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  • James Kunovski

How Hard Eight Established Paul Thomas Anderson

One of the opening lines in Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, Hard Eight (1996), originally titled Sydney, goes like this — “I’m a guy that’s offering to give you a cigarette and buy you a cup of coffee.” It is spoken by senior gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), to John (John C. Reilly), who is sullenly sitting outside a Nevada-area diner in worse-for-wear fashion. Though it was Anderson’s first feature film, he was already referencing his own work. The quote remarks Anderson’s Sundance triumph, Cigarettes & Coffee (1993). Per invitation by that festival’s institute, he would develop that short, which also starred Hall, into Hard Eight. Sydney’s request, spoken only two minutes into the film may have only served as a tongue-in-cheek link between two films but it calls to a deeper continuity in Anderson’s work. So many of the referential threads that weave Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature style and trademarks started in this indie neo-noir about redemption in sin city. Let’s take a look at how Hard Eight constructed Anderson’s recurring themes.

The Company He Keeps

Anderson has continued to implement his favourite actors into his newer films, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix but neither appeared in Hard Eight. Instead, the reappearing cast included Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters and John C. Reilly (all in Boogie Nights and Magnolia). The outlier is Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the cocky mullet-bearing craps player who holds one of the most luminescent singular performances in Anderson’s work. Anderson remembers Hoffman as a master of improvisation, and timing, and that he had the chops of an older “trooper.” Hoffman would go on to appear in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit first experimented with Anderson’s famed “three-dimensional” scope on Hard Eight and has simultaneously worked on all but two of Anderson’s films. Elswit won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Likewise, costume designer Mark Bridges has worked on every PTA film. Bridges won an Oscar for his interpretation of London’s bygone haute couture era in Phantom Thread.

Persuasive Score

When an increasing number of newer films, especially those in the independent scene, have ditched the score, favouring a more experimental take, Anderson has stayed faithful to good underscores, and the importance they bring to his scenes. Some filmmakers relay that the mood of the scene can speak for itself, but why discredit the extra emotion music possesses. Think The Master’s opening scene. The discordant string work, courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood welcomes the detached uneasiness that permeates the rest of the film. Or, in Phantom Thread, where the beat of a passionate kiss is accompanied by Greenwood’s thunderous orchestra. In a Variety interview regarding the latter film, Greenwood states that music covers seventy percent of the film.

Anderson’s composers have mixed a variety of genres into an eclectic showcase. Jon Brion composed Hard Eight, along with Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love (following up from the point above). His work in the first film is fluid and bouncy, and perfectly parallels the casino’s atmosphere while also creating suitable tension. Like all the scores in Anderson’s filmography, it is singular and unique. It was also the first of two times an Aimee Mann song appeared in the credits — the second would be in Magnolia; a song that would garner Mann an Oscar nomination. Hard Eight goes for a sophisticated and sometimes sleazy jazz/synth combo that concurrently reflects the rich ideals of gambling, the “wisdom” of the senior lead and the downfalls that both will produce. Anderson pays particular awareness to the soundscape as a whole, with the simple notes of pouring coffee or whirring tapes receiving equal attention. Even when there isn’t an omnipresent score, there is a soundtrack. Boogie Nights was bursting at the seams with musicality, often songs would overlap with each other, as if they were impatient, like the characters in that film craving for screen-time.

A Gliding and Incorporated Camera

Following Hard Eight, Anderson worked with only one other cinematographer. That man was Mihai Mălaimare Jr. who collaborated with Anderson on The Master. Phantom Thread had no official credit for cinematographer. Earlier, I made reference to “three-dimensional” camerawork. That would refer to the repeated long takes, dolly-ins and lateral tracking of characters and action. It seems to be a characteristic of Elswit, because the two films he didn’t photograph are more stable and levelled off. Elswit’s control of camera would become more explosive, and then subdued in later films, with Punch-Drunk Love representing the former, and There Will Be Blood, the latter.

Anderson’s camera glides through each film’s world, from Hard Eight’s neon-drenched casino floors of Vegas and its imposter cousin Reno, to the San Fernando Valley at the cusp of the '80s (Boogie Nights) and once again in the barren oil fields of turn-of-the-century California (There Will Be Blood). The camera usually draws attention to a certain moment of tension or intrigue, but it also can be used to show off — take the Boogie Nights opening sequence and pool parties, for show. In Hard Eight, the camera strategically pulls into casino chips, tellers and John, the newfound cheat. Anderson’s love for the Steadicam is noticeable in its roots. Those movements help establish the film’s sleek plot but Elswit’s camera can also mimic or signal characters’ thoughts. When the simple frame of Sydney sitting on a chair draws closer, (and is interspersed with the whereabouts of other characters), it becomes clearer that he is contemplating sinister action. Hard Eight is also unique in what it doesn’t establish — Anderson’s signature anamorphic lens is missing due to budgetary restrictions, something that would reoccur during filming for The Master.

Profound Characterisation

Roger Ebert described Hard Eight as a “human interest movie — a personality movie.” Though Anderson’s films could easily fit into conventional genre categories, his work is more concerned with detailing a study of his rich ensemble. Speaking of ensembles, his films are almost always driven by an electric range of actors who always bring the most to their characters. Whether they are a representation of an adopted family unit, like in Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice and The Master or blood-related, like the troubled San Fernandoans in Magnolia, his characters remain each film’s central driving force. Within that ensemble lie suggestions of broken men, driven by a quest for salvation in Hard Eight and The Master, alongside a clearly defined father/son relationship, often metaphorical, vulnerable and fractured. A sense of alienation, and loneliness, plus the weight of the burdening past, often permeates through. That matter flanks Sydney’s main motives. Amber in Boogie Nights is fighting the custody of her child, Frank in Magnolia struggles with his lies and Freddie in The Master suffers from the trauma of war.

(Apparently) the phrase “I didn’t do anything” makes an appearance in four Anderson films, and although Hard Eight is not included, the film is bathed in that same reproach. Anderson’s following films, around the late ‘90s, early ‘00s mark, were concerned with the intricate humans of Los Angeles. His later work manages to blend a more systematic and social outlook on American sensibility. There are hints of that in Hard Eight, especially in the backbone of gambling, its toll, and the rationale that pushed Sydney, but it comes to a head in There Will Be Blood. Anderson’s opus dealt with American capitalism through the oil boom. Similarly, The Master conveys meaning in Post-World War II America through an institutional religious sect. Moreover, the late ‘60s zeitgeist is inspected through a dazed hippie in the wrong decade, in the woozy Inherent Vice.

The Third-Act Climax

This comes down to basic screenwriting technique. During each film’s third-act, things go very awry for the ensemble. The deteriorating transition, or the fall after the rise, almost resembles the groundwork for plays, where several catalysts upend a flawed yet seemingly unproblematic livelihood. Here, they are usually punctuated by a montage. Sydney’s revelation from the past charges Hard Eight’s denouement; in Boogie Nights, the societal consequences of the porn industry create the dramatic downfall, in that case, all to the tune of an ominous bell. The breakdown of relationships occur in the heightened endings of Phantom Thread and Magnolia, in the latter, it literally rains frogs. These circumstances are oft followed by an ending that seems resolute, one might even call it “happy” in some instances (Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread) but one that ultimately serves the right purpose for Anderson’s set of complicated characters.

Anderson lost much creative control over Hard Eight, an experience which he doesn’t speak fondly, so his later films might seem more “PTA” than his first, but amongst the creative difficulties lies a film that exhibits the infancy of his directorial hand and glimpses of planted style.


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