Sunday, November 17, 2013

From My Collection: Boogie Nights Movie Review

On big happy dysfunctional family.
From the explosively charged opening tracking shot that introduces most of the major characters to the quietly triumphant closing, Boogie Nights never lets up. It flogs you with an emotional paddle again and again. The ups are sometimes as extreme in their euphoria as the downs are dismal. For me, it is still the most exciting film Paul Thomas Anderson has made. It was only his second feature, but his dialogue is truly second to none and he squeezes in a remarkable amount of character development. He can economize better than any other writer-director working.


As a director, Anderson keeps a lot of balls in the air at once and scenes that could really go off the rails are generally well-controlled, with one exception in a scene that is unbearably tense, truly exhilarating, and brilliantly executed. Of course I’m talking about the scene when Dirk, Reed, and Todd try to scam a drug dealer, played by Alfred Molina, in his own home. The scene is very loosely based on the Wonderland Murders, as the movie itself is a loose interpretation of the life of John Holmes. Molina’s character is coked out and keyed up. There’s a large and armed security man lurking in the wings, loud rock music playing, a live wire ready to commit a stupid robbery, two guys ready to snap from the tension, and a totally extraneous kid wandering around setting off firecrackers (“He’s Chinese”), just to make everyone jump every ten seconds. This is a big action sequence in a film that doesn’t really need it, but it’s a shorthand way for Anderson to get Dirk to a point where he desperately seeks to get back in Jack’s good graces and movie. I guess it wasn’t rock bottom enough when he was attacked by a group of men disgusted with his practice of taking money from guys who want to watch him masturbate.

It’s a big rise and long way down for a young man who started earning extra money by showing off his enormous penis. That he’s able to masturbate several times in a night for money is what endears him to Jack (Burt Reynolds), the pornography director and general father figure to this largely dysfunctional family. Julianne Moore plays Amber, one of the stock company’s actresses whose character is largely defined by her inability to procure visitation rights with her son. She winds up treating Dirk and Rollergirl like her own children, which is fine for them as they don’t have any parents making a difference in their lives. About Rollergirl’s (Heather Graham) home life we learn nothing except that she obviously dropped high school to be a porn actress. But Dirk (a revelatory Mark Wahlberg) has a particularly harrowing scene with his alcoholic mother, who hurls torrents of abuse at him when he comes home early in the morning. His feckless father (in a refreshing gender role reversal) sits idly by.

Anderson takes many of his visual cues, his way of using the camera, from Robert Altman, another director known for building great drama from multiple character storylines. There are several key tracking shots scattered throughout Boogie Nights, allowing Anderson to fluidly connect many of his characters to a single time and place. He’s also showing off a little bit, but a well-executed tracking shot gives the actors plenty of time to build their performances. And this is a movie as well acted as it is written. Not only was Wahlberg fantastic t portraying someone who is essentially a kid thrust into a world littered with fleeing fame and lots of drugs, but Moore and Reynolds both received Oscar nominations for their work. John C. Reilly, always a great pleasure, plays Dirk’s friend and acting partner, Reed Rothchild. Then there’s Willim H. Macy in a standout performance as a hired technical hand driven homicidal by his porn star wife’s constantly having sex with younger, more physically appealing, men. Additionally Ricky Jay appears and also Don Cheadle, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing gay before his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote.

Looking back sixteen years later it’s interesting to note that one of the more minor conflicts, related to Jack’s career ambition to make a “real” film, one that will keep men in the theater after their orgasm, is the transition to porn produced on videotape. Jack is visited by a producer who has access to the equipment and the distribution and the amateur actors who will work for cheap. Jack, like P.T. Anderson, considers himself an artist before an entertainer. Videotape looks like garbage. Boogie Nights came out when digital photography was in its early infancy, possibly still gestating. Film production was on the brink of changing forever. In fact, George Lucas was already in production with the mostly digitally shot The Phantom Menace, later also presented in digital projection in some theaters.  Digital didn’t even look as good as film back then (I might argue it still doesn’t). Also, the Internet was just beginning to boom in 1997, which would alter the porn industry completely. When Jack and his crew end by succumbing to the pull of video, including an early reality-type program involving an actress in a limo, a video camera, and a man from the street, it almost serves as a prophecy for the eventual and inevitable ubiquity of Internet pornography.

The heart of Boogie Nights is family. Anderson has returned again and again to family themes, particularly fathers and sons. Here we have a big family that acquires a prodigal son in Dirk Diggler. They go through good times, marriages, children, celebrations. Then, like any family, there are hard times and falling outs. As bad as things get in this story, Anderson still manages to pull out a satisfying close that has these characters back, if not quite on top, somewhere near the top of their game. Boogie Nights pushes and pulls in lots of directions. It is emotionally complex, expertly written, and endlessly entertaining.

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