Boogie Nights


 

There is so much to like and admire about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie
Nights that small qualms or reservations seem petty. The tone — and the plot — of
the movie is summed up in its subtitle (when was the last time a movie had a subtitle?):
"The Life of a Dreamer, the Days of a Business and the Nights in
Between." This might have been the subtitle of a Horatio Alger
pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps novel — Ragged Dick? — or some 1960s young man as
dreamer movie a la The Graduate. But Boogie Nights is the story of
Eddie (Mark Whalberg) a sweet, ingratiating busboy with a huge dick who is reinvented as
Dirk Diggler, a porn star who has charm as well as schlong.

Boogie Nights tales place over seven years — from the late 1970s to the
mid-1980s — and uses its porn industry setting to chart changes in U.S. culture. We go
from disco and coke to violence and videotape, from instant celebrity for sex to a
backlash against sexual expression. At the heart of this story is Dirk Diggler’s endless
adventures as a niaf in the world of knaves. If there is a template for

Boogie Nights it is not the Horatio Alger epic, but Voltaire’s Candide.
Mark Whalberg’s Eddie — and his reincarnation as Dirk — is just really a nice simple guy
who wants to get through life and have people like him. In his first sex movie with the
motherly Amber Waves (a great performance by Julianne Moore) he asks with great sincerity
"Is it all right if I try to make it look sexy?" and with the charm of a
neophyte asks "Where do you want me to come?" Like Candide, Dick feels he
has the whole world before him — fame, money, a new family. He even has his own personal
guide — a contemporary, sleezed out version of Dr. Pangloss — Jack Horner (Bert
Reynolds) a sweet talking porn director who discovers Eddie and opens his home, family
style, to the women and men who work for him. But then things begin to go wrong: Dirk gets
a little too old, his coke and crystal meth habits get out of control, violence begins
breaking out all around him, he takes to hustling. Like Candide, who survives
pirates, earthquakes, corrupt clergy, duplicitous whores, and his own stupidity, Dirk
Diggler manages to come through in the end and return to his home — Jack Horner’s house
as a stand-in for Westphalia — and, like Candide, to cultivate his garden by
making run-of-the-mill porn.

The great thing about Boogie Nights is that it captures, perfectly, the
naive insanity of the late 1970s. This is all new — sex, drugs, disco, fame, money — and
Diggler, Amber Waves, Jack Horner and his crew are completely taken with it. While
Anderson shows that there is already corruption surrounding them (and more moving in) he
presents the people and their time as basically good and well intentioned. There is no
glossing over the fact that sometimes someone ODs on coke, or that sexual experiment has
its downside (a key member of the group kills his wife and then commits suicide because he
can’t deal with their open marriage) but at heart Anderson views and celebrates this
period as a time of freedom. Given the pervasive moralism that has been creeping into
every aspect of American life over the past thirty years, it is amazing to see a movie
that presents sex and drugs without overt condemnation or a sense of outrage.

The ability to do this is a direct outcome of Anderson’s determination to find the
essential good, the human worth in his characters. Towards the end of the film Rollergirl
(Heather Graham), a fragile porn actress who does too much coke and needs too much love
from her fellow performers, begins viciously beating up a guy who knew her from
high-school after he insults her during a misguided sexual encounter. The attack is bloody
and mostly unwarranted, but when it happens we — shockingly — side with Rollergirl
because we believe Anderson’s view that although she might be a coked up prostitute and
sleazy porn star, her personal integrity has been deeply wounded. It is an amazing
feat of filmmaking to sustain an audience’s empathy for characters who are, in the end,
not all that likable.

But in spite of this, there are aspects of Boogie Nights that mitigate
against it being a truly great film. Anderson’s empathy for his characters too often
translates into sentimentality. A harsh scene in the beginning of Eddie arguing with his
confused and angry mother (a great cameo by Joanna Gleason) hits home with a wallop that
never again catches his complexity. Towards the end of the film a scene of Amber and
Rollergirl doing coke together and getting so trashed that their psychic insides keep
spilling all over the room — Rollergirl wants to call Amber "mom" and Amber is
both deeply moved and repelled — throws us out of our seats with its emotional honesty.
But for the most part, Boogie Nights prefers its emotional content to be
safe and a little pre-packaged: sentimentality that moves us without really challenging
us. This tendency to sentimentality is also at the heart of the film’s political problems.
At first glance, Boogie Nights has a very post-modern feminist feel to it.
The women who work in the porno industry are not portrayed as automatic victims, and are
presented with a complexity that most of the male characters don’t possess. Neither is the
industry simply glorified, or misogyny glossed over — both Amber Waves and Rollergirl are
fully realized, vibrant characters who are shown functioning as well as they can in this
male-centered world. In a deeply disturbing scene in which she is once again denied
visiting rights to see her son because of her irresponsibility and emotional unsteadiness
Anderson juxtaposes Amber’s — seemingly bizarre — maternal instincts for her fellow
performers with her emotional pain and confusion about her biological mothering. What
shocks here is not the easy equation that she has substituted one relationship for
another, but the emotional complexity that suggests a host of provocative possibilities
from the sexualization of parenthood to the ability to infuse the sexually routine world
of porn making – classic alienated labor — with an authentic emotional
experience.

Anderson is also interested in charting the manifestations of women-hating in the
culture. Early in the film the naive Dirk protests loudly against porno films in which
women are subjected to violence or even insulted — for him this is about
"love." But as he becomes more famous, and self-centered — and as the industry
becomes increasingly commercialized — his films (in particular a James Bond parody series
he writes and stars in) begin to include scenes of his hitting and assaulting women.
Anderson is a smart enough writer to make this sea change shocking. It is as though Dirk
— after years of porn stardom — actually begins to lose his innocence here. But this is
not a simple minded critique of pornography — Dirk’s parody is, after all, simply a
reflection of the ugly sexualized violence of mainstream Hollywood films — and Anderson
makes it clear to us that whatever porn is (and it changes through the course of the film)
it is never disconnected from mainstream culture.

The entrance of violence into the porn film also singles the appearance of violence in
the film’s real world and towards the end of Boogie Nights there are two
long set pieces — a violent nighttime robbery in a doughnut shop and a drug deal gone
completely insane — that move us out of recreations of the late 1970s into the stylized,
violent world of Quentin Tarantino. While both these scenes generate enormous energy they
ultimately don’t work. Anderson clearly intends for them to symbolize — or manifest –
the economic and psychological desperateness of the 1980s in stark relief to the more
innocent 1970s, but they are so bravura, so visually pleased with themselves that they
(like Pulp Fiction) end up celebrating the violence. This is surprising because in the
film’s other two scenes of physical violence — Rollergirl’s attack on her angry trick,
and a violent queer bashing of Dirk (after he begins hustling) by straight hoods –
Anderson uses the violence to illuminate the character’s emotional states but also to
place these people in the context of a changing, confusing, world. Nothing here feels
exploitative or gratuitous, the violence has enormous psychological resonance. In
contrast, the drug deal and robbery scenes begin to feel fake, emotionally false to the
film’s basic view of the world. This emotional falseness is similar — actually the
obverse of — Boogie Nights sentimentality. The problem with the
scenes is not simply that the violence is artistically or emotionally misplaced, but that,
like sentimentality, it opts for easy and unsatisfying interpretations of complicated
material.

It would be easy to claim that as good as Anderson can be these scenes of misplaced
violence are simply a case of his not trusting himself enough to follow his best
instincts. But the problem is a little more complicated. Boogie Nights clearly
wants to be about more then a pop movie about porn and by escalating the violence Anderson
is trying to say something bigger, grander about America. On some level Anderson feels
that these are his best instincts.

Boogie Nights has been compared by several critics to Robert Altman’s
masterpiece Nashville and while it is ambitious and sprawling it has none of that film’s
emotional or political scope.

Nashville worked because Altman’s politics were visceral and immediate; he forced us to
look at popular culture and — while being both charmed and repelled — grapple with its
political meanings. Anderson isn’t as smart as Altman, nor does he have that director’s
ability to shape deadpan cynicism and unalloyed optimism into something that looks like a
coherent, progressive vision. If Altman’s 1960s counterculture political grounding made
Nashville work, it is perhaps Anderson’s late 1990s sense of despair that drives him into
— at the film’s worst moments — sentimental revisionism.

Boogie Nights can’t really imagine a better future, so the only
redemption it can offer its characters is relief from the horrors of everyday life and the
ability to return — battered and only a little wiser — to a seemingly less complicated
past.

The artistic and emotional downside of this is evident at the end of the film. In the
film’s final shot Dirk is about to begin shoot a scene for a new porn film. To prep
himself emotionally for the shoot he takes out his dick — a lovely, very long objet d’art
attached artfully to Mr. Whalberg — looks into the mirror and proclaims, in hushed
tones, to himself and us that he is a star. But the scene is a disaster. By now we have
come to believe that Dirk Diggler is successful because is he nice, sweet, sincere, and a
good person, not just because he has a big dick. The scene is jolting and creates
some Brechtian distance, but it deprives us of our positive feelings about Dirk, making
him stupidly shallow and unaware of himself or his world. The reality is that if this was
only about Dirk’s dick we would not have remained interested for almost three hours.

 Candide resonants because we are all Candide, living in a horrible
world that makes no sense and has no real moral structures except those we create
ourselves. When Boogie Nights works, which is a lot of the time, it is
because in seduces us into wanting the freedom and the pleasure that these characters
experience (even with their downside). Our engagement with the film comes from emotionally
negotiating this vicarious pleasure. And in the end we know that pleasure — sexual or
otherwise — is about far many more things than simply having, or wanting, a big dick.