For the foreseeable future, Cinematic Century is going to be nothing but incredibly difficult to decide bloodbaths. I don’t know why, but this period of the late nineties and early aughts are full of years where I’m going to be put in the impossible position of deciding between two or three amazing films that I love whole heartedly, and that have had massive impacts on me as a fan of film. And, 1997 is an incredibly rough year. There are a lot of really great movies from 1997 that mean a lot to me, but that just aren’t quite at the level of being considered as my favorite film. The original Men in Black is a fascinating film, combine two very different tones in a remarkably balanced way that pulls off a trick that few other films are able to accomplish. I’ve always been a big fan of the incredibly weird Fifth Element, one of the few Luc Besson movies that I actually legitimately enjoy, full of a bunch of performances and ideas that are swinging for the fences, completely unironically. I actually recently watched the original Austin Powers movie again for the first time in decades, and I’m shocked that it has aged as well as it has, remaining a really funny movie and a pitch perfect spoof. And there’s always Batman and Robin, a movie that I could easily embarrass myself defending. Likewise, I know it doesn’t often have the best reputation, but I completely love Disney’s Hercules, which really defined a lot of my interests while I was a kid. But, when it all comes down to making my final decision there were three movies that I had to deal with. As you can see, I went with Paul Thomas Anderson’s massive epic Boogie Nights, but I was really tempted to go with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. I’ve actually talked about Jackie Brown before on the site, tackling a Film Library between the film and the novel it’s based on, and I love it. It may possibly be my favorite Tarantino movie, even though it’s a real outlier in Tarantino’s career. But, I kind of feel like I’ve already said a majority of what I could say about that film, so I felt more comfortable not choosing it today. And, while I really adore L.A. Confidential and the whole neo-noir aesthetic that it represents, it sadly just couldn’t compete with the insane grandeur of Boogie Nights.
Boogie Nights began life as a passion project for Paul Thomas Anderson, who grew up obsessed with films and film-making. From an early age he’d become fascinated with movies, and ended up making his own small films, including a mockumentary he directed while still in high school about a famous pornstar named Dirk Diggler who he based off John Holmes. Anderson continued making small films, getting into the Sundance Shorts Program, and eventually jumping to feature-length films with his first full film, Hard Eight. It was a somewhat torturous production, but it brought Anderson into the industry, and he was given the chance to bring his highschool project to life, eventually taking the form of Boogie Nights. And, hoping to prove himself both to the studio, and weirdly to his star Burt Reynolds, Anderson fought to keep the film exactly how he envisioned. Unfortunately, he wanted the movie to be over three hours and rated NC-17, which just wasn’t going to fly. So, after some compromises the film was released, and actually became a huge hit. It was critically beloved and did quite well at the box office, even earning some major award nominations, and launching Paul Thomas Anderson to become the juggernaut director that he is now.
Boogie Nights follows a young man named Eddie Adams who is living in Southern California in the late seventies, seeking some sort of direction in his life. He’s working at a nightclub washing dishes, and ends up drawing the attention of a man named Jack Horner. Jack confronts Eddie, and tells him that he’s a director, and that Jack thinks he’d do well in one of his films. Eddie is interested, and is even nonplussed when Jack reveals that he’s specifically a pornography director. Eddie decides to give it a shot, and agrees to audition for Jack, having sex with one of Jack’s regular actors who is only known as Rollergirl. Eddie apparently has a shockingly large penis, and Jack becomes convinced that he’s destined for pornography stardom, spurring Eddie to leave his abusive home and dive into the world of pornography, which primarily revolves around Jack’s home, and his stable of actors, actresses, and crew members, who have all basically becomes a family. Eddie meets his new friends, Amber the professional star who is dealing with the fact that her husband divorced her and keeps their son away from her life, Buck the wannabe cowboy who just wants to open a stereo store, Reed the lunkhead who immediately becomes Eddie’s best friend, Little Bill the assistant director whose wife is constantly cheating on him, and Scotty the sweaty boom-mike operator who falls in love with Eddie.
Eddie loves his new life as a pornstar, and quickly adopts the name Dirk Diggler, becoming a porn star over night. He becomes the biggest celebrity in the porn industry, working with Jack to accomplish their dream of making a pornographic movie so good that people will become more invested in the story than the sex. Dirk and the rest of the group continue to have a wonderful time throughout the seventies, but things begin falling apart during their New Year’s Eve party in 1980. Dirk and Reed begin using cocaine more and more, Little Bill kills his wife and then himself, Amber begins a downward spiral over her son, and Jack learns that the industry is about to be dominated by a newer, cheaper, and faster method of filmmaking, video. And that downfall continues throughout the early 1980’s, with just about everyone’s life crumbling around them. Dirk’s continued drug addictions lead to him struggling to maintain erections, which ends up causing a massive fight with Jack that ends with him quitting the group. The group’s rich producer Colonel James is arrested for child pornography, putting their financial state into question and forcing Jack to adopt the new video methods, at the expense of his artistry.
We then watch as everyone begins circling the drain. Jack and Rollergirl attempt to accept the new video method, pulling off stunts like driving down the road and picking random men to videotape having sex with Rollergirl, which ends in disaster when they accidentally pick someone who went to highschool with Rollergirl, leading to a massive fight. Amber attempts to get more involved in her son’s life, but is deemed an unfit parent, throwing her even deeper into depression and drug abuse. Buck actually has a bit of good luck, falling in love with a fellow pornstar and trying to start a life together, while that does involve him stealing some money after a robbery gone wrong leaves him the only survivor. But it’s Dirk who has the roughest time. He and Reed attempt to start a rock and roll career, despite having no talent, and find themselves in the position of being unable to afford the demo tapes they recorded. So, desperate for money, Dirk turns to prostitution only to be beaten by homophobes. This then leads to Dirk, Reed, and an unhinged drug friend of theirs named Todd attempting to scam a local drug dealer, which ends with Todd being murdered in front of them and them fleeing for their lives. This is enough for Dirk, who reconciles with Jack, and is brought back into the fold. The story then ends with some positivity, the family back together, and everyone ready to begin their lives and careers again, on their terms.
Boogie Nights is a movie that I’m kind of shocked exists. At least, exists and is this good. The idea that a formative film for one of our greatest living directors was a sprawling two and half hour saga about the golden age of pornography is a truly absurd thing. And, it’s amazing. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and shows us exactly why Paul Thomas Anderson deserves the praise that his career has garnered. This film should be trashy and exploitative, something that never would have gotten the mainstream appeal that it did, and yet by taking a story about the world’s greatest pornstar and turning it into a story about a dysfunctional family Anderson is able to make something that should by all accounts be a difficult movie to connect with, instantly relateable. It also helps that this film is wall-to-wall full of fantastic performances. Julianne Moore is terrific, as always, as Amber Waves, really reaching the soul-shattering depths that this character reaches, and the unmitigated saddness that permeates absolutely everything she says and does in the film. I’ve never been the biggest Mark Wahlberg fan, and while I do think he’s pitch perfect in this film, I still struggle to say that he’s a good actor, he just perfectly nails the character of Dirk Diggler, who is somehow the more egotistical and naive person on Earth. Burt Reynolds rightfully got a lot of praise for his performance as Jack Horner, who should by all accounts come off as a sketchy and exploitative creep, but who instead really does seem to be an artist struggling within the confines of his chosen medium.
Which is what I’ve always found most fascinating about Boogie Nights. I’m a sucker for movies about movies, letting film-makers get kind of self-congratulatory and talk about how amazing it is that they get to make cinematic magic. And, that’s essentially what we have here. We have a bunch of people who are so incredibly invested in their art, in their struggle to create the most captivating and perfect story that they can, regardless of the fact that it’s just porno. The whole story of surrogate families and the perils of fame is certainly handled well, and I see why people gravitate towards them, but for me the story of a group of people obsessed with telling the best stories possible is what makes this movie work so well. They look at an industry that is moving towards less plot, more extravagance, and less artistry, and fight back, essentially looking to make indie porn movies. Now, it’s clear from reading this site that I’m also a fan of blockbusters, loving movies of all sorts of stripes, but we always need to smaller, more artistically driven films, people who want to buck the changing tides of the industry in order to do what they want to do. Through the course of this project I watched as the New Hollywood movement of the 1970’s which focused on character and realism moved on to the age of the blockbuster, more focused on spectacle and wide appeal. Which is essentially the experience that these characters go through. Just with more bodily functions.
Boogie Nights was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and released by New Line Cinema, 1997.
Categories: Cinematic Century