Toronto's Eye Magazine, Written By Alex Patterson
September ??, 1997
Director Paul Thomas Anderson gets down and dirty
Minutes before I'm due to call the director of the nostalgic comedy-drama Boogie Nights, a gaggle of Jesus freaks start some kind of revival meeting right outside my apartment. They are unbelievably noisy -- these folks may be doing God's work, but they're doing it with Satan's amps -- so I yell at them, "Lower the volume, damn it, I've got to talk with a guy who just made a movie about the porno business in the '70s!"
That guy's name is Paul Thomas Anderson, he's 26, and Boogie Nights is only his second feature. His noir-ish debut, Hard Eight, earned critical respect but sank without a trace earlier this year. But Boogie Nights won't be so easily ignored. Not only is it drenched with good old S-E-X, it features a star-making performance by Mark Wahlberg (the artist formerly known as Marky Mark) as a kid who makes it big by... well, making it big.
It's 1977 and Wahlberg is a likable, if not overly bright, California teenager who's pretty normal in all respects except one: his freakishly large weenie (13 inches of prosthetic power!). This massive member makes possible its owner's transformation into Dirk Diggler, the brightest star in the sleazy stable of an XXX-director (Burt Reynolds). But, as in all such stories, Dirk's fame and fortune come at a terrible price.
"The basic bones of the plot is an old backstage musical," laughs Anderson. "Mark is like this kid from the suburbs who gets a big break." Except unlike, say, Singin' In The Rain, the kid's talent is entirely between his legs. Just as Sharon Tate's character in Valley Of The Dolls had a career based on her breasts, Dirk's career is based on his schlong. "And he utilizes this one talent to become a porn star. It's an ensemble movie, but the wire running through it is Mark."
The late '70s/early '80s time-frame is crucial to Boogie Nights, explains Anderson, because that was when sexploitation made the big switchover from celluloid to videotape -- and simultaneously abandoned whatever plot, acting and coherence this debased genre could have claimed. In the director's eyes, the porn biz lost what little class it had possessed, as such subtleties as storylines and humor gave way to the assembly-line one-day wonders of nonstop penetration that is the norm today. Or, as Anderson puts it, "Movies where the director says, 'Let's just shoot a bunch of shit then cut it together later.' " This monomaniacal fixation on the mechanics of fornication is, ironically, exactly the thing that has robbed sex flicks of their sexiness -- at least for anyone seeking stimulation above the waist.
"I saw my first porno movie at age nine," the filmmaker confesses. "In 1979, my father was one of the first guys on his block to have a VCR. Like other kids discovering their dad's Playboys I found one of his triple X videos. I was like, whoa! I was scared." (Note to parents: Better find a more secure spot for your Nina Hartley collection.) "Also," he continues, "growing up in the 818 area code [Pasadena, Calif.], there were all these industrial complexes where you just knew they were making porno movies inside. So it was not exactly in my face, but it was around."
As for Anderson's underwearing leading man, those who didn't catch Wahlberg's able work in the otherwise dismal Basketball Diaries may be surprised to learn that Marky's actually quite a good actor. The rest of Boogie Nights cast is equally impressive, including Julianne Moore (Safe), Don Cheadle (Devil In A Blue Dress' diminutive scene-stealer) and William H. Macy (the Ciera-driving schemer from Fargo). Their talent, together with Anderson's, makes us care about a bunch of people with whom most of us would hesitate to shake hands.
Boogie Nights also happens to be the third release in the past 12 months concerned with the production of erotica, following The People Vs. Larry Flynt and the Al Goldstein documentary Screwed. The fact that, despite strong reviews and even Oscar nominations for the former, neither of these flicks did particularly well at the box office may have led Boogie's marketing people to play down the film's filth angle, while playing up its retro soundtrack (from The Emotions and Roberta Flack to Three Dog Night and ELO), its funky fashions and so on. Sure, it's got enough mirror balls, spread collars and shag-carpeted Chevy vans to choke Linda Lovelace, but there's just no getting around the picture's hardcore core.
Not that there's anything to apologize for. Of his controversial subject matter, Anderson says, "Ultimately, I'm confused by a lot of it. [Pornography] is a big, complicated issue, with lots of emotional stuff. I've become friends with a lot of people in the industry, and they're genuinely good people. But -- and I know this is a cliché -- they've almost all had bad childhoods." The very corporate nature of the business these days, however, tends to put a lid on the worst of the bad behavior: "There's not a lot of drugs in porn these days -- well, no more than in Hollywood as a whole," says Anderson. What Boogie sets out to do, according to its maker, is to "investigate [the subculture's] political and emotional climate."
Although it is seemingly the work of an amoral libertine, young Paul Thomas Anderson is wise enough to know that in certain occupations you can end up damaged even without breaking any laws. "If I had to say what my movie's about," he summarizes, "I'd say 'It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.' "