' ' Cinema Romantico: “This is the best work we’ve ever done”: Boogie Nights at 25

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

“This is the best work we’ve ever done”: Boogie Nights at 25

“Boogie Nights” (1997) was not Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature film, that was 1996’s impressively controlled “Hard Eight.” In a way, though, “Boogie Nights” feels more like a debut than “Hard Eight.” That is not because it is any less controlled; if anything, Anderson demonstrates even greater control by ensuring so many sequences pitched at the edge of chaos, some of which even tip over into it, never themselves become chaotic. No, “Boogie Nights” feels likes an entrance given so much swaggering exuberance, epitomized in the opening Steadicam shot moving from the street into the club, effusing joy in introducing us to all the main characters in one take. If there are distinct echoes to Scorsese’s Copacabana shot in “Goodfellas,” they are not precisely alike. Grandmaster Marty has explained his storied Steadicam shot as Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) seduction of Karen (Lorraine Bracco) while Anderson’s Steadicam shot is a seduction of us. Many of Anderson’s subsequent films, like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood,” evinced enormous, exacting metaphors of America, but in “Boogie Nights” he utilizes the adult entertainment setting as an illustration of the movies, both in making them and watching them, as pure pleasure. 

That sumptuous opening shot is punctuated by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), an adult filmmaker holding court in a booth in the disco-era bar with his wife and adult film actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), seeing Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a 17-year-old high school dropout working as a busboy, across the way. Reynolds is deft in this moment, his disinterested expression suddenly freezing in electrified disbelief. If cinema has ever captured the moment of realizing someone ineffably has “it,” it’s Reynolds right here. He is just as good a few moments later, seeking out Eddie in the kitchen to recruit him as an actor, a scene in which Anderson switches to a handheld camera, underlining the divide between the lights and music on the stage and the drudgery behind it. It’s a scene that could go a very different way, of course, and teases that direction, though Reynolds’s manner is crucially not off-putting or soothingly predatory, just soothing, and deliberately standing in stark contrast to scenes of Eddie’s emotionally abusive mother (Joanna Gleason) and passive father (Lawrence Hudd). Not long after, Eddie leaves home, Anderson delineating the transition by literally having Eddie’s mom slam the door behind him and Jack opening the door for Eddie as he arrives at the director’s lavish San Fernando Valley pad, raising the curtain on the movie’s most rollicking sequence.

I’d seen hangout movies, of course. I came of age in the 90s, the era of indies in which misanthropes and neurotics and slackers did nothing but hang out. But I’d never seen a movie do something quite like this, just suddenly stopping in the middle of itself to hang out, suddenly deciding to put the narrative up on the clothesline to dry and serve us a pitcher of margaritas. “Boogie Nights” is a movie of great scenes, and none are greater this one. If the opening is our introduction to this world, this sequence becomes Eddie’s introduction, an entire community of colorful characters opening up around and opening its arms to him. It’s a sequence embodying the whole movie’s generosity of spirit, never satirizing or lampooning the adult movie industry, or adult movies themselves, the eventual sequence of Eddie’s first performance suggesting the fix the cable scene of “The Big Lebowski” as directed by Jonathan Demme. When Maurice (Luis Guzman), owner of the opening’s club, expresses his desire to be in one of Jack’s movies, he comes across like any greenhorn fresh off the bus in Hollywood.

The sequence begins in the sunlight with Jack declaring “Eddie Adams from Torrance” as the teenager strides up to the door and concludes in a hot tub under the stars, with Eddie pitching Jack a stage name, one he imagines in lights, Dirk Diggler, meaning he starts the party as Eddie and ends it as Dirk. If it’s a spiritual kind of transfiguration, what’s also notable is how the then 26-year-old Wahlberg not only believably embodies the air of a 17-year-old but never quite eschews the childish innocence. Though the distinct Wahlberg voice would eventually take on a different quality as he assumed more traditional tough-guy roles, that unmistakable, occasionally short-of-breath cadence, the incredulity it often possesses as a more venerable actor is reframed through “Boogie Nights” as a kind of guilelessness, and then a clueless pompousness as the character’s career flourishes, convincingly charting Eddie cum Dirk’s rise and fall without ever deposing his inner-naif, a tricky rendering that believably and wonderfully epitomizes the kind of anti-arc that feels truer to life. 

As good as Wahlberg is, however, Moore is even better, effortlessly, impossibly blending a carnal lust for Dirk and a motherly affection for Eddie, wrapping it all up in a space cadet ambiance that would make it seems as if she was eternally out to lunch if Moore didn’t somehow imbue it all with zany sincerity. Reynolds, meanwhile, was famously public about his dislike for both the movie and his own performance, even as it brought him damn close to an Oscar, and even later in life, where his stance never really softened. His air in those 70s and 80s blockbusters always came across so jokingly indifferent that it could mask just how much respect he craved, revealed sometimes through interviews and in his memoir, and a quiet resentment for not earning it. And though this is mere speculation, in “Boogie Nights,” Reynolds so brilliantly embodies a man struggling to get the respect he caves, I always wondered if he washed his hands of his own performance because it was too good, cutting too close to his own bone. 

If the party sequence heralds Dirk’s rise, it is another party sequence set on New Year’s Eve that ushers in his fall, as the 70s give way to the 80s. The financial powers-that-be force Jack to maximize profits by switching from film to videotape while Eddie winds up estranged from his surrogate family, the bell literally tolling in Michael Penn’s ominous musical score for both men in parallel scenes in which their artistic yearnings have been reduced to nothing more than scouring the streets, shilling sex, while the drug deal gone wrong sequence finally brings all this desperation and greed to its spectacular (il)logical conclusion.

But even if this long denouement gets dark, Anderson ultimately proves himself a humanist, with Dirk begging and receiving forgiveness from Jack and weeping in Amber’s lap, finding not quite redemption, or even salvation, but a kind of preservation through family, summarized in one last tracking shot through Jack’s home, a Rockwellian portrait of a Russ Meyer world. And though “Boogie Nights” suggests everything is destined to end up commodified, the movie itself becomes a refutation of that very idea, transcending commodification by becoming just the sort of film Jack Horner always dreamed of making. 

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