maybe a free meal voucher. The scene in which Anderson introduces the con is brilliant, Hall breaking down the intricacies of the simple grift in voiceover while Anderson meticulously documents the ins and outs of the scheme, which involves John appearing to spend more than he is by cycling his chips and a small amount of cash through different cashier windows and getting a player’s card stamped for money that he isn’t really spending. It’s a simple but effective con, and the scene is, likewise, a simple but effective way of suturing the audience’s interest to this particular world and expanding their understanding of it. The rest of Hard Eight is understated and murky, while this early scene is insistent and direct, but it serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s world. Anderson does the one thing a gambler should never do, by tipping his hand early, but it works.

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P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think that he will be thought of as one of the greatest directors of all time, if that consensus hasn’t already been cemented. Hard Eight, of course, falls short of the cinematically sublime level that a few of his more recent pictures have achieved, but it is a great achievement in and of itself. It might be easy to dismiss this small film as an inauspicious debut, but it’s such a well-crafted, fully formed work, one that features hints of the greatness that Anderson would go on to achieve. Hard Eight is, honestly, the Anderson movie that I end up rewatching most frequently, probably at least once a year. It simply never disappoints, and when I’m looking for a taut, character-driven drama, there are really few better in my collection. It’s a movie that I suspect is still rather underseen, but it really deserves more attention, even outside of the context of Anderson’s larger body of work, or his auteur status. From its well-written characters, to its perfectly established and envisioned world, and impressive performances across the board, Hard Eight has a lot to like on its own. It’s a somewhat forgotten movie worthy of reflection and reevaluation.

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly

 

It didn’t take long for Paul Thomas Anderson to gain recognition as one of America’s most promising young filmmakers. To date, he’s released seven features, and the opening of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film has become one of the biggest events in contemporary cinema. Later films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master have cemented his spot in the pantheon of great 21st century filmmakers, but I find a lot of pleasure in watching his first few features, as well. It’s interesting to watch a great talent struggle to find himself and develop a unique style and voice. Anderson’s 90s films are marked by his perfect mimicry of the style of some of his great influences, but there are also some early indicators of the distinctive visual and narrative style that he would begin to develop after the turn of the century. I’ll be writing about all of Anderson’s films in depth for this project, minus his most recent release, Inherent Vice, which I never picked up despite enjoying a lot. I think it’s fitting, though, to start off with Boogie Nights, even though it isn’t his debut feature, nor was it my first experience with the director. I think it’s fitting to start here, because Boogie Nights is the first, if not best, example of the director’s blend of artful homage and innovative storytelling that would eventually develop into his own directorial signature. I think that it is also Anderson’s most accessible and easy to enjoy film.

Boogie Nights charts the rise and fall of both Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) and the adult film industry through the late 1970s and into the 80s. Loosely based on real-life porn actor John Holmes, Dirk is discovered by Jack Horner (Reynolds), an auteur of pornography, who aims to bring a touch of class and storytelling to the medium. Dirk is added to Horner’s stable of actors, but it doesn’t take long for him to separate himself from the pack and become one of the industry’s shining stars. Horner’s crew forms a sort of surrogate family, with Dirk in the middle as the golden child, around whom all the other performers are orbiting. The crew lets the good times roll throughout the 1970s, with the film reveling in its depictions of bacchanalia, giving the audience an inside look at the seedy, yet somehow still glamorous world of high-end pornography. However, as the calendar turns and as public tastes prove fickle, no one is prepared for the realities that begin to set in in the 1980s. Too much cocaine and too much hubris precipitate Dirk’s ejection from Horner’s troupe, and the rise of video sees the porn industry, in general, facing great changes. Fame is a roller coaster ride, and the dizzying heights must be matched by plummeting depths, and the film’s third act sees all parties finding rock bottom before they can hope to experience any redemption.

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Growing up in a show biz household, surrounded by films, Anderson began experimenting with filmmaking at an early age. By his teens, he was shooting videos and editing them on a VCR, and, in fact, the inspiration for Boogie Nights comes from an early short from this period. When he was 18, Anderson shot a 30-minute mockumentary called The Dirk Diggler Story, which would go on to become Boogie Nights a decade later, with some of the scenes being recreated nearly verbatim, and the mockumentary itself being referenced in an abridged version as the film that Amber Waves (Moore) shoots about Dirk halfway through Boogie Nights. After a decade of development, the final cut of Boogie Nights bears little similarity to its earlier, truncated counterpart. Anderson’s directorial choices reveal a devotion to the New Wave of American Cinema, particularly to the style of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Anderson leans on these pillars of American filmmaking throughout Boogie Nights, evoking their unique filming styles, as well as some of the thematic concerns on display in their filmographies, particularly Altman’s. Though the film wears its influences on its sleeve, to me it doesn’t feel plagiaristic as much as celebratory. Anderson announces his intentions immediately with the film’s opening shot, a three-minute tracking shot that follows Jack and Amber through Maurice’s (Luis Guzman) nightclub. The shot is showy and virtuosic, calling to mind the opening shot of The Player or, perhaps even more immediately due to the nightclub setting, Goodfellas. The camera winds through the club, tilting, spinning, and panning, pausing to light on the faces of the film’s main characters as they catch Jack’s watchful eye. It finally settles on Dirk, then known as Eddie, a busboy at the club who takes the bus in from Torrance just to be close to the action. More than just introducing the principal cast, this opening shot also introduces the world of the film as highly stylized and glamorous, but still slightly seedy. The costumes and sets feel authentic and they pop off the screen, matched by the stylish, attention grabbing camera work of Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit. The film is full of these types of long takes and carefully plotted out tracking shots, and though it may be somewhat derivative, Anderson has clearly set his artistic bar very high as a young filmmaker, and there are few other filmmakers who would be able to deliver this level of homage to acknowledged masters of the medium like Altman and Scorsese.

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Of course there is much more to Boogie Nights than simply period authenticity and fan service to some great American filmmakers. The film marks the first major indication that Anderson is a great director of actors, and a great crafter of nuanced, lived-in characters. The performances in his debut, Hard Eight, are stellar top to bottom, but the scope of what he attempts and manages to pull off in Boogie Nights is on a completely different level. The film has over two dozen speaking roles, and the primary supporting cast around Wahlberg numbers around a dozen, and is made up of veteran character actors and up-and-coming stars. All of the film’s secondary and tertiary characters feel authentic and fleshed out, their side plots unraveling alongside and intertwined with the tale of Dirk’s rise and fall. Anderson’s Academy-Award-nominated screenplay gives these characters detailed backstories that are revealed subtly through overheard pieces of conversation or carefully observed actions, but much of the life is breathed into the characters through the cast’s overall great performances. The film’s supporting cast is deep and diverse, and they are all asked to shed light on different aspects of the tapestry that makes up the world of Boogie Nights through their performances.

Heather Graham delivers a star making turn as the memorable Rollergirl, one of Horner’s actresses. Her performance balances the bubbly, vivacious personality presented by her porn persona with the tragic reality of the girl who had to drop out of high school when her peers found out she was making pornographic films. She shares a scene with Julianne Moore, when she asks Moore’s Amber Waves to be her mother that cuts to the bone, and reveals the shattered little girl that Rollergirl obviously still is, despite her existence in this very adult world. John C. Reilly adds his goofily likable charm to the character of Reed Rothschild, Dirk’s friend and sidekick, while providing much of the film’s humor, along with Guzman. He’s a reassuringly normal oasis in this world of hurt, twisted people. Philip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely appear as porn producers, and lend a suitable level of sleaze to the otherwise light, glamorous proceedings. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a powerful early performance as Scotty J., Horner’s in-house boom operator, who is closeted and in love with Dirk. Hoffman makes Scotty’s shame palpable in the awkward scene where he tries to kiss Dirk, only to be rebuffed, left alone with the car that he bought to impress Dirk. These types of performances would become the norm for Hoffman, and he would go on to bigger and better things, both with and without Anderson, but his sad performance as Scotty has always stood out as one of his best to me. Ditto for Don Cheadle’s performance as Buck Swope, Horner’s token black porn star. Buck spends most of the film caught between worlds, unable to rectify his own perception of himself with the world’s expectations of him as a man. Buck’s dream is to open up a stereo shop, aided by the fame he has garnered through his career in porn, but his ambitions are thwarted at every turn. There is a scene midway through the film where Buck is alone at a party wearing a Rick James-style dreadlock wig, and Cheadle’s still, quietly pained expression tells volumes about Buck’s experience of the world. The wig is patently absurd and humorous, but that humor is covering up a well of pain. All of the characters in Boogie Nights are either running from something or desperately trying to get to something.

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No one in the film personifies this as much as Amber Waves. Moore plays Amber as a matronly figure to the entire production crew, but particularly to Dirk. It’s revealed early in the film that she has lost custody of and contact with her own son, so she uses Dirk as a surrogate. Throughout the film, Moore is asked to portray cocaine-induced mania alongside gut wrenching despair, sometimes even blending the two in the same scene, and she delivers with aplomb. Wahlberg might be the central axis on which the film swings, but Moore’s performance gives it both its heart and its backbone. Anderson offers more direct glimpses into Amber’s backstory than most of the other characters’, but even without the custody hearing scene, the steeliness of Moore’s performance as Amber would be enough to hint at the pain that she has been working for years to heal, or at least numb. Julianne Moore has long been one of my favorite actresses, and her performance in Boogie Nights earned her her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. She has turned in many powerful performances since, but her work in this film still stand out to me as some of her best.

Though the film’s industry setting and expansive ensemble cast recall classic Altman and Anderson’s storytelling structure and shooting style are reminiscent of Scorsese, Boogie Nights has elements of a unique style beginning to bubble up at moments in the film. These impulses wouldn’t crystallize immediately, but there are glimpses here of the voice that would emerge in There Will Be Blood. The most impactful example of Anderson experimenting and developing is in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rob Rahad (Alfred Molina), an unpredictable, violent cocaine dealer. The scene comes near the very end of the film, long after Dirk has descended into a spiral of addiction and desperation that has alienated him from Jack and the rest of the crew. He spends his time exclusively with Reed and Todd, who comes up with a scheme to help them score plenty of coke and the cash they need to support their habits. Anderson masterfully orchestrates the scene, combining masterful shot and framing choices, his actors’ performances, and a perfect soundtrack of 80s classics into a palpably tense, unforgettable moment. While the scene isn’t wholly original, its eccentricity and audacity set it apart from any of Scorsese’s memorable musical sequences. It’s a slow burn of a scene, with the trio of Dirk, Reed, and Todd becoming increasingly more agitated as they realize they’re in over their heads at the sight of Rahad’s bodyguard’s gun, the tension ratcheting higher and higher as Rahad gets increasingly more manic, and Night Rider’s “Sister Christian” builds to a crescendo in the background. There is a persistent weirdness to the scene, with a young Asian man in Rick Springfield T-shirt wordlessly lighting firecrackers and tossing them around the room. Everyone but Rahad flinches at each tiny explosion, while Rahad, dressed in a silk robe and briefs, rants and raves, smoking crack, showing off his gun, and pontificating on his mixtape skills, seemingly unfazed by the incessant pops. The tension in the scene builds to a head when Rahad’s mixing skills are shown to falter and “Sister Christian” cuts off mid-chorus, leaving Rahad stunned and angry. The silence is quickly broken by an exploding firecracker, and Rahad seems to snap out of his temporary, wordless rage, taking another hit off of his crack pipe as the opening riff of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” fills the soundtrack and side two of the mixtape starts up.

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Other filmmakers might use this opportunity to cut straight to the action, but Anderson is content to let the tension continue to build, as he films Molina dancing and singing along to the song. He reverses the shot to a close-up of Dirk’s face, wearing a blank expression as the gravity of the situation washes over him and over the audience. He holds that static close-up for nearly a full minute, an unusually long and uncomfortable shot duration, with Wahlberg’s expression remaining largely unchanged. It’s a microcosm of the scene as a whole, a slow build that is allowed to play out at its own pace and celebrate its own weirdness. When the bullets finally do start flying, the counterpoint of the bright, familiar guitar riff of Springfield’s biggest hit ramp up in the background on the soundtrack, a pairing of music and image that is more ironic than anything Anderson could have borrowed from Scorsese’s catalog. This scene is one of the first times that I think Anderson really starts to emerge as a filmmaker who is in dialogue with his influences, appropriating bits of their style and reimagining them in new and original ways. There would still be refinements and additions that would lead to Anderson becoming one of America’s most original and artistically successful filmmakers, but the evidence is all there in this bold scene.

I don’t watch Boogie Nights all that often. In fact, I’ve probably seen it a half a dozen times or less in my life, despite being a big fan of it as a movie. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that in spite of what a good film it really is, Boogie Nights pales in comparison to the quality of Anderson’s later output. It’s probably also due to the fact that the film is so instantly memorable. Its characters and set pieces are big and bold, and its stylish camera work comes to mind easily. It may not quite rank up among Anderson’s very best work, but Boogie Nights is an accomplishment in any right, and may be Anderson’s most fun film. It’s a big film that is easy to get immersed in, and its world is genuinely enticing, with even the film’s darker third act containing moments of levity and humor. Initially, the film sees its director trying on the clothes of his greatest influences and finding that they are, in fact, a good fit for him, but by the end, it proves to be a crucial link in the chain of Anderson’s development as an auteur. It isn’t quite original enough to earn the masterpiece title that will be bestowed on some of his other films, but it is a perfectly fun and engaging film, enjoyable on several different levels, and a good indication of big things to come.