Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights opens with a sinuous, breathlessly extended tracking shot that swoops us into a San Fernando Valley disco and then does a curlicue around a succession of faces. In the discotheque's low-lit luminescence, these people pop out like jack-o'-lanterns. They have the look of trashy royalty--exalted and debased.
It's 1977, the height of the disco era, and the royalty we glimpse are players from the porno-film world. Anderson takes a while to let us discover this. He wants us to feel the thump and swoon inside the disco the way Scorsese wanted us to feel the intoxication in the early strip bar scene in Mean Streets. Scorsese's camera was sashaying through hellfire; the prospect of damnation gave his glide a sensual rock and roll.
Anderson doesn't draw on the same Catholic tensions as Scorsese, but this two-and-a-half-hour porno-world epic finally offers up its own Biblical-style retribution and forgiveness. It's a deeply divided film--hugely ambitious and uneven, with sequences that seem to point to a new, comically flagrant movie sexuality and others that drag one into the funky muddle of the dreariest dopehead downers from the '70s.
In its most basic outline, Boogie Nights is a rags-to- riches-to-rags saga--Horatio Alger as studmuffin gone bad. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) starts out washing dishes in that Valley disco and ends up as Dirk Diggler, porno's premier male star. His mentor is producer-director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who first approaches Eddie in the dishroom by saying, "I got a feeling underneath those jeans is something wonderful waiting to come out." This may sound like a proposition, but it's strictly business. Later, for a look-see, Eddie unzips himself for the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), Jack's financier. In the porno world sex--and sex organs--are a commodity.
But sex is also sex, if you care to think about it that way. One of the those who does is Jack's associate Little Bill (William H. Macy), who continually walks in on his wife (real-life porno star Nina Hartley) being drilled by a succession of guys. What's funny, and odd, about Little Bill is that, unlike everybody else in his community, he actually feels the sting of sex--jealousy, rage, betrayal. There's a disconnect between the life he leads and the life he films.
For Eddie, his sexual equipment is his gift, his "blessing." A high-school dropout who lives with his milquetoast father and shrewish mother (Joanna Gleason) until he escapes into the porno-film world, Eddie has an unstinting innocence. Even his ambition is innocent; he says he wants to be a "big, bright, shining star." He buys a fancy home and then stocks it with ceiling mirrors and leopard-print bedspreads. He can't tell real silver from fake. And yet we're meant to connect with his need to "find" himself by becoming a star. For Anderson, the indignity of working in the porno industry is not really an indignity at all. Porno, after all, is a business like any other, and, unlike most businesses, at least its corruptions are up front. What's important is that for its players the porno world provides a theater for self-fulfillment.
The misfits and the marginalized in Boogie Nights look after each other by creating their own family. The earth mother in this galaxy is Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the amber-haired porno star who lives with Jack in his baronial Valley spread and tends his flock, which also includes Buck (Don Cheadle), who is forever remaking his "image," and Maurice (Luis Guzman), who manages the disco and wants to get into porno acting.
Amber is locked in a wearying custody battle with her ex- husband (John Doe) over her son. She also is heavily into cocaine and, acting almost as a caregiver, introduces Eddie to coke. (It's what sends him into a downward spiral in the '80s.) Earlier, she appears with Eddie in his first on-camera sex scene, and she's a caregiver there, too. (It's a kick in this scene watching a great actress play a bad actress.) Amber ministers motherly advice to Eddie as they get it on.
What does Jack think when he watches them together? Anderson charges the moment with so many crosscurrents that you don't know whether to laugh or applaud or avert your eyes. On some level, Jack must feel outraged--after all, his partner is being damn well serviced by his protege right before his eyes. But Jack has a higher calling. He wants his films to be "right and true." He wants the raincoat brigadiers to remain in the theaters for his movies until the end, not just until they've gotten off. For Jack, Eddie isn't just a gold mine; he's an artist--an artist of sex. The hush he confers on Eddie and Amber is the awe of one artist for another. Art transcends the personal.
Reynolds has the right silver-fox look to play this porno pasha. He gives Jack an air of ceremonial cool. This cool operates even when he's auditioning sex players, as in the scene where Eddie and the bounteous Rollergirl (the extraordinary Heather Graham), who always keeps her roller skates on, couple on his couch. Jack looks on, lights a good cigar, and sinks into his own cozy dreamtime. He's a connoisseur of the primal act. Reynolds in this film cuts way back on his usual shtick, and the result is his best work in decades. He doesn't condescend to his character. Jack may be deluded--everyone in the film is deluded, especially Amber, who passes along her coke as if it were a peace pipe--but the delusions fuel hope.
Anderson captures the pretensions of the porno world--the way, especially in the '70s, the business catered to respectability. I covered the annual Adult Film Association awards bash at the Palladium on Sunset Boulevard for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the early '80s, and I was always amazed at what an alternate-universe Oscars show it was--complete with musical selections performed by porno stars from the five nominated songs, and clips, none of them X-rated, from the best "performances." Performers no longer active in hardcore, such as Georgina Spelvin, were feted with lifetime achievement awards as if they were Helen Hayes.
But Anderson doesn't just capture the pretensions of this world. He also falls for them. And that's where the film loses its edge. Only 26, Anderson may barely have been out of short pants for the 1977-84 time period covered by Boogie Nights, but he's still buzzed by that era's touchy-feely mantra. He buys into the cult of "creativity" that makes someone like Jack or Eddie a species of artist simply because he desires personal "fulfillment." When we see the trailer for a movie partnering Eddie and his buddy Reed (John C. Reilly) as Starsky and Hutch-style erotic action heroes, the results are laughably bad. And yet Jack thinks this is his finest work, and we're not meant to giggle at him. He may not be a real artist, but he has the artistic impulse, and, in true '70s style, that's enough to lift him into the pantheon.
Anderson makes a big deal about the shift that came to porn in the '70s: It went from being shot on film--where one could be an "artist"--to video. It's a shift Jack at first rejects, in a scene with the underworldly overlord Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall) that seems modeled on the Mafia powwow in The Godfather where Don Corleone rejects dealing drugs. Jack also rejects the use of amateur sex players instead of professionals. When he finally relents, it's as if a moment had passed into history--the moment when artists hoping to do something momentous in hardcore were beaten back into hackdom.
This is more than misplaced nostalgia. It is, alas, the crux of the movie. This sentimentalizing of porn is a disservice to porn--it tries to "legitimize" what by its nature is illegitimate. It also misses the commercial opportunism and legal maneuvering that were at the heart of the porno world's courting of the mainstream audience and press. The dream of artists in the '70s to make truly heightened erotic movies was carried forward by Last Tango in Paris, not The Devil in Miss Jones. It's a dream that has for the most part been jettisoned in an era when most studios and theater chains contractually ban NC-17-rated movies. Even Boogie Nights is rated R.
But even if we existed in an era more hospitable to sexual exploration on film, I don't think Anderson would approve. He may be moony about the swinging '70s, but he also thinks it's payback time for all that swinging. Boogie Nights is a lot more wiggy and heated about this payback than, say, The Ice Storm, which looks back to a community of '70s suburban libertines as if they were the Village of the Damned. (Their blood runs cold.) But the agenda is the same: You have to be punished for all that fooling around.
Anderson sets up his portrait of the porno world so that, when the drugs and violence kick in, we register the downfall of innocence. But the innocence is rigged. Anderson is very careful, for example, not to show Jack having sex with anyone; no casting couch sessions for him. Amber and Rollergirl are like mother and daughter, though in the actual porno world they would no doubt be called upon to have sex together--which would have made for a blacker and truer picture. Anderson also doesn't raise the specter of AIDS or, except ever-so-lightly, Mob involvement. If he did allow for these things, his one-happy-family scenario would collapse.
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After his spectacular rise to glory, Eddie the innocent crashes and burns with a vengeance. And so does the film. The trajectory is a familiar one from the cycle of '70s druggie movies. This is a kind of nostalgia we don't need--who wants to be put through that deadhead Panic in Needle Park dreariness again? Eddie begins to resemble a porno version of the dissolute Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, complete with the speech-in-the-dressing-room-mirror scene. Like Jake, he needs to come clean and roust his manhood. But when Eddie is finally reborn, it's as an innocent once again. He has his family waiting for him.
In most of the many recent--and mostly bad--movies about families, ranging from The Ice Storm and A Thousand Acres to The Myth of Fingerprints and The House of Yes, dysfunction is the norm. These films attempt to break apart the myths of familial togetherness that we never truly believed in anyway.
Anderson, however, still sees the family as a source of salvation. He recognizes that, for all our cynicism, we still want to see it that way too, and so, in place of the old sugarcoated Ozzie and Harriet myths, he offers up a new one--a family of porno helpmates who form an ideal of togetherness. What could be further from Ozzie and Harriet yet so close? The family that makes sex films together stays together. Boogie Nights, in fact, is one of the most traditional movies around.
Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and Don Cheadle. Opens Friday.