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150 Films #18: Boogie Nights (1997)

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.

Believe it or not, the turning point involves Adam Carolla’s seal of approval. I know a lot of people slag on Carolla for being crass, for being an asshole, for being all manner of other unpleasant things, but I thought he was hilarious on Loveline. I also found, to my surprise, he has unexpectedly good taste in movies and music. For all the dick jokes and self-deprecating humor about how dumb he is, he lists movies like Salvador and Breaking Away among his favorites, when one might expect something like Cannonball Run II or Summer School.

So Carolla sometimes tells this story about a relatively unknown Heather Graham appearing on Loveline. During commercial breaks, she kept talking excitedly about her next project, a movie about porn starring Marky Mark and Burt Reynolds (hot off of notorious bomb Striptease), where she played a porn star who always wore roller skates. He reacted to this information approximately the same way I reacted to the Dirk Diggler jokes in high school—but unlike me, he saw the movie and was blown away. I figured that was enough to make it worth a try.

And like Carolla, I was blown away. Having seen all of Anderson’s other movies to that point (up through The Master, at the time), I didn’t expect a film with such fully developed characters, the majority of whom have complete arcs in a fully told story. Not only is Boogie Nights by far Anderson’s best screenplay, I’d argue it’s his best film by a mile. He’s gotten a lot of flak, especially early in his career, for aping the styles of Martin Scorsese and especially Robert Altman. Personally, I don’t care who apes techniques from whom if it’s in the service of a great story and great characters. (I’d also dare to argue Boogie Nights is a better film than anything made by Altman or Scorsese—yes, I went there.)

What makes the movie resonate so deeply with me is its idea of “porn set as family,” a concept adaptable to pretty much any close-knit group; it just happens that these folks make porn. It’s structured in two halves: the sunny, happy-go-lucky ’70s, and the depressing, super fucked-up ’80s, where the ’70s chickens come home to roost. As with any family, these characters didn’t choose each other. They alternate between loving and kind, harsh and abusive, disappointed and confused—and, as with family, they underestimate just how much they need each other.

In the early going, “father and mother” Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) care for their “children,” Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Rollergirl (Graham), and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly). Also in their orbit, as the equivalent of cousins, aunts, uncles are actors like Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker); technicians like Little Bill (William H. Macy) and Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman). They come together (so to speak) with a unified ambition: to produce porn-as-art, films with production values to rival mainstream cinema and stories that keep audiences glued to their seats (possibly through the adhesive properties of rapidly drying semen).

It’s not entirely clear to me if Anderson himself really believes in their ambitions; the restaged porn scenes, many of them explicit (in more ways than one!) recreations of actual “Golden Age” porn scenes, play as comedy: awkward staging, stilted acting, goofy dialogue. Yet, I never get the sense that Anderson sees them as delusional and pathetic, like a Jared/Jerusha Hess project. Even with the comedic qualities, he’s never mocking the characters or what they do; worst case scenario, the glimpses of porn scenes show they’re trying. Falling short of a goal can be as noble as achieving or exceeding it. Perhaps that’s not Anderson’s intention, but that’s how I read it. For all their faults as both humans and craftsmen, these characters take their “art” seriously.

Having worked in close-knit “family” situations, Anderson’s script captures the dynamics of these relationships. It also puts these characters through the wringer, with some falling prey to addiction; some losing opportunities because of their past porn associations; and some sadly continuing to churn out factory-fresh but soulless pornography because the spread of videotape destroys the art. Which is why, when they all find each other again at the end, it’s so deeply satisfying. Maybe it’ll never be like the old days, but their trials teach them what that family meant to them. It’s an oddly saccharine message for a film that gets so dark and has pornography and cocaine addiction as its major subject matter.

Yet, the saccharine hits me like a ton of bricks. I can’t speak to the specifics of these characters, but I relate so deeply to that idea of yearning to get back to this “created family” system.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Breakfast Club (1985)

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