Boogie Nights (1997): Paul Thomas Anderson’s Tribute to Porn Industry (DVD Edition)

boogie_nights_posterDarkly comic, vastly entertaining and utterly original, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is one of the most ambitious films to have come out of Hollywood in some time.

Spanning the height of the disco era, 1977-1984, the movie offers a visually stunning exploration of the adult entertainment industry, centering on a hardcore movie outfit whose members form a close-knit extended family.

“Boogie Nights” was nominated for three Oscar Awards: Screenplay (Original): Paul Thomas Anderson who directed; Supporting Actor: Burt Reynolds, and Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore.

In his second, exquisitely produced feature, helmer Anderson makes a quantum leap forward, following The Hard Eight, his Sundance-premiering debut, which didn’t find its audience. His striking command of technique, bravura filmmaking, and passion to explore the possibilities of a new kind of storytelling, recall the young Scorsese of Mean Streets. Indeed, no matter how prosperous Boogie Nights is at the B.O., it will no doubt establish Anderson as one of the hottest directors of the 1990s.

The link to Scorsese has other foundations. In its approach to the porn industry as a unique social milieu, with its own “heroes,” players, norms and lifestyle, Boogie Nights resembles GoodFellas, Scorsese’s chronicle of organized crime, and to a certain extent Altman’s cynical take on studio politics in The Player. All three movies document “exotic” subcultures (at least from the perspective of mainstream society), highlighting their complex duality of values: the seamy, sordid elements as well as the more humanistic and familial ones.

In many respects, the porn industry is even more ruthless and cutthroat than Hollywood, for its stars are totally dependant on their youthful looks and physical attributes, the most prominent of which is the size of their genitals. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to see how the use of sex as a commodity inbreeds insecurity and alienation, reducing its participants to merchants who’re effective at trading their goods at the marketplace so long as there’s public demand for them.

Relying on the rags-to-riches format, the story follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a handsome, uneducated teenager who works at the kitchen of a popular San Fernando nightclub. Back at home, Eddie has to face the oppressive company of a passive father and a domineering mother, who keeps reminding him he’s stupid and a failure. However, spotted at the club by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a successful porn producer, and his star performer-partner Amber (Julianne Moore), Eddie is instantly lured to a promising career in the adult entertainment industry. Naive and gullible, he immerses himself wholeheartedly in the new world, which offers a substitute family for the biological one he deserted, and the seductive lifestyle of sex-music-drugs.

Adopting a new name, Dirk Diggler, and a matching new look and identity, Dirk soon becomes a hot property and rises to the top. From his P.O.V., it’s the American Dream come true, with all of its success symbols: a luxurious house, a fancy wardrobe, and a red sports car. Hard working, Dirk soon comes up with a novel concept, a film series that flaunts his skills as an action hero–porn James Bond.

There’s heavy price to be paid, however. As the yarn moves into the 1980s, Diggler’s excessive drug-use, endless partying, and enormous ego begin to interfere with his work. Not realizing the industry’s competitive nature and that he’s easily replaceable by the next young stud around the block, Dirk confronts Jack with outlandish demands and is humiliatingly removed from the set. In a most powerful scene, Dirk is diminished to a hustler selling his services to a male customer in a parking lot for 10 bucks, and then brutally assaulted in a vicious fag-bashing.

There’s no doubt that scripter-director Anderson goes for something broader and more ambitious than just an account of the inner working of the adult industry at a time of change, precipitated by the video revolution. Like Scorsese’s GoodFellas (and Casino), Boogie Nights is a parable of the greedy and decadent 1980s. Yet, considering the potentially explosive nature of the material, Anderson’s strategy is remarkably nonjudgmental and nonsensationalistic. The erotic scenes–the films within film– flaunt nudity, but they are handled discreetly and with a healthy dosage of sardonic humor.

A well-crafted, if also overextended canvas, picture comes across as a piercing, serio-comic inquiry into the personal lives of the players involved. Though the treatment gets at times schematic, each individual is given a distinctive profile–and a bag of problems to handle: a cuckold hubby, Little Bill (a touching William H. Macy) who ends up killing himself; a blonde roller girl (Heather Graham) who demands respect from her sex partners; a decent man whose dream is to open a stereo store (a dignified Don Cheadle); a rich drugee, Rahad Jackson, who’s smarter than he appears to be (an eccentric Alfred Molina in what’s the film’s most brilliantly staged scene).

Superbly cast, each thesp of the large ensemble rises to the occasion–there’s not a single flawed performance in the entire film. Bound to become a star after this movie, Wahlberg renders a splendid performance as the gullible lad who truly believes that he should not be “selfish” about his natural biological gift and generously share it with others.

In what is easily his best role since he ceased playing leading men, Reynolds shines as the film’s moral center, a surrogate father-filmmaker who takes pride in his mtier, attempting to elevate the crassly commercial into the genuinely artistic. With some luck, this part should finally win Reynolds a long overdue Oscar. The enormously versatile Moore excels as Amber, the company’s female star and surrogate mother, who loses custody of her own boy due to her “irresponsible” lifestyle.

The film’s first hour, which is devoted to one year (1977), is nothing short of brilliant, both narratively and technically. But subsequent chapters, which get increasingly shorter, make the saga too sprawling and a bit messy for its own good. Cuts of some of the montages and scenes in the last two reels will make the story tighter; another solution may be to excise some of the numerous subplots or secondary characters.

Space doesn’t permit me to single out the other terrific individual actors, including Luis Guzman as Maurice T. Rodriguez, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the gay Scotty with unbearable crush on Wahlberg, Philip Baker Hall, as Floyd Gondolli, and Robert Ridgely as the Colonel.

Technically, Boogie Nights is impeccable, with Bob Ziembicki’s detailed production design, Robert Elswit’s astutely flamboyant lensing, and fine L.A. locations resulting in an excitingly vibrant look that captures a bygone era in American pop culture.


The Scorsese Touch

In at least two major sequences, Anderson borrowed from maestro Scorsese. The bravura opening sequence owes to Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” and particularly “GoodFellas,” in the famous two-minute Steadicam shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco entering the Copacabana club through the kitchen.

And the last scene, when Wahlberg stands in front of the mirror faluting his big penis, is recalls the famous one in “Raging Bull,” when Jake La Motta rehearses movie dialogue (Brando’s “On the Waterfront”) in front of the mirror.

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