San Diego Tribune, Written By David Elliott
November 9th, 1997
"The motion picture represents our customs and our daily life more distinctly than any other medium. . . " -- MGM studio god Irving Thalberg, 1929
Irving Thalberg never did, or could, or would, make a movie like "Boogie Nights." Just the thought would have turned his white skin to blue velvet.
I try to imagine courtly mogul Thalberg and his showcase wife, Norma Shearer, cozy in their home screening room -- Irving formal yet dapper, Norma in something silky concocted by Adrian. Late into the very elite "Boogie Nights" preview, one of the more outspoken guests (Anita Loos? Marion Davies?) chirps, "Yowza, look at that love wand on Dirk Diggler!"
Yes, the flashback is unreal, impossible, although the Thalbergs certainly knew the facts of life, and you can bet there was little laundering of hot gossip about Fatty Arbuckle, Mae West or Errol Flynn. But Thalberg's Hollywood was largely defined by his taste, which meant major book adaptations, the Production Code in force, and a clean screen (though often speckled with double-entendres).
Thalberg had no need to make films about male bimbos with big bazookas. There was more sexiness in the beam of Clark Gable's smile, or the silvery shrug of Jean Harlow's shoulder. It has taken 60 years after the Thalberg era (and almost 30 since "breast king" Russ Meyer briefly enjoyed a Fox contract) for Hollywood to be forcefully reminded that sex films are, indeed, part of "the industry," even if parked back near the drainage pipes.
Russ Meyer was soon tossed back to his busty softcore zone, Paul Schrader's "Hardcore" (1979) was just a migraine of hysteria about the porn trade. Mae West's final "comeback" with "Sextette" (1978) was a senile snicker. More recently, "Showgirls" and "Striptease" flopped after heavy foreplay of publicity. And porny morsels in films like "Cruising" and "52 Pick-up" have been teasers for violence more than sex.
Unlike Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt," flattened last winter by feminist backlash (and mass indifference) to its view of porn publisher Flynt as a free-speech crusader, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" has no politics. The young (27) writer and director clearly doesn't give a fig leaf about being politically correct, doesn't view his characters as martyrs or role models, and is far more amused (and touched) by them than he is worried about the "significance" of their work and play.
"Boogie Nights" has won the best critical response of any film this year, though a few have called it superficial. New York's David Denby, recently marble-dusted by service in Great Books classes, and perhaps needing something juicy, picked at the film for not being sufficiently erotic and not having a more codified text of attitude ("After all, this is supposed to be the `real' story of the porn world . . . " -- what documentary was Denby wanting?).
You can starve, wanting a film like this to be a Dostoevskian vision of souls in crisis, a major treatise of eroticism, an inventory of the nuances of porndom. Which would be crazy: starving at a feast. No movie should be condemned for not being the movie it never tried to be.
"Boogie Nights" is not superficial, if by superficial you mean (and I do) a film that offers a merely forgettable reward. After two viewings I am still thinking about it, not with lust but amusement and sympathy.
Not an "art film," though clearly an artist's achievement, and not a vast "event" despite the reviews, "Boogie Nights" has work cut out for it in finding a large audience. More work than Eddie, the porn star retooled (pardon the expression) as Dirk Diggler, does in "acting" in cheap sex films.
A big hit would be swell, by showing Hollywood that a movie with teeth can really bite the box office. Most likely, "Boogie Nights" will be a credible cult picture that finds a long, lustrous career on video.
That would be an irony. In the movie, pathetically committed porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) scorns videotape as a reduction of his "art." Although Jack is artless -- Anderson very craftily shows us Horner's awful auteurism -- he is right about cheapo video. It arrived in the early '80s and flushed the porn biz into real funk (though very few pornmeisters were deluded enough to even mention art).
"Boogie Nights" shows that transition, almost poignantly. But a friend of mine who loves the film is, I believe, wrong to see it as a savvy biopsy of the film industry in the era of home video. Film is too complex a medium (even as "product") to be adequately symbolized by the fate of a Jack Horner.
Puritans and kids should avoid "Boogie Nights." The rest of us can be astonished -- as I'd guess even Anderson was, despite his sure grip and script -- by how superbly the cast grooves into it, working variations that go beyond frivolity (the upside) and futility (the downside). As an ensemble they are more than the sum of their parts (Dirk's fabled part is finally seen in a funny, iconic shot, a concession to curiosity and a wink at all feel-good endings).
In tone and tactics, despite some bleak moments, "Boogie Nights" is a comedy (and if not, what could it be?). That does not shirk all obligation to some form of generic authenticity. It does mean that scolding the film because it lacks bolt-tight fidelity to the "facts" of the porn business is a lame game.
Eddie/Dirk, a Valley boy torpedo, is always sincere, quite often stupid. He is played by Mark Wahlberg, the ex-rapper whose measly acting background was probably a bonus. Eddie is slight in every way but one, but that one -- the nice euphemism is "talent" -- is his way out of a family ruled by a hateful and sex-hating mother, into the paternal if exploitive domain of Jack Horner.
Eddie finds a second power tool (his ego), but remains an innocent fantasizer (Denby, the idealist, wishes Wahlberg could "glow like Richard Gere"). Eddie's dim star search to become porn celebrity Dirk Diggler and (via Dirk) "Brock Landers," the James Bond of stag films, shows him as a jester and dreamer. Once cocaine and dumb vanity scuttle him, Eddie tries to sing (hopeless) and then turns tricks (also hopeless -- without camera lights and party buzz, he's no Dirk, just a dork).
Despite loads of knowing fun with decor, disco and lingo ("I don't get Pisces"), Anderson doesn't lampoon Eddie, doesn't smugly patronize him and the milieu Jack serves as lord of revels, dispensing drinks, drugs and dumb thoughts on movies.
Swarming and shagging
With small exceptions, Anderson doesn't stick these people to the screen with pins, and never flogs them into a moralizing thesis. While they have the intellectual depth of fireflies painted on velvet, they also have some of Russ Meyer's erotic zest (though less cartoonishly). They love the long party, the swarming and shagging; being part of Team Dirk is good enough. Hell, they're show people.
This tireless itch (even when flagellated by drug use) makes them vulnerable, dreamy, hopeful, hungering, human. By not plowing them into pure satire, despite his comic brilliance, or thundering up a "world view" like Fellini's "Satyricon" or Visconti's "The Damned," Anderson keeps his characters right in their seamy niche, looking for "action," making the "most" of what they think they have (they're really squares, with no grip of sophistication at all).
Eddie is a marvel of star meat to his porno tootsies (played by Heather Graham and Julianne Moore, on a free fall from IQ yet lovably refusing to be the mere slut doll of standard movie whoring). When Eddie wins porn awards, they're happy to applaud; his need for such love gratifies their own needs, and when he shows off his bad taste, they feel like soul mates in on a great thing. It's happening, baby.
Some of Anderson's characters are toilet-bound, of course. Some sink wretchedly, like "colonel" James, played like a Kmart George Sanders by the late Robert Ridgely. But the only villains are the homophobic creeps who pummel Eddie during his time of decline (also, perhaps, the pure-business
producer and voyeur played by Philip Baker Hall).
For me, the most affecting scene is when James lands in jail, rightly brought there by his taste for very young flesh. He talks to Jack from behind security glass, and when Jack, disgusted, puts down the speaker phone, James becomes a frantic mute. He dissolves pathetically, and Jack is
turned off. Anderson isn't -- he gazes hard but not callously at the colonel's fall (it is the film's moment of what might be called spiritual perspective, though Anderson has no delusions of grandeur).
The switch from the '70s (Viva la party!) to '80s (Mondo down-o) is a bit glib. AIDS isn't mentioned, probably a PC mistake on Anderson's part (though implied by the homophobes). In a ferocious "topper," the fallen Eddie comes along for a drug deal at the home of a crazed free-baser
(Alfred Molina, less Richard Pryor than Peter Sellers), whose boy-toy is so sunk he pops firecrackers to remind himself he's alive. This funny freak-out scares some sense into Eddie, but he's still a boy who needs parents, so he scuttles home to papa Jack and "mama" Amber (Moore).
There is nothing neutered or neutral in Anderson's approach. He doesn't fake a big take on his characters or the porn game. He mixes warm and chilly, harsh and silly elements expertly. He has an essentially comic clasp of style, the rhythms of an entertainer, but his grace is to be amused while not sneering. That saves his movie from the dehumanizing pulp of porn.
Anderson is a bit off when he has Amber trying to fake a case for winning her son back in a custody suit. Julianne Moore can cry wonderfully (can do about anything), but the court has no choice here, and we wish that Amber would opt for another line of life and no more lines of coke. But she can
always play mommy for Jack, Eddie and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).
The superbly shot violence in a doughnut shop verges on Tarantino: shock as show-off. Anderson learned more valuably from Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. His film is more emotionally connective than any Scorsese movie in years, and less scattered in its story lines than Altman's "Short Cuts."
Many critics are high on "Boogie Nights" not because we are far-gone gapers who need to smirk and laugh at bottom dwellers. It's because this is a big, confident, American movie not for the "indie" fringe but for all adults who can relish an exciting artist's arrival, his lucid yet compassionate gaze at party animals who are human. Among these vulgarians, many quite stupid, he has found some complexity without being pompous about it.
The ending stretches probability, but its defiance of the porn-world odds is a direct measure of Anderson's affection, the heart of his art.