Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hard Eight a.k.a Sydney

Yesterday I watched PT Anderson's film Hard Eight for the second time. He ran into a lot of studio trouble when making the film, most notably with the title, he wanted the film to be called Sydney, but the studio insisted on Hard Eight. But at this point, Anderson had only done some PA work, so he didn't have the clout to control his own film. Now, he had done some shorts before, but for someone who'd never done a feature, Hard Eight is a really well made, restrained debut, though watching it at the time, I seriously doubt most people would see the potential for something like Magnolia coming from this guy.

But, to the film itself. The most striking thing in Hard Eight is how slow paced the film is, I don't think it's boring at all. but it's a film that's much more about getting you into an emotional space than conveying a narrative. Befitting its lead character, the film is almost tired, and any action seems to require a lot of exertion. Most of the film consists of dialogue scenes, and there's not that much music, though what music there is, is great. The film's aspect ratio is 2.35:1 and Anderson uses the full frame, frequently playing dialogue scenes in single take long shots that distance you from the characters, and reduce the tension that could be present in some scenes.

The reason for this is because the film's main character is someone who almost never expresses his emotions. Sydney just appears at the beginning of the film, and for the vast majority of its run time, his motives are unclear. We see his relationship with John, but don't get a real sense of what the man himself is like. The only things we know about him are the way he treats people, specifically the respect he gives Clementine and the disdain he has for Jimmy. So, rather than try to tell us who this guy is and what he's really feeling through filmmaking techniques, Anderson maintains the ambiguity by playing things very low key and just allowing the events to play themselves out.

That's not to say this is a film where the technique is invisible. Anderson's eye for a great frame is evident right from the start, and I was frequently struck by how he uses framing to create suspense, as in the scene where Sydney drops his keys in the car, and is hunched down looking for him, but the camera stays looking out the window, making us think that Jimmy is going to attack him there. However, he subverts this expectation by cutting and having Jimmy smash through the other window. Anderson makes great use of the lights in Las Vegas and Reno, their garishness a contrast to the low key human characters. He also has some great tracking shots, foreshadowing the astonishing stuff he would do in later films.

Anderson is one of the very rare filmmakers who I would consider equally brilliant as a writer and a director. Most people are either directors who write, like Wong Kar-Wai or David Lynch, or writers who direct, like Kevin Smith. Anderson is so good at both aspects of the process that you can't imagine anyone else directing his script, or him directing a film he didn't write. Hard Eight is like this as well, the film consists of mostly dialogue scenes, with very little overt stylization or action, and yet through the filmmaking, he creates a mood that really defines the film, and makes it completely different from the countless other neo-noirs that emerged in the late 90s.

The film's greatest failing is ultimately its lack of scope, especially in comparison to Anderson's subsequent films. It's an expertly made film that does everything it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do isn't that unique or ambitious. That's why I wouldn't put the movie on the same par as a Magnolia or Boogie Nights.

Looking at the film in the context of Anderson's later work, there's a few things that stand out. One is the cast. Philip Baker Hall gets the spotlight here and gives a phenomenal performance. His acting is all in the way he carries himself, watching him you know he's been through so much. John C. Reilly also does his first work with Anderson here, and he's not quite as good as in his later roles. He's solid overall, but there's a few lines that just felt unrealistic to me, he really comes into his own with Magnolia. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a one scene cameo and he's pretty solid, though I seriously have to question the mullet. And Melora Walters turns up very briefly at the end, her performance with only a couple of lines was apparently good enough to inspire Anderson to bring her back for Boogie Nights, and subsequently to the best role in Magnolia.

Other than Anderson regulars, I loved Gwyneth Paltrow in this movie. This is the only movie I've seen her in that's set in the present, and it was nice to see her divorced from mannered styles of acting and instead do something more grounded in reality. She's great here, nicely conveying the false persona she puts on to attract clients, and then subtly letting her guard down around Sydney.

In that respect, this film touches on a core Anderson theme, and that's how lonely people can turn themselves into new families, families that are frequently more loving than their 'real' families.. Here, Sydney acts as a father to John and Clementine, helping these two struggling people become self sufficient. This family clearly means more to him than his biological family, who he hasn't seen in a long time. That same dynamic turns up in Boogie Nights, when Jack brings together a collection of loner misfits and turns them into an extended family that works on the films. When Dirk bottoms out at the end of the film, he doesn't go back to his mother and father, he goes back to Jack and Amber, and they take him in again.

Magnolia is the ultimate extension of this theme, as people struggle to form new bonds as a result of the awful families they had in the past. Claudia ultimately finds solace in a reconstructed family with her mother and Jim, and Frank and Linda become more family than they'd ever been, united by the loss of Earl.

And in Punch Drunk Love, we see Barry struggling to live with his family. Though, you'll notice I haven't referred to that film much. I only saw it once, about two years ago, so I bought it off Ebay, it should be here in a couple of days, and I'll review it once I see it, having become an expert on Anderson. Though both PDL and Hard Eight lack the outrageous ambition that made Boogie Nights and Magnolia landmarks in cinematic history, at least for me.

So, Hard Eight stands as a wonderful mood piece, that captures the lives of a few people passing through Sydney's world. And at the end, he finds himself back where he began, with blood on his hands, and the knowledge that no matter what he does, he can never completely atone for what he'd done.


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