“When it’s possible – in terms of the type of scene it is, where the camera is, how close the actors are to the lens and to the camera itself –Paul gets himself down in and under and around the camera. He curls in down there somewhere… so that he has eye contact with you all the time. Now, many directors don’t do this, many directors watch the box – many directors don’t even watch the box, they stand off to the side somewhere, I don’t know what they’re looking at – but Paul gets right down in there so that it’s very intimate… And it could be disconcerting. Paul might be two or three feet away from you and locking eyes right into you. There’s something about the hard focus and his physical presence…inches away, that gives a kind of a dynamic to the performance that I’m not sure that you can achieve in quite the same way. Or any other way. It’s unusual. There are other directors who do this, I’ve seen this a couple of times, but Paul does it on virtually every shot… It’s almost like he is helping to will the appropriate performance from you… I always sensed…I sensed his will. He wanted this thing in a certain way.”
–Philip Baker Hall (1)
Having first made his name with the large-cast epic Boogie Nights (1997), followed by the larger-cast, more-epic Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson quickly acquired the reputation of (among other things) an ‘actors’ director’. There was a critical rush to make the inevitable and obvious comparisons to Robert Altman’s great ensemble films Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993), while also noting that the young auteur was equally the cinematic spawn of Martin Scorsese – virtuoso Steadicam shots, whiplash pans, carefully orchestrated pop music soundtracks. Here, it seemed, was the filmmaker who could merge the two great streams of New Hollywood cinema: the bravura technique of the film school generation – Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola and their ilk; and the Method-infused, actor-focused cinema exemplified by Altman, John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet and others.
But, before barging (prematurely) into the cinematic canon, Anderson’s debut feature – Hard Eight (1996)– had slipped under the radar. A dispute with financers saw the film being taken out of Anderson’s hands, then returned to him when it was accepted into the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and Anderson offered/insisted on recutting the film at his own expense. Thus, the version which had a well-regarded Festival run before being sent straight to video in most countries is the director’s cut –though Anderson was forced to compromise on his preferred title, Sydney.
The noir-ish tale of enigmatic father-figure Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who approaches down-and-out John (John C Reilly) at a Nevada truck-stop and offers him assistance/advice/mentorship in a manner which makes John just as suspicious of ulterior motives as we are, Hard Eight is an interesting comparison to Anderson’s next two films. Working with a smaller budget, it’s basically a four-character film which wouldn’t suffer too much from being staged in a theatre – featuring unusually long dialogue scenes in diners, restaurants and motel rooms, with staccato rhythms and masculine posturing borrowed from David Mamet, another of Anderson’s key, acknowledged influences. (2) It lacks Anderson’s signature grandiosity – or, perhaps, more accurately, the Anderson grandiosity is muted – so it offers an opportunity to examine his approach to character and performance undistracted by the cinematic excess which overwhelms much of his subsequent work.
The Master Puppeteer
Most pertinent – particularly in light of Hall’s comments quoted at the beginning of this article – is the extent to which Anderson isolates actors in a shot. The opening encounter between Sydney and John, a five-and-a-half minute dialogue scene, comprises an almost fanatical adherence to the shot-reverse-shot structure. But it’s a full three minutes into the sequence before we get an over-the-shoulder shot. Until then, both characters are shot front-on, the camera offering the point-of-view of their interlocutor. After a cut to a two-shot to incorporate an interruption by a waitress, Anderson returns to the shot-reverse-shot rhythm, this time from over-the-shoulder. The respite is brief, however, since Sydney soon gets up from the table and the final minute-and-a-half separates the actors again.
The pattern is repeated in key scenes throughout the film: our first meeting with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine, a waitress who befriends our heroes and becomes a lacklustre femme fatale; an intriguing cameo by Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxious gambler who aggressively taunts Sydney, the two men staring each other down from opposite ends of the craps table; the introduction of Samuel L Jackson’s Jimmy, offering a more complex editing pattern since he and Sydney are triangulated around a table with John – though, again, Anderson most often opts for close-ups with the actor looking straight at the camera. Which means, metaphorically (and literally, if we’re to take Hall’s anecdote at face value) looking at the director. Anderson’s characters are talking less to each other and more to the filmmaker himself.
From an actor’s point of view, this approach turns duets into alternating solos. Instead of sharing a performance space, so many key character moments take place alone – alone in the frame even if there is, diegetically speaking, another character right in front of them. It robs actors of independence and autonomy, of the freedom to create a scene in collaboration, to vary and modulate their work in response to one another. To, in effect, take ownership of their character’s emotional journey. There’s always the hovering director, Anderson taking the role of surrogate father echoed in so many of his films (the paternal mentor being a key figure in all his features bar Punch-Drunk Love (2002)), willing (as Hall says) a specific kind of performance and, like a stern parent, ensuring there’ll be no skylarking among his actors by determinedly interposing himself and his camera between them.
In Hard Eight, it works. The coldness engendered fits the noirish view of the world as a threatening and alien place. We can’t believe the putative happy ending, John and Clementine driving off into a life together. This isn’t a relationship with a future: we know it, Anderson knows it. He has, in fact, engineered it thus by ensuring that the two characters have never been allowed a moment of intimacy. The natural human tendency to connect, to establish bonds with others, is thwarted by Anderson’s refusal to allow the characters the space to do so. And the actors’ natural tendencies to establish their own performative rhythms in collaboration with each other through moment-to-moment responsiveness are thwarted by Anderson’s physical separation of them on set.
It’s hard to say, at a certain level, whether Anderson’s desire to isolate his characters in shots is cause or effect. He makes films about lonely people – would they be less lonely if they more often shared their space? Does Anderson want them to be less lonely? Whether a conscious creative decision to articulate the loneliness of the characters, or a desire to control the actors – to ensure that the performers aren’t creating the rhythm, cadence and flow of a film independent of auteurist strictures – Anderson’s framings ensure that we feel the distance, we feel the disconnect. More especially because all that his characters ache for is to connect.
1. Philip Baker Hall from the DVD audio commentary for Hard Eight.
2. For more on Mamet see Paul Thomas Anderson interview in Creative Screenwriting, Vol. 5, No. 1 (January/February, 1998).
Hard Eight (1996 USA 101 min)
Prod Co: Green Parrot/Rysher Entertainment/Trinity Prod: Robert Johns and John Lyons Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson Phot: Robert Elswit Ed: Barbara Tulliver Prod Des: Nancy Deren Mus: Jon Brion and Michael Penn
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman