Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1997)

2. Boogie Nights

Paul Thomas Anderson is fascinated with pornography. In particular, he's interested in the so-called porno chic era. That brief time in the seventies when horny hits like “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door,” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” had the most disreputable of film genres verging towards mainstream acceptance. Anderson's enchantment with hardcore cinema led to him filming a mockumentry, while still in high school, called “The Dirk Diggler Story.” A decade later, that short film would inspire the feature “Boogie Nights.” Initially pitched as a three hour long, NC-17 rated film, “Boogie Nights” would come in twenty minutes under that time and with an R rating. More importantly, it would be the critical breakthrough for Anderson. The film would launch the film career of Mark Wahlberg, still best known as a pop star at the time, and earn multiple awards.

Eddie is seventeen years old. He has dropped out of high school and his home life with his parents is growing increasingly tense. He's also gifted with an enormously large penis. This attribute attracts the attention of pornographic director Jack Horner. Eddie assumes the stage name of Dirk Diggler. Starring in a series of films for Horner, “Dirk” becomes the biggest – rather literally – star in the genre. He forms special bonds with Horner and two of his co-stars, Amber Waves and Rollergirl. Yet the success goes to Dirk's head. He grows distant from his friends. He gets into drugs. The changing nature of the industry makes success hard to hold onto. Soon, the lives of Eddie's and those around him are in shambles.

“Boogie Nights” isn't just a homage to the golden age of pornography. It's a detail rich ode to the seventies themselves. Anderson lingers on the pop culture artifacts of the day. Eddie's bedroom is decorated with posters of Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcitt. Reed, his best friend and frequent co-star, wields nun-chucks. The fashion is heavy on the bell bottoms, unbuttoned shirts, high waists, cuffs, and pastels. Several key scenes take place in discos. The men sport chest hair and sideburns. Yet Anderson doesn't just dot his film with pop culture signifiers as a cheap way to establish the time period. His genuine affection for these things, through his characters. These detail makes the film's world more real, making its events more meaningful.

The director has, somewhat derisively, referred “Boogie Nights” as a film about “a guy with a really big dick.” Yet the movie's actual theme emerges across its run time. “Boogie Nights” is a story about family. Eddie is rejected by his mother, who believes he's worthless. Maggie's ex-husband is keeping her son from her, due to her pornographic alter-ego of Amber Waves. In lieu of actual blood relations, the two create a family of their own. Maggie sees Eddie as a son of sorts and he looks up to her as a mother figure. Jack Horner is a father figure to the boy, seeing his potential and boosting his dreams. Rollergirl is like a younger sister, with a child-like energy that hides a vulnerable side. Anderson subtly weaves together the meaningful connections these people form in the world of pornography.

The short that inspired “Boogie Nights,” “The Dirk Diggler Story,” was mostly farcical. It was the sarcastic rise-and-fall story of a porn star, told with a straight face. “Boogie Nights” is a far more sincere film but does maintain a sly sense of humor. The way Eddie/Dirk constantly references his 'very special gift” marks the movie as a tongue-in-cheek riff on stories about plucky underdogs who use one special attribute to succeed. Except Eddie's vigor and determination aren't what sees him come out on top. Instead, he's simply born with an extra-large cock. The way the film treats Eddie's endowment with religious awe, marking his bedroom skills as almost supernatural, is done with an obvious degree of cheekiness. It's clear that Eddie has little else to offer. His entire career depends entirely on what's in his pants.

Anderson may approach the story with a certain sense of humor but “Boogie Nights” is grounded by a trio of deeply empathetic performances. Mark Wahlberg, before this film, was mostly known for rapping with the Funky Bunch. After this film, Wahlberg would reveal himself as a sometimes deeply sensitive actor. He plays Eddie/Dirk as strangely innocent. Despite making his living by having sex on camera, Eddie always comes off as an overgrown little boy who doesn't really understand how the world works. Wahlberg doesn't play the part as caricature but as a deeply vulnerable individual, desperate to be understood and find some worth in his life. It's a star making turn and it's a shame that Wahlberg has rarely shown that level of talent since then.

Playing Dirk's surrogate parent figures are Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore. Fallen Hollywood legend Reynolds was reluctant to make the film, didn't work well with Anderson, and squandered the second chance “Boogie Nights” gave him. As Jack Horner, the good ol' boy charm that made Reynolds a seventies icon is twisted in a different direction. The charisma is still there, as is Reynold's atrophied desire to be taken seriously, but the machismo manifests in ugly ways. Such as when Horner fights with Eddie or beats up a frat boy randomly chosen for a porn shoot. Or in the increasingly sexist undertones of his porn films. Moore, meanwhile, is a raw nerve. A key moment has her rambling in a manic fashion while high on coke. Moore exudes everything sad and desperate about her character, a woman who feels like everything she loves is slipping away from her. Yet her potential for love, the humor and strength she has to give, makes it clear that she deserves these things that are so hard to come by.

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great novelist-as-filmmakers. Each of his movies are filled with background characters that could easily occupy their own movies. “Boogie Nights” fills its margins with fascinating characters. Buck Swope is another porn performer who defies stereotypes by loving country music and dressing like a cowboy. This passion gets him fired from his job in a stereo store. His attempts to reinvent himself, by wearing a Rick James wig, are insincere. John C. Reily's Reed Rothchild is fascinated with stage magic and is seen practicing it throughout. Rollergirl is a high school dropout who is haunted by her failures. Scotty, the sound guy who is played with heartbreaking sincerity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is in love with Eddie. One especially painful moment has him drunkenly admitting his feelings during a New Years Eve party. These moments fill the world of “Boogie Nights,” any one of them worthy of their own movie. Instead, they are examples of how full and developed the film's universe is.

One such subplot concerns Little Bill, the lights technician that works for Horner. Bill's wife, played by veteran porn performer Nina Hartly, constantly cheats on him. She's very nonchalant about her infidelity. When he walks in on her having sex with another man, she dispassionately makes him leave. At a party, she has sex in public with another man. She doesn't even stop when Bill finds her. The film treats this as a cruel joke. Bill, played with absolutely perfect sad sack weariness by William H. Macy,  gets piled on in a comical way. It's a funny gag... Up until it becomes deadly serious. At the New Years Party celebrating the end of the seventies, Little Bill snaps, murders his wife, her lover, and then kills himself. This marks the very intentional tonal turning point in the film. It's no mistake that this same party is where Dirk is introduced to cocaine. The seventies are over and so are the pornoriffic good times the characters are experiencing.

The extended last third that follows exposes “Boogie Nights'” only real flaw. As the eighties go on, the porn industry shifting from film to VHS forces Horner to sacrifice his vision of a narrative-driven adult film. Eddie has a falling out from his makeshift family, due to his growing ego and growing coke addiction. It's at this point that “Boogie Nights'” darkness begins to induce apathy in the audience. That feeling hits its peak during the moment when Buck stops into a doughnut shop. A robber enters, attempts to empty the cash register, and the entire scene ends in brutal violence. Buck is an unwilling witness. This is the only time “Boogie Nights” overdoes it and comes off as contrived.

Even then, that darker last third has an incredible, stand-out moment. In a sequence inspired by the Wonderland Murders, Dirk and his friends attempt to steal money from a drug dealer. Played with a feverish intensity by Alfred Molina, Rahad Jackson is running on an irrepressible high. The scene is brilliantly scored to a series of eighties pop song, building towards the driving rock crescendo of Night Ranger's “Sister Christine.” This alone would probably be enough to create a jangly atmosphere of nervous energy. Anderson pushes it even further by having a character set off firecrackers throughout the scene. By the time the violence actually happens, the audience is already deeply unsettled. It's not a catharsis. Instead, the seasick feeling the viewer has bottoms out as the worst possible things happen. The sequence is a masterclass in how to build tension and unnerve a viewer, as the story hurdles towards calamity.

In “Hard Eight,” Paul Thomas Anderson displayed an impressive visual sense. The director would build on that style for his second feature. The long takes, characterized by the camera smoothly sliding through a single location, crop up several times. One really impressive scene takes us through a disco club, showing us multiple characters without ever stopping. Once again, that visual smoothness carries through to the film's pacing. Despite running over two hours “Boogie Nights” never seems to slow down, swimmingly transitioning from one event to the next. When not employing his complex editing or brisk shooting, Anderson utilizes a more meta approach. Several scenes in “Boogie Nights” are shot in the aspect ratio, and grainy film quality, of seventies porn films. This further shows the director's commitment to verisimilitude and accuracy, not to mention his love of details.

“Boogie Nights” ends on a happy note. The family is reunited. Jack Horner's porn empire continues. The good succeed. The bad are punished. Yet this positive conclusion is laced with darkness. Anybody who knows the facts about John Holmes knows his late life was soured by crime and drugs, before he died of AIDS. And it's not as if the porn industry was going to stick with film. There's a cloud of uncertainty floating over the final scene. The characters may seemingly be in a happy place now but something worst awaits them all. This implication even continues into the end credits. Michael Penn's music has a circus-like tone that slowly involves into something more sinister. Choosing to end the film when he did shows Anderson's restraint, as he trusts the audience to understand what he means.

“Boogie Nights” would gain excellent reviews, be nominated for several Oscars, and win a multitude of other awards. It would truly launch Anderson's career, marking him as a unique filmmaker with something to say. The script is powerful, the performances are fantastic, and the direction is brilliantly executed. The movie isn't perfect but it is an impressive motion picture, less about pornography than it is about the commonality of people desperate for love and looking for understanding and acceptance. [Grade: A-]

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