Out of the Past
Last summer, shortly after the beginning as a film critic with Pajiba, I published a ranking of the five film noirs of the classical age over the course of a week. Ever since, I've been contemplating doing a top five retrospective on neo-noir. Picking up the pieces of the project a few weeks ago, I tentatively listed a bunch of titles. However, unlike the classical ranking, I ran into some trouble thanks to a range of factors.
In a nutshell, there are two key reasons that make producing a ranking of neo-noir for Pajiba a difficult task. First and most significantly, neo-noir films have been produced for roughly fifty years now (the classical period ran only seventeen years), giving neo-noir a significant temporal advantage. To put this in a quantifiable context, IMDB lists 434 titles classified as film noir and over 1,500 as neo-noir. That's a huge amount of films to go through in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Secondly and more pragmatically, many seminal works of neo-noir have already been covered by Pajiba over the past years (including Mulholland Dr. and every Quentin Tarantino film), some of which by myself, which ultimately leaves me very little wiggle room when it comes to formulating a fresh perspective. So what does this leave you, my dear reader whom I've neglected for far too long, with? A long-winded and self-reflective introduction to a summer-long retrospective of neo-noir that sheds the cultural baggage of being a definitive ranking.
For the first title in the retrospective, I found myself re-visiting an old favorite: Paul Thomas Anderson's feature debut, Hard Eight (originally released as Sydney, 1996). The film follows an aging gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who, after meeting the down on his luck John (John C. Reilly) at a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert, decides to lend the young man a helping hand. Sydney's logic, however, is not to simply give John a fish but to give him a fishing pole by teaching him the trade: gambling. Sydney shows John how to con the casino by using a rate card, circulating the same $150 dollars at multiple tables, giving the casino the impression that John is spending a great deal of money and worthy of a comped hotel room.
These sequences (the diner, the drive to Reno, and the first casino) take up the first thirty minutes of the film. Essentially, Anderson limits the size of his celluloid canvas (this is an independent film after all), in stark contrast to his following two features Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), by just focusing on the seasoned, confident Sydney and the naïve, childlike John. After the success of John's con, Anderson flashes forward two years. John has become Sydney's mentee and appears to have taken on some of his elder's attributes, if only until he gets in over his head again. Falling in love with a casino cocktail waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), John gets roped into becoming her pimp. After an encounter with a client goes awry, Sydney once again comes to rescue, sending John and Clementine off to Niagara Falls.
By this point, the viewer and I assume you as well are asking a very relevant question: why does Sydney care about what happens to John? What does Sydney offer John the $150, the trip to Reno, a cup of coffee and a cigarette in the first place? Is he just a kind old man? Sydney tells John he isn't gay and re-assures the skeptical young man that he won't betray him. More importantly, why does he help John take care of Clementine's troublesome client? While Sydney's initial act could be written off as a random act of kindness, the second could initially be interpreted as benefit of the duo's two year friendship. Yet, it's significant that Anderson flash forwards those two years, skipping over the development of the friendship. Is the relationship between Sydney and John really that of two equals? Of course not, as John and Clementine are portrayed as children, which is exactly how Sydney lovingly treats them.
As the film progresses, we ultimately come to suspect that Sydney has an ulterior motive. This suspicion is capitalized upon when local hood Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) comes out of the Reno woodwork, threatening to expose Sydney's past (enter the noir trope of inescapable fate). I won't reveal anything else about the story, as it would do the film and the unfamiliar viewer a disservice (this said, please forgive the nagging questions in the above paragraph!).
Anderson's plot and structure, which is Melvillean in its minimalism (some would argue boring), puts the entire film on the shoulders of his talented ensemble. While Anderson has always been a strong practitioner of stylized film form (be it via the interaction of image and sound in There Will Be Blood or virtuoso camera moves of Boogie Nights), he has never been one to do so by short-changing his performers. Hard Eight is a prime example of his ability to walk both lines, despite budgetary constraints. The film has a masterful turn by the overlooked Philip Baker Hall (star of Secret Honor, a film directed by Anderson's later mentor Robert Altman), some prime menace by Samuel L. Jackson (without going into redline territory), and a hell of a scene between Hall and an obnoxiously wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Yet, Anderson's signature stylistic touches are still here, including a steadicam long take mid-film that perfectly captures the paranoia of a scene.
Hard Eight is endlessly watchable thanks to Anderson's ability to intersect form and content. As I've said in previous reviews, I'm in support of range of aesthetic options and do not consider myself a critic who places realism upon a pedestal. However, on the other side of the spectrum, I'm dubious of style for the sake of style (I'm looking at you Tony Scott). I relish experiences when film style means something, when it works with (not necessarily re-enforces) the content of the film. Hard Eight, and Anderson's filmmaking more generally, scratches that itch as well as my obsession with the noir genre. Who could ask for anything more?
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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