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 in-the-world quality that can take unfinished sentences hot off a radio broadcast and generate a whole world. Dudes being chummy about Star Wars or pussy or hopes and dreams project the illusion of their decade onto a film about none of these things. Somewhere on the way their interactions melt into the mold of a tragic fable for the effervescent 70s, the self-destructive king of which is of course a skin-flick 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.”
When you want the crisp contradictive reality of people making up their reality, you go to Robert Elswit, whose cinematography on all of Anderson’s films 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 and each have to cover for the consciences of everyone else.
Jack spots Eddie, who believes he’s looking for a male prostitute. They communicate, as many in Elswit films do, across a 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 the pleasure is never ours. 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 as at the end of a silent film, or when Bettie Boop is 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.
Lots of people love lots of people in this 70s (so long as they aren’t themselves). Amber (Julianne Moore) makes everyone her son, and whips them for the porn films she does with surrogate baby boy Dirk. Jack tries to be everyone’s dad. Rollergirl (Heather Graham) would rather quit high school than take her skates off, not as though it’s her kink but as though she’s lived the kink so long 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 about them as though 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 peak up and fall. 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.
Most importantly, pornos no longer splash the marquees. A bit-rate auteur can no longer wistfully make orgasms a thing of art; “I think every film should have its own look,” Jack used to say. They switch to videotape and those coarse theaters with their humid air and stained seats suddenly seem quaint, as the films go the way of an anatomy lesson for fourteen-year-olds locked in a room somewhere unpacking their sandwiches.
Nowadays, a lot of our low-rent Friday night openings could be called socially pardoned porn. The odd thing about Boogie Nights is how strictly like old Hollywood it is—it is not itself a porn film at all (even one of Jack’s artful ones). In Dirk’s first film shoot, 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 homosexuals 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 peak, for instance, into the typical garage just outside the studio set where pretty people hump for commission). He makes such absurd normalcy seem perfectly natural, a paradox rock stars know too well when they have to spend hours making themselves look like they just rolled out of bed. Anderson’s is so confident in his creation that he’ll take suffocating long shots and make his scene completely vulnerable just to build the pace 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 feels sexy.
But Anderson enjoys himself like the old Hollywood moguls must have. His comic humanity shocks Boogie Nights to glorious electric life, a life that rings all the truer since the work is never with the trendy people on the stage but with those that have always been beneath its neon sign, fucking in life’s shadow.
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|