Sunday, October 19, 1997

Interview: "Nights Shines Human Light On Porn"

San Diego Tribune, Written By Rene Rodriguez
October 19th, 1997

To most people, the words "porno film" conjure up the worst of American society: sleaze, exploitation, filth. "Boogie Nights" director Paul Thomas Anderson understands that natural association. But he doesn't think it has to be that way.

"Most people feel a weird embarrassment about watching porno -- they're shamed by it -- because it's so poorly done," the wiry 27-year-old says. "Most of it is crap, and you wouldn't bring it up in conversation with a group of smart people. It's like admitting you actually went to see `Con Air' and liked it.

"But if there were great porno movies being made, it might be a different situation. You could say, `Yeah, I'm renting this, and there's (sex) in it, but I'm not embarrassed by that, because there is also great storytelling, and it's good.' "

Anderson's understanding of the potential of adult films -- and his genuine lament of the state of the genre -- fuels "Boogie Nights." The highly anticipated film, which opens Friday, is a sprawling, multicharacter, 2 1/2 -hour epic.

Set during the late '70s and early '80s, "Boogie Nights" follows the exploits of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a California teen whose God-given talent -- a larger-than-average sexual organ -- catches the attention of porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who rechristens the kid as Dirk
Diggler and makes him a star.

Despite its fringe subject matter, "Boogie Nights" already has played the prestigious New York and Toronto film festivals (it split the top prize at the latter, with "L.A. Confidential"). Mainstream magazines such as Newsweek already have called it "the most invigorating, deeply entertaining
American movie so far this year."

"Boogie Nights" seems likely to break through to general audiences because Anderson has taken the less-obvious approach to the material: Instead of exploiting its sex and raunch milieu, "Boogie Nights" turns the adult-film industry into a microcosm of American pop culture, using it to reflect the
highs -- and lows -- of the freewheeling '70s and the crash-and-burn '80s.

In the process, the movie also humanizes people who work in an industry that is rarely treated with any depth or respect.

"There are a lot of similarities between gangster movies and this movie," Anderson says. "In movies like `The Godfather' and `GoodFellas,' the protagonists are murderers, but we love them and we can somehow associate with them because they're presented as human beings. It's the same thing in
`Boogie Nights': These are people who make pornography, which is a very weird and nasty business, but there's still something very likable and human about them."

One of "Boogie Nights' " conceits is that director Jack Horner is an aspiring artiste: He wants to make movies that aren't just about sex, but tell stories, too. It's the way they sometimes made porn films in the mid- and late-'70s ("The Story of O," "Emmanuelle"), before the advent of the home-video market opened the floodgates for ultra-cheap, plotless sexfests.

"They weren't all smut back then," Anderson says of porno's last great era. "They were part of this great gray area of films that got snuffed out and didn't get a chance to breathe. The first one I ever saw was `The Opening of Misty Beethoven,' which is really a romantic comedy, sort of this `Pygmalion' kind of thing, very funny and charming. It's also very sexy -- not because the girls are hot, or the guys have big (penises), but because it's this great story.

"Today, people rent pornos and don't even make it to the end," Anderson laments. "It's like watching surgery."

Anderson grew up in the San Fernando Valley -- an area that is to porn what Silicon Valley is to the computer industry. He became obsessed with adult films as a teen-ager after discovering his father's hidden stash of sexually explicit videos ("I watched them for the campiness of it, the sexiness of it, the sadness of it").

After the critical success of his first feature film (last year's low-budget "Hard Eight," a small-scale, intimate drama about desperate gamblers in Las Vegas), Anderson persuaded New Line Cinema to bankroll his $15 million tale of the rise and fall of a porn star.

Anderson purposely set the story in the late '70s so he also could chart the industry's decline. In the 1980s, adult filmmakers were able to crank out product on video more economically than before. In the process, whatever artistic merit the films may have had was lost.

That's the reason the movie's director character, Horner, resists switching to videotape so strongly. "It's his attempt to try to add a little art to where he is," Anderson says. "Most of the people I know who are in the business are completely aware of what they're doing . . . but they still have their own little guidelines and moral codes. It's all about their own search or dignity. They'll say, `I know that I'm going for a (climax) shot, but I want it to be in focus and well-lit.' It's very funny, but it's also
incredibly noble."

For a movie about pornography, the sexual content in "Boogie Nights" is comparatively tame. Still, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board slapped it with an NC-17 when Anderson submitted his first three-hour cut of the film in January.

"`I said, `I can't argue with you,' " Anderson says. "No kid under 17 should see this movie.'"

Surprisingly, the MPAA actually encouraged Anderson to release the movie as it was.

"They really wanted us to leave it alone," says Mitch Goldman, president of distribution and marketing for New Line Cinema. "They said, `This is the kind of movie we created the NC-17 rating for.' They knew that although the material is harsh, the movie is not sleazy or pornographic in any way. They recognized it as a work of art. But we didn't want to take what we feel is a very important film and severely restrict people's ability to see it."

Anderson was contractually bound to deliver an R-rated movie because NC-17 films remain notoriously difficult to market: Many theater chains won't play them and many newspapers won't accept advertising for them. He whittled "Boogie Nights" down to 2 1/2 hours, including "about a minute and a half's worth" of sexual material, to earn the R.

One shot that was never in contention, though, is "Boogie Nights'" sure-to-be-talked-about climactic image -- in which Dirk displays his prodigious talent in all its glory in one uninterrupted take.

"(The MPAA) never said a word about that shot," Anderson says. "I mean, what could they say? We've had a hundred years of movies where women run around naked. They knew if they said anything, we could just cry foul and say, `Oh, so suddenly it's not OK for a man to whip out his (penis)?' "

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