Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights revolves around one of the most darkly comic MacGuffins in cinematic history. Like the shark in Jaws, the member of Dirk Diggler at once drives the film and remains unseen, achieving a mythic quality before the payoff. We gauge its size through the reaction shots of those who gaze upon it. Anderson films close-ups of widened eyes and slacked jaws; women (and jealous, insecure men) gaze lustfully at Dirk's diggler, and its symbolic import drives most of the film. Yet just as the shark ultimately didn't live up to the hype -- who can miss that bounce when the shark leaps onto the boat? -- so too does Dirk's member fail to measure up in the end, a flaccid and impotent fossil of the great beast it once was.
Boogie Nights' immediate and most pervasive influence is, of course, Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas: both use highly stylized direction (Anderson's clearly derives from Marty's) to weave an epic tragicomedy of a seedy underworld, GoodFellas with organized crime and Boogie Nights the porn industry. Anderson defines his world with two early, extended tracking shots, one in a discotheque that briefly introduces the large cast and a second, at a pool party, that gives them shape and definition. Both of these tracking shots, as with the magnificent shots of the club and the Copa in GoodFellas, are shimmering and sensual, not so much calling attention to themselves -- as so many extended tracking shots do -- but calling attention to themselves through the narcissism of the world it paints; in both films, the shots justify themselves by reflecting the vanity and self-indulgence of the areas they profile.
At the discotheque works Dirk (né Eddie Adams), a high school dropout who cleans dishes in between working as a male prostitute. His home life recalls Rebel Without a Cause, a harpy-like mother who snaps at her submissive husband; Dirk has to take a bus from Torrance to Reseda to work at the nightclub, a job he could just as easily get closer to home, but then he might not enjoy the benefit of that extra hour each way away from his family. One night, Eddie meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), an adult film director who's heard rumors of the particularly gifted washroom boy. Jack invites the lad to his lavish home in the suburbs, a convenient offer when Eddie runs away from home, and before you know it Eddie renames himself Dirk and jumps into his new occupation with vigor.
Toeing the line between absurdity and epic tragedy, Boogie Nights charts the rise and fall of the Me Generation through the highs and lows of the pornography industry, the snowblind cocaine binge of its stars a microcosm for the nation's own drug escapism and the effect of the VHS tape on the business representative of the Reagonomic turn to cold, pragmatic capitalism above all else. Anderson, for his part, understands how ridiculous his story is, and he fills the screen with goofball characters too odd to be anything but believable, such as Don Cheadle as a country music-loving porn star who by day works as a stereo salesman and audiophile; Heather Graham as a young starlet who never takes off her roller skates; John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild, the former big star who gets gently shoved to the role of the sidekick to make way for Dirk even before the kid enters the business; and William H. Macy as Bill, the cuckolded assistant director, always forced to suffer the indignity of his wife's (porn star Nina Hartley, who ironically enjoyed reportedly the most stable and longest lasting relationship in the business*) public adultery.
Too, Anderson uses his camera with a great deal of wit: he oversaturates the pool party with light, a cheeky emphasis on the sunny appeal of this line of work to the impressionable and, as we learn quickly, childlike Dirk. When Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the gay boom operator, arrives, Anderson cuts to his POV, framing Dirk in an iris. Naturally, the scenes involving actual porn shoots are hysterical, with the characters woodenly delivering basic dialogue as Jack looks on, brow furrowed in concentration as if a compatriot of the New Hollywood filmmakers taking cinema to bold new territories around the same time. Anderson's stylistic quick-tracks and brightly colored sheen are captivating and immersive even as they are off-putting, gently separating us from the fast-paced, gaudy world he's documenting to allow us to spot the cracks forming before the world of leopard prints and suede crumbles around them.
Working with a cast of Altmanesque proportions, Anderson nevertheless adheres to Scorsese's GoodFellas formula of centering the action on a few characters and rooting the camera in the point of view of the main protagonist. Like Henry Hill, Eddie/Dirk falls into his seedy line of work in adolescence -- Henry starts working for the mob as a boy, while the emotionally stunted, teenage Eddie finds the same familial comfort in adult films -- and rises through the ranks by knowing the game in and out. Dirk even has a primal innocence that Hill never exhibited: in his first shoot, he sheepishly asks if he's doing well, gently asking for encouragement from both his partner in the scene and the people filming. Even as he edges Reed to the sidelines, he develops a deep friendship with the guy. Yet, as Henry before him, Dirk loses himself to cocaine, the white powder affecting his performance and seeding jealous paranoia in his mind, fueling an impotent rage that sends him into a tailspin. Mark Wahlberg, then underwear model and wannabe rapper who played like the New Kids on the Block (of which his brother Donnie was a member) crossed with Vanilla Ice, manages to walk the same tightrope Ray Liotta traversed, between reactive dependency on the factors that affect the character and propulsive acting.
Also key to the story and its thematic purpose is Jack. Played by Burt Reynolds, possibly the icon of '70s populist cinema, Jack represents a perversion of the nostalgia of the decade. As much as he's a seasoned pro, Jack genuinely believes the bullshit he's slinging -- that he's a true filmmaker bringing art to the genre, that he discovers and fosters artistic talent and that he's a father figure to these strung-out, lost children -- and Reynolds makes us like him almost in spite of himself. Perhaps the central performance of the film, however, is Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, the aging porn star who projects the matronly love she's not allowed to give her actual child, separated by her vindictive ex-husband, onto the people in the business, offering a bastion of warmth and support for kids too dumb to realize that she's worse than all of them. She acts out a reverse Oedipal complex with Dirk, her feelings falling somewhere in-between motherly love and sexual lust; a testament to her misplaced sensibilities, she is the one who first offers Dirk cocaine, setting in motion his downfall.
Boogie Nights takes a turn for the worse, symbolically, on the eve of the new decade, with a murder-suicide that grinds the festivities and optimism to a screeching halt. Bill's explosive solution to his wife's infidelity is brief and brutal, ushering in the age of instant gratification: soon, Jack's financier (Robert Ridgely) is busted for possession of child pornography, and his new producer (Philip Baker Hall) curtly tears down Jack's belief in the art of his films, forcing the director to make cheap, to-the-point pictures to be released straight to VHS.
A dark comedy floats over the entire picture, but it dives into the blackest abyss in the third act. Buck (Cheadle) cannot secure a loan for his own stereo outlet, as the bank won't finance a porn star, thus trapping him in the lifestyle. His dream become a harsh nightmare, Jack's cool enthusiasm for his work transforms into bitter workmanship, and both he and Rollergirl unleash their pent-up fury on a derisive amateur performer. Dirk and Reed fall out of the porn business in their addled and attempt to land a record deal, and dire straits force Dirk to return to his life as a male prostitute, leading to an altercation with a group of homophobes.
Brilliantly illustrating the cultural shift from the carefree, self-appraising narcissism and the outright, desperate solipsism of Reagan's '80s is the final extended scene, in which Dirk, Reed and their buddy Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to scam and rob a drug dealer (Alfred Molina). Molina's apartment condenses the difference between the two decades by replacing the faux-homely, gaudy, sickly warm splendor of '70s decor with icy modern interior design: harsh, white lighting illuminating the slick, mathematically precise furniture, speakers booming soulless synth-pop to match the feel of the decor. One of the most twisted, bizarrely funny sequences I can recall seeing -- and the only sequence in contemporary film that matches the odd tension of one of Quentin Tarantino's elongated scenes -- Todd's plan strikes us as doomed from the start and only gets worse as Molina bandies wildly about the place waving a gun around while a Vietnamese boy in the corner of the living room tosses firecrackers to freak these coked-up robbers out even further. It ends with the sudden, comic brutality of a Tarantino climax, paving the way for a change of heart in Dirk.
Boogie Nights ends with the characters reconciled, several living in Jack's home, the familial undertones of initial interactions now fully developed ties. Yet the comforting ending belies the tragedy of the film: whenever any of these characters interact with the outside world -- as they did in most of the third act -- they are beaten, shot, derided and shunned. Jack will never make another film that will play in a theater; Amber will never gain custody of her child; Dirk and Rollergirl are just two high school dropouts with talents that can be considered old and useless on a yearly basis (surf a few web sites on a virus-protected computer to see an industry that shoehorns its performers into the mature category before they even hit 30**). Anderson is kind enough (though perhaps naïve) not to show any characters ravaged by AIDS, as we so many porn stars during the '80s (among them John Holmes, the basis for Dirk Diggler), but one could scarcely call the ending a happy one. These characters are trapped in their version of Grey Gardens, cut off by a world that sanctimoniously condescends to them even as they increasingly embrace pornography's ethos of gratification and hollow glamor. Even in their glitzy, expensive estate, they're as manipulated and castrated by Reagan's economy and the rise of empty moralism as the poor.
*Research for this film was...interesting.
** Again, very interesting.