Boogie Nights

When I close my eyes, I see this thing, it’s like this big sign. And the name is in like bright blue neon lights with like purple outline. And this name is just so bright and so sharp that the sign, it just blows up because the name is just so powerful. It says "Dirk Diggler."

This is how Eddie (Marky Mark Wahlberg) creates his stripper name when Jack (Burt Reynolds) hustles him into it after discovering that the charming young bartender has a thirteen-inch penis. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have a particular quality that sets them in the real world, as though it's defined by a certain part of it. Dudes being chummy about Star Wars or pussy or hopes and dreams don't just project themselves (it's not "small-talk" in PTA films) but the illusion of their entire decade onto a film technically about none of these things. Their small interactions add up to a tragic fable for the effervescent 70s, the self-destructive king of which is, of course, a porn auteur. It prevails with such humane magic against even the trashiest subject matter that I imagine Anderson saying the opening quote himself. But instead of Dirk Diggler, the sign says “Boogie Nights.”

A movie's reality can be made up of how the people in it want to make it out to be. Anderson gets that feeling out of Roger Elswit every time they collaborate, whose cinematography seems to be on a first-name basis with how people perceive their existence. The 70s seem real, but the people in Boogie Nights have to falsify their part to believe in it. They feel like people in a simulation out of time, who all think they’re the only ones that know that the 70s is an illusion. They all end up covering for the consciences of everyone else by acting, not as they wish to act, but as they believe people hope they do. Everyone in the movie is an example: the man who lets his wife cheat on him in public so he doesn't seem too lame, the pornstar who becomes everyone's surrogate mommy, the homosexual porn photographer who can't live with himself, the pornstar with the ambition to be a gentleman, the porn director with the ambition to be an artist. Every single one of them fails. Anderson adds up all the failures and names it "the 70s."

Jack spots Eddie, who believes he’s looking for a male prostitute. They communicate, as people in Elswit films often do, from across a crowded room, through their eyebrows. Bill (William H. Macy) keeps catching his wife having sex with another man, one time in the driveway of a party surrounded by silent, awed spectators. Anderson never lingers on the sex, but on the spectacle of eyes. The film is obsessed with the idea of pleasure, but not for our own satisfaction: Anderson isn't making Jack's movies. Homosexual camera operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) spots Eddie from across the pool and sees him in a dramatic focus shot (the view shrinks down to a circle, like it did when Buster Keaton was looking at something specific). A girl bleeds out from a cocaine overdose and suddenly the music, which had led us through one continuous take on the breathless tide of the party crowd’s demeanor, stops cold. The things behind the pleasure are what Anderson takes out of it and turns into a movie.

Lots of people love lots of people in this version of the 70s (so long as they aren’t themselves). Amber (Julianne Moore) makes everyone out to be her son, and whips them for the porn films she does with them. Jack tries to be everyone’s dad. Rollergirl (Heather Graham) would rather quit high school than take her skates off, not because it's her kink but because it's been everyone else's kink for so long that she doesn’t know how else to be. Reed (John C. Reilly) can’t do any of the things he brags about, but high-fives other people about them. He seems to hope that’s enough.

Eddie can’t do anything either except, of course, his porn films. “Everyone has that one special something,” he says. Anderson makes a mockery of anyone who ever believed in the uniqueness of human dignity by making that one thing a foot-long penis.

Then the 80s arrive. Guns get in the mix. The drugs get harder, the skin gets coarser. Dirk can’t understand why he doesn’t feel like a star anymore, and can’t get an erection. Can you imagine a better part for a guy who made low-rent bodybuilding tapes before getting into acting? The fact that I'm talking about Wahlberg and I could be talking Eddie should answer my question.

Most importantly, the 80s kill the pornos that pretend to be movies. A bit-rate auteur can no longer wistfully make orgasms a thing of second-rate beauty (“I think every film should have its own look,” Jack used to say, as though he was making art). They switch to videotape so people don't have to admit to them anymore. Those coarse theaters with the humid air and stained seats suddenly seem quaint, as the "films" become anatomy lessons for fourteen-year-olds locked in a room somewhere.

Nowadays, we make a lot of porn that we pardon as artful business. The odd thing about Boogie Nights is how much old Hollywood there is in it—it's not itself a porn film at all (not even one of Jack’s ambitious ones). In Dirk’s first film, just as he’s peaking in his performance with Amber, the cameraman has to switch angles and they just stop, clinically, all business, and Dirk says, “Is it alright?” Sex is so commodified in Boogie Nights that Anderson has abstracted it beyond sexiness. The camera doesn’t linger on anything but the creased faces of the onlookers and camera techs earning hourly. If you do snatch a glimpse of some nudity, you feel like you’ve gotten away with something. All you usually get is the decade looking at itself. A camera tech complains, “I got a couple of tough shadows to deal with,” to which Jack bites back, “There are shadows in life, baby.”

Anderson’s real skill, in writing and directing, is in crafting a scene’s real life out of its details. He takes a modeler’s precise care in making ironic details seem spontaneous (a quick look, for instance, into the stuff that's in the normal garage just outside the studio set where pretty people hump each other for commission). He makes such absurd normalcy seem perfectly natural, like a rock star spending hours trying to make his hair look like he just rolled out of bed. Anderson is so confident in his creation that he’ll use suffocating long shots as a reason to look at the whole world in real-time and make his scene completely vulnerable just to build the feelings to the fervor that turns him on. Even when folks enjoy the sex in Boogie Nights, it feels a whole lot like giving up on life. It never, ever feels sexy.

The steadycam in this movie is diabolical: you get sucked into a place you don't want to be, and you learn so much about it that you reluctantly regret that it's gone. I love how Quentin Tarantino makes movies like he's a movie fan. But there's something of Jack in him, because you can always tell where he got something or what he's remaking, and it's never quite as good as the thing it's about. If you could breed his movie love with Scorsese's technical precision, you'd get Anderson's movies: Boogie Nights is what Tarantino would put on his own neon sign if he could figure out how. Anderson's comic humanity shocks Boogie Nights to glorious electric life, a life that rings truer since his real work is never with the trendy people in the middle of the frame. He enjoys making you think it is, because he knows that's what you've always thought to begin with. He always comes back to the people beneath its sign. They're the ones that have been making all this stuff so interesting in the first place, not by enjoying the view, but by fucking in life’s shadow.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson

 

Eddie Adams (Dirk Diggler) Mark Wahlberg
Maggie (Amber Waves) Julianne Moore
Jack Horner Burt Reynolds
Buck Swope Don Cheadle
Reed Rothchild John C. Reilly
"Little" Bill Thompson William H. Macy
Scotty J. Philip Seymour Hoffman

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