Wednesday, January 30, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Boogie Nights (1997)

Written and Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson

Between Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film Hard Eight and his string of three strait masterpieces (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) came the film that made Anderson a household name in the movie industry. That film was Boogie Nights, a film that documents the decadent and destructive lives of several people in the 70's porn industry. Told through the eyes of a young man named Eddie Adams (Mark Whalberg), the ensemble piece showcases the highs and lows of stardom and the scummy people that you meet along the way.

Eddie is a seventeen-year-old boy who buses tables at the glamorous Hot Traxx nightclub, which is a frequent destination for all of the biggest porn stars and aficionados. They include film director Jack Horner, sexy superstar Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), newcomer Rollergirl (Heather Graham), wannabe cowboy Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), and the odd goof ball Reed Rothchild (John C. Reily). All and more of these characters are introduced in the opening of the film which constitutes one three and a half minute shot that starts in the city streets and ends with Eddie buses tables in some lowly corner in the club.

As the shot ends on Eddie's face we see a neon star shining brightly behind his head. We cut to Jack Horner, who is gazing over at Eddie almost hypnotized. He sees that same shining star within this young man, and tells him so when he meets him in the back as Eddie's washing dishes. He tells Eddie, "I got a feeling beneath those jeans there's something wonderful just waiting to get out." And he is true, because beneath those jeans is Eddie's most prized possession: a 14-inch penis.

When finally coaxed into meeting Horner and the rest of the group, Horner unveils his dream. Horner doesn't want to make films just for the purpose of somebody else's orgasm, he wants to make a film that really matters. He sees adult films as an art form. He doesn't see his films as anything but thrilling, low-budget films that happen to contain extreme erotica. He knows that with Eddie's help, he can make adult filmmaking a serious art form. And when Eddie decides to come along for the ride (changing his name to Dirk Diggler), they become superstars.

Among the other characters involved in the pornography empire are a chubby, unkempt sound guy named Scotty J (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nervous assistant director whose wife is extremely open about her adulterous behiavior, Little Bill (William H. Macy), and a Mexican club owner who has dreams to star in one of Horner's films, Maurice (Luis Guzman).

All these characters have importance to the overall tone within Boogie Nights. They are all outsiders to the normal world. Eddie and Rollergirl have both dropped out of high school, and can't go back when they've indulged in these careers. Amber struggles with a drug habit and an ex-husband who won't allow her to even see her young son. Little Bill's wife is interested in having sex with about anybody except him. Everybody in this erotic world has traveled there on a road of pain and isolation. Together though, they are all cult celebrities with hundreds of fans who adore their seeming beauty.

The beauty behind Anderson's work in this film is the ability at which he weaves all these brilliantly skewered characters together. No one characters out stays it's welcome, and despite showcasing them all pretty competently, the story still has the ability to make sure that it never loses it's focus on Eddie--now Dirk Diggler. After his first film, Dirk becomes a huge star, winning numerous Adult Film Awards, and putting Jack Horner right back on the top of elite adult filmmakers.

Of coarse, like any other great epic story, the fortunes of all these characters have their inevitable, tragic reversal. The 70's turns into the 80's, and the lavish partying turns into dangerous drug habits. Dirk, after years of wearing out his goods, begins having issues with impotence. Amber goes to court to get custody of her son, but in the process loses any and all possible visitation rights with him. Horner is forced to give up his dreams of making important adult films, as he adjusts to a dominant new wave in porno, where scripts and film are obsolete, and amateurs and videotape are what everybody buys.

With everything that we've seen, Anderson has the audacity to introduce even more characters in the second half of the film. They work mostly to emphasize everybody's downfall. One character, Floyd Gondolli, played with incredible nuance by Philip Baker Hall, is the one who ushers in the new wave of video tape. Then there is Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) a character who is neither an actor or a filmmaker who is able to penetrate these characters' world and bring in more drugs and more unneeded excess as they all spiral toward destruction.

The film culminates in a very tense, very loud scene in which Reed, Dirk, and Todd decide to sell a kilo of coke in order to get money. When they enter the house where the deal will be done, they are greeted by a strung out, scantily-clad drug dealer named Rahad Jackson. He has an armed bodyguard, a troubled young man who's lighting fireworks inside the house, and decides to play "Sister Christine" by Night Ranger. The scene is the most tense, most electrifying scene in the movie. It is the climax that showcases the absolute bottom these professionals' lives.

The greatest praise that can be given to the film is to it's cast. Every member fills out their characters to the ultimate fruition. Reynolds probably gives the best work of his career in the film as the patriarch and leader, and Moore's work as the irresponsible mother is one of many great performances within her career. Macy, Reily, Cheadle, and Graham among many give wonderfully subtle performances, but the real star that shines throughout is Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg slowly shows Eddie's descent into Dirk Diggler (and his later infatuation with his screen character, Brock Landers). Dirk's growing ego and later deterioration is what drives the film's tragedy.

Out of all of Paul Thomas Anderson's work, Boogie Nights is probably his most commercially successful film (not that it makes the film a blockbuster). It received great acclaim and introduced most of the country to the next great young filmmaker. Every film that Anderson has made has had one major trait, and that is unrelenting ambition. He would later make his epic mosaic film Magnolia which many would say was a much better ensemble piece. That said, none of his films would have been made (including the recent There Will Be Blood) without the success of Boogie Nights.

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