I came late (so to speak) to the Boogie Nights party. When it came out, I was in high school; naturally, a movie about ’70s porn and a dude with a huge dick was only mentioned in hushed tones, followed by a lot of giggling. I should mention, this was a time and place when getting into an R-rated movie was not difficult for a kid. It was commonplace for parents to bring their kids to the movies, buy them the tickets, and then go off and do their own thing. (This behavior operated on the assumption that the box office cashiers cared enough not to sell movie tickets to kids under 17, which also tended to be untrue.)
And yet, a film so overtly about pornography raised eyebrows. Theatres were a little more on edge about selling tickets to a kid; parents were a lot more reluctant to buy their kids tickets and abandon them to enjoy a literal orgy of sex and drugs. The few classmates who claimed to have seen this taboo film made it sound like a sort of demented, perverse comedy, glorifying the Golden Age of pornography and its participants. Even then, while I was naïve about many things, I knew about the drugs, coercion, and misogyny endemic in pornography, and so a movie that sounded like it would celebrate and/or make light of this behavior did not appeal to me.
Then followed my enduring love-hate relationship with the film’s producer/writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson. By 1999, I was deeply enough into movies that I had to go see future 150 Films entry Magnolia—based primarily on Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic recommendation—which I found alternately thrilling and irritating, fascinating and incoherent, building to a climax that simultaneously left me enthralled and disappointed. I recall seeing the movie with my friend, Rachel, and I can still see the “What the FUCK?!” look on her face when that damn frog rain started, a look I surely matched. But what did it amount to? I’ll get into this more in my eventual essay on Magnolia, but I have a different reaction to it every time I see it.
Every Anderson movie has in common excellent performances (even from actors not known for excellence) and bravura technical accomplishments that make them “compulsively watchable,” if not exactly good. I’ve always found Anderson’s major weakness is in the storytelling, not the filmmaking. Individual scenes of great power never quite hang together as well as they might, and nearly always build to an ending that makes one say, “That’s it?!” I’m never sure if this is a byproduct of poor storytelling, or if it’s a deliberate challenge to the viewers: “I know what I’m saying here, but you gotta figure it out for yourself.” With some of his films, like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I’m engrossed enough and moved enough to accept the challenge. With others, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Master, I’m kinda like, “Fuuuuck this.”
After There Will Be Blood, I went back and saw his debut, Hard Eight (which I liked quite a bit, as it actually tells a complete story), but I still skipped over Boogie Nights. Again, I had it in my mind that this was a movie that glorified pornography, and with Anderson’s penchant for muddy character arcs and ambiguous endings, I didn’t want to waste time on a movie I’d probably hate.