Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Producer: Robert Jones and John Lyons
by Jon Cvack
Each time I watch this movie it seems to take on a different feel, in which I forget most of the details, and yet remember some of the most powerful images - John C. Reilly outside the diner, the matchbook catching fire, the artful con Philip Baker Hall teaches, and of course, the greatest cameo of all time by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I was motivated to watch it after being introduced to The Director Series (which I recommend checking out, offering in depth video essays on various filmmakers), reminding me that this story was based on Anderson’s incredible short film Cigarettes and Coffee, made when Anderson was only 22 years old, getting him into the Sundance Labs where he developed “Sydney”, forcefully retitled “Hard Eight” (which to this day I find a better title, if anything for capturing PSH’s scene), made when PTA was only 25 years old. A year later the 26 year old filmmaker would go on to make what has become one of the greatest pieces of cinema of all time - Boogie Nights. In the history of cinema, only Orson Welles would be able to match the level of craft at such a young age. Coincidentally, Welles was the same age.
When I watch a film like this I’m reminded of what independent cinema used to be, in which the return on home video sales was enough to take risks with new filmmakers, rather than hoping to navigate projects through the arduous festival circuit, hoping to get a distribution deal with even a modicum of marketing budget. A person like PTA could drop out of college, pour his tuition money into a film, and so long as it was good, could be approached to make a feature from there. Today anyone can make a film, and with that comes the issue that, unfortunately, there are just too many pretty good films to see, let alone good movies to see all while battling the golden age of episodic storytelling.
When I watch the great 90s indie films I picture grimy theaters and video stores, going to Best Buy and hitting up the DVD sales and using the nascent internet to find the best films out there. Films like this make me picture the last remnants of old Hollywood; before television was serious, and before a single video existed on the internet. It was the peak American art form, hungry for new talent, back when single stars were strong enough to finance projects. Back when they were mysterious and more disconnected, developing personas which we only got to see through performance or the tabloids.
Independent film is far from dead. I’d even go so far as to argue that what it accomplished has now become much of mainstream Hollywood. 80% of theater viewership is reserved for tentpole or blockbuster films (often franchises). When the option is to check out an obscure indie film for fifteen dollars a ticket, seeing a tentpole movie, or staying at home to watch some of the best television ever offered - it’s not too hard to see the first option is far from the top.
When I watch a film like this, there’s a sexiness that makes me nostalgic. It embodies the effort to make a cool movie in a time when such a thing could still gain appreciation; if for nothing else than its ability to introduce a new storyteller - and by extension - a new way to see the world. Although I knew the history about it’s financiers demanding the name change from Sydney to Hard Eight, though in The Director Series, its said that the original cut is nearly two and a half hours; which while keeping that in mind, made me wonder how much different and better of a film it could have been.
It opens up outside a diner where John (John C. Reilly) sits against the wall, dejected. A man named Sidney (Philip Baker Hall) enters the frame, offering to buy John a cup of coffee. They then enter into a scene based off the original short film “Cigarettes and Coffee”.
John explains that he’s in need of $30,000 in order to bury his mother, making me wonder whether John was conning Sidney or serious. I’m uncertain of either. Sidney offers to give John $100 in if he comes back to Reno with him. The pair head back and John asks for a cigarette. Sydney only has matches and John rejects them, explaining a story about how he had a large box of matches in his pocket years ago while waiting in line which spontaneously erupted, giving him a second degree burn.
They arrive in Vegas and Sydney teaches John a trick for recycling hundred dollars into reward points which soon get him a free hotel room and a meal. The seed money works, and we move forward a year. John and Sydney are still in town and two new characters are introduced: Cocktail Waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and hoodlum Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s been getting closer to John, much to the suspicion of Sydney.
Sydney finds another in need with Clementine, who’s caught with a John, taking her back to a diner in one of the film’s best scenes where he hears her story and what she does to survive. I’m sure there’s some contemporary criticism out there for having the one female character as a prostitute, but looking past all that, regardless of the position, Gwyneth Paltrow makes us feel the way Sydney acts. He invites her back to his room, offering his bed, wanting nothing in return. The next day he finds her with John and the two end up getting married within days.
In the film’s longest scenem- shot entirely in a hotel room which goes on for about thirty minutes - John calls Sydney in the middle of the night and has him come to a motel where a man lies unconscious on the bed; blood oozing and splattered from his head. Clementine had slept with him and he refused to pay, so she bludgeoned him in the head and called John. Sydney vows to take care of the situation, urging John and Clementine to take a honeymoon in Niagara Falls while things cooled down.
Returning to his car, Sydney meets Jimmy who informs him he knows how years back, Sydney killed John’s father, and unless he pays $10,000 he’s going to reveal the information. Sydney refuses, going on to kill Jimmy in one of the film’s best scenes.
I once got stuck in Reno for three days and two nights after a flight got canceled; forced to explore the near absurdly small city further than I ever anticipated (there’s actually a riverwalk that leads to a great art district and some phenomenal parks). For the last eight years, my best dude friends and I all take a long weekend trip to Donner Lake, and for the last couple years, have tried to make it down to Reno at least once (it’s only 45 minutes away). I once believed the Chicago Shedd Aquarium had some of the best people watching. Reno is in a league of its own; feeling as though you’re time traveling back to a period that no longer exists. When you hear of the Old Vegas, Reno provides a taste of what that means. Hard Eight embodies the spirit.
According to The Secret History of Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker had worked in Reno for a summer or two before college; and it’s clear that he too saw the strange combination of mundanity, stasis, and charm. I’m not sure how to describe what Reno feels like, but when I watch Hard Eight before visiting I felt it, and watching it again having gone there nearly half a dozen times, there’s no better movie to capture its essence. It’s a film that demonstrates a young filmmaker figuring out his craft; and yet I have a feeling that the extended version might have been one of his best. Allegedly, according to IMDb, the man in the hotel room had worked with Jimmy, tracking Sydney and shooting him outside of the same diner he met John. It feels like something Anderson would have done, and seems a more fitting ending. With Malick announcing a five hour cut of Tree of Life (2011), I’m hoping that PTA will one day release his original piece.
BELOW: Great series
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