Welcome to Directed Viewing, the multi-part series examining the films of a given director. This is done, in part, to not only fill in my own cinematic gaps, but to try to form some sort of greater understanding of an artist out of their entire body of work. Sure, it’s a little reliant upon auteur theory, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.
Part two of our Paul Thomas Anderson season of directed viewing continues today with a movie that I’ll admit I’m probably going to be too glowing about. Full disclaimer: I saw Boogie Nights at a probably too-young age and has always stuck with me as an amazing, wonderful thing. It’s hard to shake the formative movies, and so my appraisal (while I think evolved over the many rewatches over the years) has never quite escaped that early sense of having never seen anything quite like it before.
But it’s still good, and there’s still plenty to talk about, so let’s get to it.
Boogie Nights (1997)
As second pictures go, Boogie Nights is up there with Pulp Fiction in terms of ambition, and in fact contains many of the same hallmarks. It opens with a sudden, aggressive long-shot that tracks from the street into a club and around a dance floor in 1977. Nearly every major character is met and given a defining beat for the audience to grasp on. It’s dizzying in its complexity, and when it finally settles upon Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams, you are firmly placed right in this whirlwind universe with him as the center.
Boogie Nights is obstensibly a film about the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s, specifically taking place in LA. Mark Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams, a young kid with the gift of giant equipment and a pretty face. In that initial scene he is spotted by pornography Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds channeling George Lucas. Jack convinces Eddie that he has a gift, and to sign on to become the new star in his films. So begins the long epic of Eddie’s rise to stardom and eventual fall from grace.
What’s interesting about Boogie Nights is almost the nonchalant, though arguably it does so in a fairly novel way of frankly presenting the business part of it. There isn’t a lot of romance, but also not a lot of shame. These people are just people who work in the industry, and have goals and aspirations, but it’s a job like any other. In fact, in many ways, it’s less a porn movie and more a movie about show business in general, just burying it in a niche subset of the business so it can get away with being more frank than most show business pictures. The few times that ‘normal’ people comment on what they do, it seems honestly a little shocking when they act that it’s some sort of scandal. It’s a neat trick, bringing us into this world and making us comfortable with it without any sort of obvious effort. But it is key to making the film work, because Boogie Nights really isn’t about porn at all.
Boogie Nights is about the American Dream and exceptionalism. That sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. In fact, it serves as an interesting counterpoint to Anderson’s later work on American capitalism, There Will Be Blood. We’ll talk more about that when we get to that, of course, but I think it’s worth bringing them up in the same sentence now, because they’re both about ambition but take decidedly different roads to opposite ends. There Will Be Blood is a story of greed and cruelty. Boogie Nights is a story of hope and humanity. Scoff all you want, let me explain.
From the beginning Boogie Nights is about luckless folks. Eddie is a young kid with ambition, riding the bus far out of his way to get a shitty job busing tables at a nightclub because it’s the nightclub where the movers and shakers go. He has an average girlfriend and an average home life, but he’s not an average guy. Wahlberg gives the best (certainly bravest) performance he’s ever given here, and Eddie is a mix of naive optimism and hopeful confidence wrapped a boy who’s simply not too bright. I’ve heard people describe the performance as borderline-retarded before and I don’t think it’s necessary wrong, though maybe a bit easy. He has a child’s sense of trust, a belief that believing in one’s self and one’s friends will get them anywhere. But it’s seemingly all for naught, as early on in the film he’s just a dropout kid, dumb and barely employed and kicked out of his house. He shows up ready to prove himself with only the clothes on his back.
He quickly proves himself, of course, because Jack has an eye for talent and he’s … fully equipped. Renaming himself Dirk Diggler, he begins a meteoric rise through the adult film industry, with all the riches that come along with it. His friends come along for the ride, each of them becoming nearly as rich simply by being in his halo. The bounty of talent trickles down, and changes people, and that’s really the long-tail story of Boogie Nights, as soon Dirk is pitching his own ideas for a series of plot-heavy action/porn movies, which makes them all even more rich. It’s a bubble of fame, wild and ridiculous and heady. You know it’s not going to last. You see it creeping in, as people crack and new, less loyal and more hungry, people become part of the entourage. You see it in the discussions around the periphery about the oncoming home video market.
And eventually all the drugs and success turns bad. Dirk, pumped up on his own ego and running out of steam on a long bender that leaves him struggling to even get hard to perform, melts down on set and gets fired. Thinking he can go it on his own, he starts a horribly mismanaged music career attempt with his best buddy Reed (played by a shockingly thin, hilariously dog-loyal John C. Reilly) that manages to poke smart jabs at the celebrity ambition of media crossover. It doesn’t hurt that watching Marky Mark sing so, so badly in these scenes serves a level of meta-comedy, too. Part of the genius of Walhberg’s turn in this movie is it seems in some ways to be a good-natured jab at himself as much as it is about this character.
But like it always does in these movies, the fun runs out and the party stops eventually. Soon they’re planning to con a guy out of thousands of dollars in a bad drug deal that turns into the most suddenly chilling moment of the movie. Dirk’s already fallen down deep enough to go back to masturbating for people for cash to buy coke. It seems like rock bottom. But as he sits in the house of a nearly-naked, obviously strung out guy they’re trying to pass off baking soda as cocaine to, there’s this magical scene where in an extended, quiet moment you see him get it. This is rock bottom. Suddenly he knows he’s in a bad situation, maybe the worst situation. Watching this dense, sad, hilarious character figure that out is something like magic. Unfortunately, the moment he thinks he’s hit rock bottom, the floor falls out from under him, and it all goes really bad, but at least he tried to turn the ship around.
This dark period covers every character, really, in a firmly dour sense of finality as everyone reaches the point of burnout or failure or just plain giving up. And it would be easy to consider this the final statement on fame and ambitious. And in many ways it is. You can only ride so high before you fall back down. And sometimes the landing is more of a crash and some people just don’t make it. But in that moment of darkness, there is a literal Christmas miracle that happens in one of the B plots (you know the one, the one with Don Cheadle and the donut shop) that is a miraculous deus ex machina almost Coen-esque in brilliance, and the real theme of the film, only half buried in rest of the film, begins to assert itself.
Because as much as Boogie Nights is the story of fame and show business, it’s the story of family. Dirk, with nothing to his name, is accepted into the bizarre extended family Jack maintains with all the warm humor and good nature Reynolds brings to the screen. He’s adored by Jack’s partner, played by Julianne Moore, a porn actress and mother who has had her child taken from her due to her lifestyle, who constantly looks to this younger generation of actors to fill that roll. They become something of a strange family unit, all broken people with ambitions and dreams that happen to coincide with one another. And when everybody has their darkest moments, they come back together again to try to rebuild.
Which is why, in the end, I say Boogie Nights is a story about hope. It’s that nearly-ending shot, with Jack walking through the house talking to each of the characters. Most of them have been through so much, some of them radically changed by it and others still stuck in the same ways of thinking they were years ago when this journey started. It’s the perfect bookend to the beginning of the film, a little sad and somber but comfortable in the knowledge that these people are going to be all right because they’re all together.
And that’s the real secret. Boogie Nights isn’t a story about porn, it’s not a story about show business. It contains those things, to be sure, but they serve to put us in unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable ground so it can tell a story about humanity. That’s the real secret, pulled off masterfully. Boogie Nights is about how our ambition can lead us to ruin, but for the people who are around to catch us. And it’s that optimism and keen social insight that defines the work. I would go so far as to call it ultimately a work of compassion, blunt in dealing with these characters and often making fun of their pretensions but never without a sense of love for people trying to get by with the hand that they were dealt.