Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds
The right song over a montage in a film can be magic. Think “Layla” in Goodfellas. “Eye of the Tiger” in Rocky III. “Joy” in Boogie Nights, which plays as we walk into Eddie Adams’ bedroom, which is a swirling monument to all things hip, groovy, and masculine in the late ’70s style. As the synthy version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” hangs over him, we know everything we need to know about young Eddie Adams. In this room, he is Christ in his Temple, at one with his god. Like Gatsby, he means to create himself in his own Platonic image. The pun on “desiring” sticks. It’s not the first scene in the movie – it’s not even close to the first scene with Eddie – but it is a perfect introduction. Eddie has slaved himself to the kind of success, fame, and satisfaction – supermodels, muscle cars, movie stars – that can be pasted on a high schooler’s wall. He looks at himself in the mirror, standing in his striped briefs. He does some karate moves. He nods and smiles to himself. The picture fades.
I’m tempted to call Boogie Nights a miracle, although of course that’s not what it is. Miracles are spontaneous, begged for, unpredictable. No movie with a cast like Boogie Nights’ cast, not even in the late ’90s, when some of the performers were still breaking in, could be called miraculous. And Paul Thomas Anderson, quite possibly the best American director at work today, is not a miracle. But in 1997, the year of Titanic and Jurassic Park: The Lost World, when Good Will Hunting was what passed for interesting filmmaking, when it was less than twenty years since Apocalypse Now or Reds or The Deer Hunter but billions of dollars in rentals away, it seems almost impossible that a movie like Boogie Nights could exist. The one sentence description of the movie has to include “pornography,” or some euphemism of it; how many feature films can get away with that subject matter? And yet, the movie’s not about porn, or even about what porn does to people. It’s a comedy, a hysterical and knowing and dark comedy about what happens when real life gives way to lived fantasy.
One of the things that has always struck me about this movie is how tightly Jack’s group of players adheres to one another. While the parties have many guests, there’s a hard core of maybe a dozen people who exist around one another and very rarely with anyone else. Someone like Becky, who used to exist in that group, disappears completely when she moves to Bakersfield. She may as well have died. Conversely, scene after scene has Eddie with Reed, Amber with Rollergirl, Buck with Jessie, Little Bill with Kurt. While they exist individually, they very rarely show up with friends they’ve met from elsewhere; the sole exception to this rule, I think, is Todd, and we all know what happens to him. There’s a subtle point being made here, and I like that no one brings it up. No one ever suggests that it might be incestuous to live and work and play around with the same dozen people over and over again. Everyone seems to take it for granted that that’s just how it works. It adds to the fantasy. It’s much harder to get a sense of what’s going on in parking lots, in doughnut stores, in banks, in mansions blaring “Sister Christian” at all hours, when one has sequestered oneself. Jack’s house and Hot Traxx are like small islands in a greater archipelago, and the culture that builds in those places is totally unlike what’s going on in the rest of the San Fernando Valley. No wonder Dirk Diggler, nee Eddie Adams, loses his mind. And no wonder that Amber Waves and Reed Rothchild and Jack Horner have already lost theirs by the time he meets them.
What passes for real in that community’s world is whatever relates to Kurt’s camera. Dirk’s first day on set is detailed thoroughly, from wardrobe to last-minute changes to the script to the filming itself. It’s the filming that receives a surprising amount of loving detail, and it’s the key to unlocking Boogie Nights. Dirk Diggler and Amber Waves are not real people. They are characters for real people to play, for an estranged son named Eddie Adams and a divorcee named Maggie to wrap themselves up in. Dirk and Amber both speak in the same breathy tones befitting airheads. It’s somehow worse in the films that Jack makes, which I still find hard to believe, but we have to see them filming a porno to hear the dead cadences in their speech even when the camera is off them. Dirk is perpetually being filmed by someone, even if it’s not Kurt or Jack or Amber. He’s constantly performing: the Crayola orange car, the obsessions with Italian leather and anything which he can pretend comes from the Far East, the tendency to declaim rather than converse. He must see Kurt at that camera, like a cyclops with a biased eye, whenever he goes anywhere. It’s “Joy” all over again; he learns what performing means from posters and commercials, half-hour TV serials and, duh, pornos.
This time around, I indulged myself a little bit and noted that the timeline of the film – from 1977 to 1984 – is contemporaneous with the early timeline of HIV/AIDS, from when the first key cases in San Francisco and New York must have been getting infected (while Harvey Milk rose and was felled in the background), to the bleak years when no one in the gay community understood what was going around and roughly as many heterosexuals cared, to the mid-’80s, when people started to realize in really large numbers, on a national level, what HIV/AIDS was. In 1977, the world seems full of possibility for the beautiful and the abundantly endowed. On New Year’s Eve 1979 into the first hours of 1980, the roots of a great cop procedural unfold in Jack’s house as Little Bill, fed up with his wife’s infidelity, shoots her and her lover before going out to the party at large and shooting himself. In the early years of the 1980s, Dirk and Reed and Amber and Rollergirl get really into cocaine; it costs them their wealth, their families, their self-control. Only in 1984 do things begin to turn around once everyone has learned something about themselves. Buck owns his own stereo store; Rollergirl gets her GED; Jack and Dirk reunite to make more pictures. The timelines match neatly, even if there isn’t anything like a one-to-one correlation for any of the events. What strikes me is the precipice that the small, tight-knit, taboo, and yes, sexually defined communities find themselves on, and how likely it is that the maw below will swallow them up. And everyone takes their lumps. The difference between HIV/AIDS and Boogie Nights is that Boogie Nights is purposefully and ludicrously funny.
The first hint that this movie’s humor has a sharp edge comes when Dirk comes back home late after visiting Jack at his home for the first time. His mother, sitting in an armchair, is waiting up for him. She screams at him about his girlfriend. Why doesn’t he go back to his girlfriend if she’s so wonderful? Why doesn’t he leave home? It’s not the wrath of a mother that Eddie (who is, just like his mom tells him, too stupid to grasp what’s going on) tries to withstand. It’s the wrath of a wife, and you can either laugh or you can yell “Ew!” Fittingly, Eddie’s dad stays in bed while his wife berates her son. He knows what’s up.
Jack Horner is a middle-aged man who has devoted his life to making dirty movies. His dream is to create a movie, maybe even a series of movies, that will be so good that the recently ejaculated will have no choice but to sit there and watch the movie come to a conclusion. The movie that does it for him? It stars Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild, who live in a state of mind that might charitably be called “a bemused concussion,” doing bad acting with bad props and scenery and did we mention that it’s still a pornographic film? This is what Jack lives for. Making these films, actively bad ripoffs of James Bond movies, is the pinnacle of his career. And he celebrates it. That’s funny.
Amber is like one of those lionesses in nature documentaries who loses a cub, adopts a baby gazelle to replace the cub, and then watches the pride eat the gazelle. That’s funny. It’s also funny that she has no shortage of people who want to be the new gazelle calf, even though they recognize that she does enough cocaine to kill an actual lioness.
It’s funny that Buck is the lamest human being to walk the face of the earth, that Maurice begs to get into an adult film and ends up playing himself, that porn star Becky marries a middle manager and moves to a city halfway between L.A. and Fresno, that Reed is into magic (of course he is) and thinks he looks like Harrison Ford, that Todd is so hyped on drugs that he thinks he can walk into a man’s house with half a kilo of baking soda and parlay that into an elegant robbery of that house, that Todd’s target, Rahad, has discovered the magic of mix tapes and Asian guys who like the sound of explosions paired with “Jessie’s Girl.” These people treat their lives like pinatas: it’s fun to watch the candy fly everywhere.