Friday, February 13, 1998

Interview: The Geek Who Made Art From Porn

Daily Mail & Guardian
February 13th, 1998


At 27, Paul Thomas Anderson is winning plaudits with Boogie Nights, about the early days of blue movies. Jonathan Romney meets the man who has made Burt Reynolds hip again

Hollywood in the late Nineties is more than ever committed to child's play, to effects-laden nursery diversions designed to make grown-up money. No wonder critics and public respond so eagerly when faced with genuine adult cinema. It just happens, in the case of America's latest maverick hit, Boogie Nights, that the subject really is adult cinema, in the more specialised sense of the term - Paul Thomas Anderson's film is set in the blue-movie underworld of late seventies Los Angeles.




Boogie Nights tells the traditional rags-to-riches tale of Hollywood stardom - a gauche aspirant hits town with something special to offer, and against the odds gets it up on the silver screen where it belongs. In this case, however, that something special is 13 inches long, and acting talent hardly enters into it.

The story of porn superstud Dirk Diggler - played by Mark Wahlberg, the erstwhile pop-hunk Marky Mark - is a Candide journey through the fleshpots of LA's coke-and-disco heyday, and an opportunity for director-writer Anderson to create a witty, complex panorama of a recent but strangely distant era of Americana.

As well as taking over $23-million in the United States, the film has been hugely acclaimed. Its 27-year-old director has been hailed not merely as the new Tarantino - partly on account of the film's pop-culture cool and irresistible jukebox soundtrack - but as the new Scorsese or Altman. Fair enough, since Anderson admits he used Goodfellas and Nashville as models.

The Tarantino comparisons are skin deep - Anderson immediately strikes you as a more ambitious and contemplative director. Then again, he does share Tarantino's high-powered LA publicist and something of his early nerdy demeanour. Anderson walks into his interview looking as if he's been up all night swapping movie trivia on the Net. He's unshaven, blinking warily behind his glasses and blithely unkempt, from his crumpled shirt down to his plastic-looking shoes and bright blue towelling socks - a combination I've only ever seen on maths postgraduates.

But he doesn't seem to mind being tagged as the Nerd Most Likely To. "OK, next guy comes along! I wish I had something to add to that standard film geek template," he shrugs amiably, "beyond just being obsessed with movies."

With all its razzle-dazzle and surface kitsch, Anderson's multi-stranded story of the fuck-film subculture and its murky, neo-Runyon denizens - names like Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner, Amber Waves - could have been pure cartoon. But Anderson knows their world too well for that, having been raised in the San Fernando Valley, LA's capital of porn production.

"It was always there," he remembers. "Bunker-type warehouses with no sign on them near my high school. You'd see people coming in and out and you knew there was something going on. I guess that speaks to anyone's effort to get back to their childhood - what was that shit I was witnessing when I was 11 years old?"

The young Anderson knew perfectly well what was going on: he had his first taste of porn aged nine, when he sneaked a look at his father's video of a popular item called The Opening of Misty Beethoven. He admits he is too fascinated with the genre to have much journalistic detachment. "I've been into it as a consumer, but not as some freak who's masturbating his life away. Probably more of a fascination with the film-making of it than anything else.

"On one hand, I love the camp of it, I love what can be sexy about it. Then you've got this other side, which is just a general kind of disgust and sadness. If you've ever watched a real hard-core porno film, if you're a human being at all, your first instinct is to think, 'Who is that person? Where is their mother?' But that's not to say that 20 seconds later I won't be thinking, 'Wow, she's kinda hot!' That's just something I'd own up to."

Anderson visited some 20 hard-core sets in researching the film, and had a highly qualified consultant in the form of Ron Jeremy, aka "the hedgehog" - a rotund, buffoonish character who is currently Hollywood's most implausible blue-movie attraction. But Boogie Nights is really about the late Seventies sex industry, before video made it harsher and trashier.

Anderson's ingénue-stud Dirk Diggler is loosely based on the priapic actor John Holmes, who became a porn legend for his outlandish proportions, before dying of Aids in 1988. Dirk's own physical distinction is made clear in

"It's just like, 'Duh?'" says Anderson. "There's nothing sexual about it. John Holmes would talk about being a kid and taking the shower in gym class and really having a hard time, people just laughing at him. It's like having a third arm. What can you do except say, 'I am the Elephant Man, I'll go to the circus'?"

Boogie Nights' nostalgia for a supposed pre-Aids Eden of disco-fuelled sexuality may be tinged with considerable circumspect irony. But the film does genuinely mourn an era when American porn was, if not exactly idealistic, at least more ambitious. Seventies porn had aspirations to infiltrate the mainstream, and movies like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil In Miss Jones were fashionable talking points at Californian dinner tables. This "Golden Age" ended, Anderson says, with the advent of video.

"Any kind of dignity or effort in the film-making is gone now. Shooting on film is more expensive, so you've got to go in there with a plan - what's the best place to put the camera to make this sexy? That results in a story and a basic structure. Video comes along and it's five dollars for an hour worth of tape. It's like music-video thinking - 'We'll shoot a bunch of shit and edit it together later.'"

Boogie Nights is generally agreed by cognoscenti to be pretty accurate about its subject. Laurence O'Toole, author of a forthcoming book on pornography, Pornocopia, feels that the film captures that period's "sense of making an alternative genre, rather than a parallel culture, which it became".

Where Anderson goes too far, he argues, is in "the drugs, the level of excess and the violence - people have said that they'd never have stayed in the industry if it had been that cocaine-infested. The film also doesn't reflect that it was against the law to make porn in California then - sets were being busted all the time."

What Anderson does get right, says O'Toole, is the strange surrogate-family structure in which Dirk lives with his porn cohorts. "Everyone in porn has problems maintaining contact with people who aren't involved in it, so they develop a myth of the forgiving, accommodating family structure." This theme gives Boogie Nights its most troubling emotional subtlety, which presumably helped Anderson attract such prominent performers as Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds and Twin Peaks ingénue Heather Graham to roles that most Hollywood names would run a mile from.

Anderson admits, "A couple of people did say 'Okay, it's a really good script, but how do I really know that this isn't Showgirls?' I said, 'You can't.' For the record, Boogie Nights is most definitely not Showgirls, a film Anderson considers "fucking despicable".

Anderson's off-beam take on Hollywood may be in his genes. His father, actor Ernie Anderson, was known in the sixties as TV horror host Ghoulardi, famous for his hipster goatee and catch-phrase "Stay sick".

The Andersons were not well-connected in the media, but Paul managed to talk himself into production assistant jobs on TV game shows, rather than go to film school, and made his first short on camcorder - a half-hour Boogie Nights prototype, The Dirk Diggler Story. His first feature, Sydney, was a low-key, claustrophobic vignette pitched somewhere between David Mamet and Paul Auster, about a gambler who sells his soul to an enigmatic mentor. The producers hated it.

After much wrangling, Sydney was released under the producers' title, Hard Eight.  It made hardly a ripple on release last year, but no doubt Boogie Nights fans will seek it out, misled by the title to expect another porn epic. "And they're gonna be real disappointed!" Anderson says.

No one could have guessed from the cool, controlled Hard Eight that its director would make such an explosive follow-up, but Anderson was already writing Boogie Nights while filming his debut.

On the strength of two remarkable films, Anderson looks like Hollywood's best hope for the millennium. He certainly has the distinction of now being cinema's most famous Paul Anderson - the "Thomas" in his name is to avoid confusion with British director Paul Anderson, who made Shopping and Mortal Kombat. He shouldn't be confused either with Paul Thomas, a leading porn director.

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