The Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective continues! Last time, we took a look at Anderson’s debut feature, Hard Eight (or Sydney, in some circles). Today, however, we’re going to examine the film that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map: the landmark Boogie Nights.
Also keep in mind that while I managed to keep away from spoilers for my Hard Eight discussion, I will most definitely be spoiling a lot of the best scenes in Boogie Nights. You’ve been warned.
With that being said, it’s time to get hard for Paul Thomas Anderson’s look at the porn-industry of the ’70s, Boogie Nights.
“This is the film they’re going to remember me by.”
Like I said in the last entry of this retrospective, Hard Eight was very good, but it wasn’t great. And while it definitely displayed Paul Thomas Anderson’s potential, it was only a small fraction of what he had in store for audiences. It wasn’t until a year later in 1997, when Boogie Nights debuted, that Paul Thomas Anderson really broke out. Good as Hard Eight was, it’s a test-run in comparison to Boogie Nights.
Boogie Nights is the epic, two-and-a-half hour rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a teenager in 1977 working as a waiter in a San Fernando Valley night-club with big dreams of becoming a star. He is also gifted with something special: An incredibly large penis. At the nightclub, an acclaimed pornography director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) sees the “talent” hidden in Eddie, and knows that it is something worth sharing with the world. “I got a feeling,” he tells him, “that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.”
After Eddie is kicked out of the house by his protective mother, he decides to run off and join Jack Horner and become an actor in his films, where he meets a colorful cast of characters ranging from the red-headed hottie Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the wannabe songwriter/magician Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), the creepy superfan Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the stereo-aficianado Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), sad-sack cameraman Little Bill (William H. Macy) whose wife is always being nailed by someone each week, Rollergirl (Heather Graham) who never takes off her skates, and much more.
Almost overnight, Eddie and his massive endowment become a huge success in the adult film world. Changing his name to Dirk Diggler, his dreams of becoming a big, bright, shining star are a reality. Then, everything goes downhill in the turn of the 80s, when their producer is thrown in prison, a cocaine addiction threatens to consume Eddie/Dirk’s ego, and the invention of videotape is forever transforming the porn industry for what Jack Horner believes to be the worst rather than the better.
There are a number of things that make Boogie Nights great. It has great drama, funny comedy, fantastic performances, incredible dialogue, and stylish direction. Yet at the same time, it’s really hard to pinpoint what it is that makes everything come together. On paper, this kind of story should be a mess. Too many characters, questionable subject matter that is almost impossible to take seriously, a curious melding of drama, comedy, romance, bloody violence, crime-thriller, and even a little bit of horror, and what is (quite honestly) a rather standard story of nobody-to-somebody success.
If I can pinpoint the exact reason why everything comes together in Boogie Nights so well, it would have to be this: Everything in this movie just feels alive. Each set is filled with details, each character has its own nuances (Even the smallest roles), and the way the camera moves and the soundtrack plays gives the movie its own sense of life and vitality. There’s no other movie like it, except arguably Anderson’s next film Magnolia (Which we’ll get to next time).
So let’s get to the real meat of this series of articles: What makes this distinctly a Paul Thomas Anderson film. A number of things, starting with the Steadicam.
As I mentioned before, Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a fan of long, steadicam shots, and while there were hints of that in Hard Eight, it wasn’t until Boogie Nights that he really started to fall in love with the mechanic. There are tons of long-takes in Boogie Nights, each of them gliding through large crowds of people thanks to the Steadicam. Each one is a thing to behold. And as I mentioned in the last entry, they each have their own purpose.
Take the infamous opening, three-minute shot, for instance. We open with the title (Depicted as a neon sign on a building) as The Emotions’ Best of My Love jams in the background, and the camera slowly and smoothly glides from the night-time streets of Sherman Way to the inside of the night-club where Eddie works. That shot alone, coupled with the music, is more effective at setting up the location and time-period than a simple title card could’ve. And what’s more, Anderson uses the shot to introduce the audience to almost every major character by just waltzing in on their individual conversations, without having to break things up with their own individual introduction.
The most effective use of the long-take in this film, however, is (I told you there would be spoilers) the scene in which William H. Macy’s Little Bill snaps. The shot begins with Bill entering the party looking for his wife. After wading through the crowds asking random people where she is, he hears loud grunts of satisfaction coming from a nearby room. He walks over to the noise and opens the door to find, sure enough, his wife having sex with another man. The camera doesn’t even show what’s inside the room; just the composure of William H. Macy speaks volumes more. The shot still following him, Bill then exits the house to where his car is, and pulls a gun out of a compartment. Casually, he loads it with bullets, his calmness and the fact that we’re seeing it unfold in real-time enhancing the tension. He walks into the room, and shoots both his wife and her lover dead. The take finally cuts when we see the party’s reaction to the gunshots.
The use of the long-take in this sequence isn’t flashy, by any stretch. But it’s all the better for it. Something about its cold simplicity just meshes well with the creepy casualness that Little Bill goes into exacting his revenge. By holding the shot, and following the act through every step of the way until we finally realize what’s actually going on, there’s a real sense of discomfort and tension that we wouldn’t get in a traditionally shot and cut scene. It’s a stroke of suspense-genius.
While the long tracking shots are impressive all throughout Boogie Nights, what not enough people bring up is that Boogie Nights is the film in which we’re introduced to yet another favorite technique of Anderson’s: Audiovisual filmmaking. It should be obvious to anybody that watches movies that specific sounds can evoke certain emotions in a film. But the way that Anderson melds sound and image is so intrinsic, it’s become something of a staple. It’s hard to describe just what exactly I mean by this term, so let me just give a couple examples.
While the memorable soundtrack and music certainly help, it’s the finer details that really make this technique stand out. Take for instance, the scene that switches between Dirk Diggler having to resort to prostitution to get money and Jack Horner resorting to amateur shooting on videotape to make his porn. Throughout this scene, a strange, creepy, pulsating sound keeps playing as the situations for the two men grow worse and worse.
The best example of this audiovisual technique in Boogie Nights is most definitely the scene in which Dirk, Reed, and Todd Parker go to sell some fake-cocaine to scam a dealer for money. As they enter the house, a Chinese man is randomly lighting firecrackers. The scene is already tense enough because we know that their scam could be figured out at any moment, and the dealer in question starts to act very strange and unusual towards the three. But adding to the intensity of the scene is the intrusive “BANG!” of the firecrackers. An element as simple as a periodic “BANG!” every 30 seconds or so adds so much to the scene. It almost becomes unbearably uncomfortable.
Later on in Anderson’s career, the audiovisual technique will be evolved and eventually perfected. But another thing that constantly evolves in his films are the themes that connect them all.
As I always like to do in these Retrospectives, it’s time to see how Boogie Nights contributes to the themes that Paul Thomas Anderson uses in almost every film. Last time, in the Hard Eight discussion, I mentioned that all but one of his films have something to do with father-figures, and the rocky relationship that they have with their sons. This is most definitely at play here in Boogie Nights, with the character Jack Horner stepping into the father role. While he treats sex with a detached eye and a business mindset, it’s still worth noting that his porn empire feels almost like a family.
In fact, you can argue that all of Anderson’s films have more to do with dysfunctional families than dysfunctional father-figures. Especially in the case of Boogie Nights this is true. In fact, one of the oddest relationships in the film is the one between Dirk and Amber Waves, who works with him in porn-scenes but at the same time views him as a son, while he sees her as a mother-figure. Despite that, I always felt that Anderson put the most emphasis on the father in his films (Most memorably in There Will Be Blood).
However, there’s more to this than just Jack Horner acting like a father to Eddie and the rest of the Horner Productions crew. Right? Well, maybe not. That is, unless, there is a second theme that you can find in all of Anderson’s work that coincides directly with this one. Oh, wait…there is. And that theme, my friends, is the all too relatable theme of alienation/loneliness.
If you think about it, the greatest fear that every major character in a Paul Thomas Anderson film has is dying either alone or unrecognized (Which is just another dimension of “alone). Sydney of Hard Eight wanted to atone for his sins by having a chance at raising a son of his own, Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood wanted to build an empire, Frank Mackey of Magnolia felt the need to “tame” women, Barry Egan of Punch-Drunk Love just wanted someone who understood him, and almost all of the characters in Boogie Nights are tragically missing or striving for something in their lives.
Eddie’s dream has always been to be a star, but when he finally has the chance to become one, he ends up having to create parental-figures in the form of Jack Horner and Amber Waves in order to not feel alone. Amber Waves herself is having difficulties being able to visit her real son due to the efforts of her ex-husband. Jack Horner is so obsessed with turning pornography into something artistic, so that he could be recognized in some way.
If you think about it, the fact that all of the characters in Boogie Nights are, in some way, a family is the only thing keeping them all from being emotional wrecks, even when they have reached the peak of fame and fortune. And sure enough, when they start to disband to further their own individual goals as the film progresses, they end up going through their own personal hells.
While Boogie Nights is immensely fun and entertaining, its treatment of all the various characters in the film is also sensitive and empathetic. In Paul Thomas Anderson fashion, everything is given its own nuance and much care has been put into the crafting of these individuals and the telling of their stories.
Boogie Nights was certainly ambitious and epic in scale, but could Anderson top himself on both those departments? Well, with the clout to have final cut on all of his projects, a whole slew of popular actors eager to work with him, and a script that nears three hours in length, that was what he intended to do, no matter what doubts there were that he couldn’t do it.
Next time, we look at the massively scaled, multi-layered Magnolia and see that for all the ideas and style on display in Boogie Nights, it could still be considered just the beginning.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to jump off this building and commit suicide. And I sure hope nothing breaks my fall…