Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights (1997)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Eddie Adams / Dirk Diggler), Julianne Moore (Amber Waves), Burt Reynolds (Jack Horner), John C. Reilly (Reed Rothchild), Heather Graham (Rollergirl), Don Cheadle (Buck Swope), William H. Macy (Little Bill), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Scotty J.), Nicole Ari Parker (Becky Barnett), Luis Guzmán (Maurice TT Rodriguez), Robert Ridgely (The Colonel James), Ricky Jay (Kurt Longjohn), Melora Walters (Jessie St. Vincent), Philip Baker Hall (Floyd Gondolli), Thomas Jane (Todd Parker), Alfred Molina (Rahad Jackson ), Nina Hartley (Little Bill's Wife),Jonathan Quint (Johnny Doe), Robert Downey Sr. (Burt - Studio Manager).

It is impossible to overstate just how entertaining Boogie Nights is. It would certainly make my “desert island” list of movies that I could watch over and over again. The film is a classic rise and fall (and rise again) in the entertainment industry tail – the type that Hollywood has been making since its inception – with the twist being that it is set in the porn industry. This has certainly limited its audience – even after 12 years, I cannot convince my wife to watch it for this reason – but while there is certainly sex in the movie, it is played more for humor than anything else. What makes Boogie Nights special is how non-judgmental, yet clear eyed, the film is. Paul Thomas Anderson knows his characters are in many ways naïve, not very bright and have unrealistic dreams – and shows us that – but he loves his characters just the same. This is a movie that gives almost every character – however minor – a wonderful introduction, and then gives each of them a moment or two to shine – no matter how small their role is. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year, one of the performances that I saw constantly referenced was his Scotty in Boogie Nights – a minor character no doubt, who makes his first appearance well into the movie, and has only a few short scenes, as the love-struck soundman, so shy and awkward around his crush – Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). The same goes for pretty much every character in the film. Everyone in Boogie Nights will be remembered for Boogie Nights.

Wahlberg gained respect in the film industry – and went on to become a major star – because Anderson cast him in Boogie Nights (after Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role to do Titanic – and suggested Wahlberg to Anderson). When we first meet him, he is “Eddie Adams for Torrance” – a “17 year old piece of gold” – who works in a night club, and meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a famed porn director, who knows he has found something special in Eddie. Eddie has big dreams – but he’s still a kid, naïve and immature (the last time we see him with his mother, his argument is classic teenage impotent rage). Horner’s cast and crew is run like a family – with Horner as the stern, but loving, father figure, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) as the “mother to all those who need love” (who cannot keep a relationship with her own son going), Reed Richards (John C. Reilly) as the goofy older brother, and Rollergirl (Heather Graham), like Eddie/Dirk as a teenage kid in search of a surrogate family to replace her real one. Other characters circle around – The Colonel (Robert Ridgeley), the financer, Buck (Don Cheadle), another porn star, a black man who loves cowboys, Little Bill (William H. Macy) as a crew member, repeatedly, and publicly made a cuckold by his wife until he snaps. And on and on and on. Anderson creates the world of porn, without judgment. The sex is fun for all involved, and so are all the drugs they do – until, of course, neither are as much fun as they once were.
The film is neatly split in two – the high flying ‘70s, when everything was fun, and the good times look feel like they will never end, and the money driven ‘80s, when everything comes crashing down around Dirk. He becomes the biggest star in porn, and his ego starts running away with him. He starts to believe that he is bigger than everyone else – and that his status as a porn star makes him someone that others respect, and look up to. This is similar to how Horner feels about himself as well. Both of these men have unrealistic dreams – Horner wants to make a porn movie that functions like a real movie – one that will make the audience stay to the end, even after they’ve, um, finished what they came for. The dream isn’t feasible – but Anderson kind of admires Horner for dreaming it anyway. There is even a little Anderson in Horner – as Horner initially rejects the idea of ever shooting on videotape, instead of film – and Anderson being one of the last holdouts for still shooting movies on film instead of digital.

The first half of the movie almost plays like one big party – the music is happy, and always pumping, and Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit, pull of several long, complicated tracking shots – like the opening, which introduces us to most of the major characters, and tell us what we need to know about them quickly, or another at a pool party that actually follows a woman under the water once she jumps into the pool. There are hints of the darkness to come – a woman ODs at that pool party – but for the most part, this half is just pure fun. It ends with another long tracking shot – but this one tracking a character descending into darkness for the film’s most shocking single moment of violence.

The second half details Dirk’s fall for grace – brought on by ego, drugs and the changing industry. He descends perhaps a little quickly (really, no other porn director would hire him?) – but Anderson wants to show how the industry changed – how it became more money driven, and how Horner – and Diggler himself, men who fancy themselves artists are no longer needed. It climaxes with what may well get my vote for my single favorite scene in movie history – a long, paranoid descent into hell as Diggler, Reed and another man (Thomas Jane), got to see the coked out of his mind Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) – in a scene that it set to Rick Springfield’s Jesse’s Girl, even as it turns dark.

The film just quite simply works on every level. When it came out, many compared it, and Anderson, to the films of Quentin Tarantino – and to be sure, the film has the same energy of a Tarantino film. But while Anderson wears his influences on his sleeve here – most notably Robert Altman – his film is hardly like the dozens, or hundreds, of late 1990s Tarantino clones that we all suffered through at the time. Anderson’s talent is all his own – and while others would try to do with Anderson did, no one really could match it. It takes ego and confidence on Anderson’s part to make a film like this – especially for a director in his late 20s, making only his second film – but Anderson dives headlong into it, and made a masterpiece.

Part of that credit belongs to the cast. Wahlberg is perfect as the naïve Diggler – who does some things we find questionable, yet never stop rooting for. He’s a little dim – but he’s lovable. Reynolds has never been better that he was here – Anderson smartly casting a ‘70s sex symbol to play the man, and Reynolds plays off his image well. Moore is a woman who truly does love everyone around her – even as the rest of her life is a mess. And every supporting performance is just about perfect. But part of it is a technical achievement as well. Anderson isn’t afraid of going over the top with the ‘70s fashion, decorating and music – and makes what could easily be mockable into something fun and energetic.

I will fully admit that it is perhaps impossible for me to me truly objective about Boogie Nights. It’s one of those films – like Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction the Coen’s Fargo – which made me fall in love with movies in the first place – and has been one of the films that I have watched more often than pretty much every other. After watching the film, I am never less than thoroughly satisfied – entertained beyond belief, and also emotionally drained – as the film hits pretty much every emotion you can think of. Often times, I think young directors try too hard, and try to do too much, and need to learn to scale a little bit before they make a truly great film. What makes Anderson, and Boogie Nights special, is that it tries to do everything – and succeeds. To me, Boogie Nights is a perfect film.

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