Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight and Boogie Nights
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
Hard Eight is a not quite a gangster movie because of how totally alone all of its characters are; without family, friendship, networks they drift and cling to each other. To be a gangster movie you need institutions, organized crime requires an organization. The cling is not desperation, though, but a sad, kind, loyal static electricity. There are secrets here, the kind of secrets that cause structural damage in a gangster movie, but without the structure of an organization the damage secrets cause is different, emotional, human. There are secrets but there is no deceit.
Hard Eight is the only PTA film I hadn’t seen before this endeavour and what was most striking to me about it was watching someone like Anderson struggle with tone. His adoration of noir and the gangers movies that this is not, is clear, as is his affection for Quentin Tarantino’s zingy voice. Watching it you can see moments of clarity, of a unique and special perspective, but those are exceptions. The bulk of the movie is an artfully-executed, small, quiet version of a straightforward two-bit hustler movie. I imagine it is very hard to make a scene of two serious men drinking coffee in a diner particularly special, but a compassionate director with a delicate touch can make something satisfying out of it, which he does here several times.
The other surprise is pre-goop Gwyneth Paltrow. This character and her performance are really special. Beautiful-Reno-cocktail-waitress/prostitute-who-falls-in-with-petty-criminals is about as interesting on paper as two-down-on-their-luck-gamblers-making-plans-over-black-coffee-at-a-diner, quick to turn trite. Even the reversals for this character as predictable. Philip Baker Hall asks her if she is in school, saving for something, expecting the redemption story we all expect, but she doesn’t deliver. It’s exciting to see her motives play out unanswered and her performance is ethereal and beautiful to watch.
Having just watched Phantom Thread, it’s interesting to compare Clementine (Paltrow) to Alma (Vicky Krieps). These are women whose pasts are vaguely humble, possibly dark, but mainly the past is a vehicles to get them to this moment in time. The past we never see plays a part in who they are, though who they are seems to be something deeper, more personal than merely a sum of experience.
Boogie Nights treats it’s characters with such tenderness that when things devolve for them, when their sheltered ignorance comes to bite them in the butt, you don’t laugh. Yes, the characters are not in on a lot of the jokes in the first act but somehow it isn’t mean. John C. Reilly’s sweetness, Julianne Moore’s mothering; these characters genuinely love each other and are seeking love in its most profound sense.
Like Hard Eight, what we expect, horrible people to exploit each other, is not what we get. What we see on screen is a group of pretty regular, if somewhat damaged, people trying to find companionship. Where hurt comes through in Boogie Nights, is in the past. Some of these characters have pasts that are named and take a lead in their lives. Mark Wahlberg’s scene with his mother gestures broadly at a troubled home life. Heather Graham’s roller skate beatdown and her painful cries of “Don’t disrespect me!” is a startling moment that reveals the hurt endured by this women and what horror she might be running from to choose this life.
The jump from four core characters with clear relationships in Hard Eight to more than ten characters, shifting allegiances over the years covered on screen, is great fun to watch. In Hard Eight there is really only one divergence, where we are faced with the reality of these characters leading separate lives. In Boogie Nights they spin, combine, separate, but loosely follow each other in an arch of success, failure and change lead by the passage of time and the predictability of human behavior. I’m looking forward to watching Magnolia next, with it’s cacophony of storylines.
Next: Part II: Magnolia