In the winter of 2014 I was given the wonderful opportunity to write about some classic films that I had slept on and do battle with my lifelong habit of procrastination.
Welp, after two articles I promptly flamed out. Two years later I am trying again. I’ve read some self-help books. I’m a little older, a little wiser, a little more married than I was before (Hi Rach!). I would consider myself a much more responsible person on the whole. I am truly a penitent man and I promise not to fall off the wagon again. If I do, know that it won’t be for some dumb reason like general laziness, it’ll be something more exotic like a hardcore meth habit.
So here’s my list for 2016. Same as my 2014 list, mostly, with some new additions… (I finally saw Jaws over the summer, so I can say that for myself…)
The Stunt Man
Smokey and the Bandit
Lawrence of Arabia
The Man with the Movie Camera
Breakfast at Tiffanys
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Let’s kick it off after the jump with my thoughts on Hard Eight, the directorial debut from P.T. Anderson.
My best friend @MisterGreggles has been on my mind. It was his birthday last month so I thought, since we haven’t had the opportunity to celebrate together yet, I’d pay him the respect of finally watching the film that he purchased for me as a birthday gift…in 2007. I talked about this in an earlier post but my inability to bring myself around to watching this movie has become a long running gag between the two of us. To summarize, I may have at one point promised him, on pain of dissolving our friendship, that I would watch this damn movie. We’re still great friends all these years later, he toasted me at my wedding, but I could never seem to sit down and watch the damn movie. This is pure, unfiltered and deeply personal cinema shame.
It’s not that I’d heard bad things about Hard Eight or had any particularly good reason not to watch it…I just couldn’t do it. My dirty, procrastinating, possibly undiagnosed adult ADHD-having brain wouldn’t let me. Well, that’s over. I’ve watched the film. I’m ready to talk about it. I’m ready to atone. Let’s do this thing.
I should also make mention of the difficulty I had with actually finding my copy of Hard Eight. I’ve moved around a bit in the time it’s taken me to get to this movie (as one tends to do during the course of a decade). At some point, the DVD case went missing. For a while, I had the DVD itself in a blank jewel case but during the last move I decided to stuff it in with another movie in my stash. I couldn’t remember what case I had put it in because…of course I couldn’t. I had one of those “Sherlock” mind palace images of it living in my DVD collection. Unfortunately, my mind palace is more a “mind outhouse”. After looking through all of my DVD’s and not having any luck I searched around online and found out I could watch a pirated version on YouTube with the aspect ratio all jacked up, or I could purchase a rental for three dollars.
Now, there are two things my friends, especially my cinephile friends, know about me:
1) I have a great respect for movies and those that create them (I don’t support movie piracy and I would not want to watch a film presented in a way that the filmmakers did not approve of.)
2) I’m a cheap-ass.
With renewed enthusiasm I dove back into my DVD collection and went through each and every case once more. Indeed, my efforts were rewarded! I finally found the DVD, hidden away behind a copy of Shaun of the Dead, safely nestled inside the DVD case for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
Truly, I am a terrible person.
HARD EIGHT (1996)
(wri./dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
So, a ‘Hard Eight’ is a type of bet you can make in a game of Casino Craps. In Craps, several people stand around a big bathtub shaped table and bet on a shooter, one of the other players in turn, who throws a pair of dice to the other end of the table, usually looking for either a 7 or 11 on their first roll. There’s more to it than is usually portrayed in movies (including this one) and I won’t get into the minutiae of it, suffice it to say it gets way more complicated. (Though if you are interested in learning more you can check out this informative and poorly lit video that I found explaining the whole shebang)
There are, however, a couple things about the game that I think speak to this film. 1) Players can bet with the shooter or against them, putting their money down in faith that the shooter will win or lose on the next roll. 2) Players can also bet on certain outcomes of the dice, a ‘Hard Eight’ for example, is when both dice land with the number ‘4’ to the sky. Statistically speaking a hard eight is one of the worst bets on the table that you can make. So too does our main character, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) place dangerous bets on his fellow players, the outcomes of which would be impossible for most anyone to foresee or control.
The film opens with a wide shot of John (John C. Reilly), crumpled and destitute, outside of a shitty diner on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada. John was in town attempting to earn enough money to pay for his mothers’ funeral and things did not go well. He is approached by Sydney, a complete stranger to him, who respects his motivations and offers him a smoke and the opportunity to make a lot of money. Soon the two are back on the road to Reno and John, under Sydney’s careful tutelage, is quickly making bank under less than scrupulous means.
Sidebar, for the life of me I could not wrap my head around the particulars of their initial con, which involves making friends with the pit boss and alternating between slot-playing and chip-exchanges with a couple different cashiers over the course of several hours. I liken it to the final scene from Trading Places, which I still don’t understand after dozens of viewings. Of course, understanding the scheme is not the point, it’s questionable as to whether or not John even understands what they’re doing. The point is that Sydney has proven himself to be a good mentor, and John a willing pupil.
The film then cuts to two years later. John has remained with Sydney and they have established themselves in Reno. They are both healthy, successful and relatively happy. We are then introduced to Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a casino security guard/lowlife who clings onto John in a bid to get into Sydney’s inner-circle and Clementine, (Gwyneth Paltrow) a self-loathing waitress who provides services to her customers both in the casino and later on in their hotel rooms (Like, naughty stuff, not regular room service…). Sydney wants to fix her in the same way that he’s fixed John, and begins playing cupid with the two of them…to mixed results.
With all of our characters in play, Hard Eight could’ve taken the easy route and become a standard heist film, a story about ‘one last big score for the old man’ a la Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, The Score and on and on. Instead, Anderson takes a more interesting approach and delves into the characters and their relationships. Hard Eight turns the revelations about shared histories and true motivations into its load-bearing pillars. To put it another way, the film gets smaller rather than bigger in its final two acts. Hard Eight is truly about its subjects, with the plotting taking a back seat. To this end parts of the film come off as a little contrived. For example, there is a scrape that John and Clementine find themselves in towards the back half of the film that kinda comes out of nowhere. Sydney is tasked with cleaning things up, playing Mr. Wolf to their Jules and Vincent. It seems rather random, but the stakes are heightened and it’s all in service to the next emotional revelation about the characters. By the end of the film, you find out why Sydney has been such a nice guy to John and Clementine and no spoilers but it’s not because he’s a nice guy.
The performances are good here. They aren’t super noteworthy but they are believable. Reilly and Jackson sketch milder versions of the characters that they usually play, the dope and the intense motherf*cker, respectively. Paltrow gets her “manic hooker with a heart-of-gold” on with some nice vulnerable moments in the type of role you don’t usually see her in. But the real standout for me was Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney, who is essentially a withered, old former tough guy. He’s seen and done some awful things, and all of it plays out subtly and beautifully on Hall’s weathered features. His layered performance is equal parts jaded, bemused and loving to his companions. When he is ultimately called upon to be the cold, unforgiving enforcer once again he plays it with chilling efficiency. It’s also just really cool to me that the lead is an older, world-weary guy. It presents a unique perspective that you wouldn’t see in a more by-the-numbers crime thriller.
It’s hardly apparent that this was P.T. Anderson’s first feature length film. Hard Eight is executed with the confidence of a seasoned filmmaker. The shot and lighting choices are interesting without being too cutesy or cool for coolness’s sake. The pacing is also handled especially well given how odd the story structure ends up being. All that being said, there are a few odd/amateurish choices. For example, towards the beginning, there is a Clerks-ish cutaway when John tells the story of a matchbook exploding in his pocket that seems out of place, mainly because they don’t ever go back to this device. There are one too many scenes of folks sitting around a table (usually at a Diner) and having an intense conversation (This is an indie/student film staple). And again, some of the character motivations and actions seem to come out of nowhere. Why does Clementine feel the need to suddenly go back into prostitution half way through the film? Still, Anderson does amazing work in his debut picture. In lesser hands this could have devolved into the sub-Tarantino crime drama that its terrible trailers sell it as. But as the original title of the film (‘Sydney’) implies, this was always going to be a story about the criminals and not their crimes.
Hard Eight ends up being a nice little seedy crime drama with solid performances. It comes with a recommendation from yours truly if you’re into the pulpy stuff and are looking for a more character-driven piece with some fun (if predictable) character revelations. I’d also encourage fans of P.T. Anderson’s work to check it out. That’s actually what held the most interest for me. While I understand it’s hard to get a physical copy of it these days, and it absolutely pales in comparison to Anderson’s later work, it’s pretty cool to see where the guy started. The greatness in his first foray is palpable, if not entirely sustained throughout. Lastly, I’d recommend this for immediate viewing if gifted to you by a friend in the mid-aughties, especially if your friendship hinges on completion of viewing. Get right on that, you silly bastard.
-@DMTayag (The artist formerly known as @Peaceman630)
PS- There’s no great way for me to fit this in organically so I’ll shoehorn it in here, much the same way it gets shoehorned into the film itself…Hard Eight features a fun cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as a loud-mouthed, mulleted dice shooter. If there’s someone I don’t mind randomly showing up in my movies it’s P.S.H.