Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

Boogie Nights may borrow generously from Scorsese, Altman, Kalatozov, and others, but when borrowing is done this well, and touched up to fulfill the borrower’s own unique sensibilities, it’s hard to care. The first shot, which tracks from an exterior into a nightclub and then circles the room, briefly acquainting us with many of the major players on the way, is such a wonderfully choreographed shot that plunges you directly into the seemingly nonstop ’70s party with such confidence that its similarities to a handful of memorable Goodfellas shots are less apparent than the bravura film-making on display. This shot showcases a humor and energy through camera movement, the soundtrack, and the carefree performances that is sustained for precisely as long as the film wants it to be.

That first party does eventually end, but almost as quickly, we see Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) attract the attention of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a pornographic filmmaker who takes a liking to Eddie and draws him to work. Eddie, having problems at home with his mother (Joanna Gleason), runs off and joins Burt, and the bacchanale begins again as Eddie, rebranding himself as Dirk Diggler, climbs his way to the top, meeting Burt (Don Cheadle), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Todd (Thomas Jane), Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and many more along the way.

For about an hour and a half, the champagne flows and disco booms, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s music being carefully chosen, his cuts precisely timed to align with changes in a song/between songs, that it never feels tiresome. Indeed, watching these performer-actors bounce off one another is an aesthetic pleasure in itself. Of particular interest is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as Scotty, is so smitten with the hot new porn star from the very first scene, in which his responses to him are reduced to “yeah, yeah, yeah,” that it is hard to watch. That’s only the beginning, of course, and Hoffman steals the scene many mores times, as when he, Dirk, and Reed are trying on new clothing and Scotty can’t quite fit in, at an awards show when he lunges out to try to congratulate Dirk on his award, and, much later, when Dirk has a meltdown about being asked to wait to shoot his scene. This last scene is particularly impressive because Scotty, strictly speaking, doesn’t need to be in the scene. He is simply standing in the background, looking horrified, and that look horrifies us, because nobody wants to see such a lovable guy so distraught.

The jokes pile on throughout both aural, as when Reed asks if Dirk ever goes to his gym of choice, but before allowing Dirk to responds, “no, I would’ve seen you, I’m there every day,” and visual, as when Buck is told to “watch the phone.” Buck obeys dutifully, and we see him turn toward the phone before the camera cuts into the adjacent room. When the camera tracks back in, Buck is still, quite literally, watching the phone, not breaking eye contact until it is picked up again. It is organic laughs like these, along with Anderson’s mobile camera, and brilliant costuming and hair-styling that turns a highly choreographed party environment into an organic evocation of a particular time.

Despite the dynamism, Paul Thomas Anderson never feels the need to indulge in the pornography he depicts, even when his characters are shooting it. He is more concerned with how these characters treat each other off camera and how they feel about their work and family than in what they do in front of the camera. There is very little nudity throughout the film, and there is a conscious effort to hide Dirk’s much-talked about endowment, as when, after shooting a scene, the camera positions itself across the room to let other characters obstruct Dirk, who then finds a seat and crosses his legs to stay covered. When he is eventually uncovered, it isn’t sexy or shocking, but rather a profound judgment on the character as a whole.

Admittedly, when the ’70s come to an end, Boogie Nights loses much of its steam, although the grimmer tone is not the problem. In fact, the bloody ending of the ’70s making way for silence over a title card that simply reads “80s” is quite brilliant. Suddenly the great pop and disco music is entirely gone (though it will come back for among the film’s most memorable scenes), and drugs start to ruin everyone, and a newcomer starts to usurp Dirk. It’s a tonal shift that could easily be hard to buy, but it’s yet another effortless sell by Anderson.

Still, the film does begin to lose a bit of steam. In terms of the big picture, the ‘80s, ushered in with such intensity, quickly become formulaic in their final-act reckoning, and there are a handful of scenes that miss the mark and make it hard to overlook the trope. The rock ‘n’ roll dreams of Dirk and Reed is good for a laugh or two but little more, being the least convincing non-porn “dream” that each character in the film expresses. More problematic, though, is when Rollergirl and Jack beat a man for insulting them both after they stop recording their impromptu porno. It’s understandable (though not necessarily endorsable) on the part of Rollergirl, who remembers him from his sexual taunts in high school, but that beating is equated to Dirk being beaten for being a “faggot.” it’s difficult to discern what, precisely, Anderson is saying about these characters and their choices. Given what I see as rather conservative attitudes in his next two films, I am inclined to see it as a type of judgment on Dirk, but even if it isn’t, what ties these together?

On one hand, Rollergirl’s classmate is an unashamed sexist, and Boogie Nights is quite clear about its (progressive) gender politics. But on the other, the excessive beating he endures reflects poorly on both Rollergirl and Jack. But why should Dirk, resorting to prostitution, suffer the same fate? Certainly what he is doing is not as bad as what the former classmate has repeatedly done to Rollergirl, but the two are, thanks to a foreboding sound bridge that links the two, equated not contrasted. At the same time, Jack and Rollergirl get away with their beating, so if they were being equated with the gang who beats Dirk…what is the moral statement here? As a visceral look at particular characters at their lowest, the scene is well-directed, but as an equation of fates, readily implied by the cross-cutting and sound bridge, it is either murky or incoherent.

Even with this major misstep, though, Boogie Nights finds a way to revitalize itself, to the tune of “Sister Christian” and “Jesse’s Girl,” no less. This scene, in which Dirk, Reed, and another friend, Todd (Thomas Jane), are selling a half-kilo of baking soda as cocaine for $5,000, is carefully choreographed to the music, and that makes for several minutes (you hear almost two entire songs) of suspense, made all the more terrifying by the sound of firecrackers being thrown off by a house resident. In my eyes, though, the single best thing about this scene is the close-up on Dirk right before suggesting they leave. The camera hovers directly in front of his face for a close to a minute, a minute in which nobody is saying anything, and Dirk can only stare, somewhat blankly, certainly frightened, hoping nothing will go wrong. It may not sound like much, but considering the editing of the scene and the sudden lack of firecrackers, that shot seems to linger forever. Most impressively, it earns every second it takes.

These characters meet a range of fates: Some are denied their dreams, others are not, and one is but finds a way to make it happen anyway. But underneath the seemingly happy ending, I can’t help but see sadness. Being called “the foxiest bitch in the world” is certainly no “I love you,” and performing a Raging Bull style monologue that allows us to finally see the goods the film has talked up for two-and-a-half hours does not strike me as particularly happy. As with Jake LaMotta, the question is: Is that all he has?

Both of these fates, resigned but ultimately unsatisfying, further suggest that, in spite of all the celebration of the porn industry in the ‘70s, these characters are ultimately being punished for their involvement in pornography. We see a conscious attempt throughout the film to create a family, visible in the use of new, self-chosen names and in the language that describes and is used by Amber (who is called “mom” and refers to her co-stars as her “kids” and “my baby,” throughout the film). In the end, however, this surrogate family is not enough; it is a group of people who see you as either a 13-inch piece of meat or a “foxy bitch.” It’s certainly not a coincidence that the only person who is truly happy is Buck, who is able to get out of pornography and pursue his dreams, thanks mostly to blind luck. He has a family and a business doing something he truly loves. What does anyone else have?

Whether this is evoking the realities of porn stars, many of whom met unhappy endings either because of an inability to adapt to videotape, drugs, or sexually transmitted diseases, or a moral judgment on characters is hard to tell. The biblical ending of Magnolia, along with the extreme endorsement of a very particular ideology in Punch-Drunk Love (loneliness and sexuality bad, monogamy/marriage to classically-pretty woman good) makes it easy to read Boogie Nights as yet another moral statement. Ultimately though, as with Magnolia (and for me, very unlike Punch-Drunk Love), the character arcs and storytelling are convincing rather than attempts at conversion, and it’s generally silly to let politics get in the way of a good film, which Boogie Nights very much is. Perhaps it’s even a great one.

Grade: B+/A-

and utilizes intricate sound design and music

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