Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson » Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997 » Region/Time: U.S.A., 156 minutes.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg as Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler » Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner » John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild » Julianne Moore as Amber Waves/Maggie » Heather Graham as Rollergirl » Don Cheadle as Buck Swope » Luis Guzmán as Maurice » Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty » William H. Macy as Little Bill » Thomas Jane as Todd Parker » Melora Walters as Jessie St. Vincent » Ricky Jay as Kurt Longjohn » Robert Ridgely as Colonel James » Alfred Molina as Rahad Jackson » Philip Baker Hall as Floyd Gondolli.
“Everyone’s blessed with one special thing.”
I’m not sure if it was Blood, Sweat & Tears or Sir Isaac Newton, but whoever said “what goes up, must come down” probably didn’t realise that Paul Thomas Anderson would apply it to every single character in Boogie Nights. Anderson himself has described his dissection of the pornography industry as “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” The film is a sprawling (2h30m) masterpiece that examines the strength of relationships among many truly troubled individuals.
Anderson spent several years researching the history of pornography on film and inserting himself into the society of people involved in creating porn. He found the people involved fascinating, from the women who submerged all the pain in their lives under numbing drugs, to the men with oversized egos overcompensating for oversized insecurities. In Boogie Nights, PT Anderson finds the humanity in his large cast of characters, as they try to support one another in a kind of grand guignol mock-family.
In the opening moments – a three and a half minute tracking shot – we are introduced to a majority of the major characters of the film, as they party at Maurice’s nightclub. The tracking shot, after fluidly picking out each character on the dance floor and in the booths, finds the busboy, Eddie Adams. He is the protagonist in the film, and the first cut of the film is to Jack Horner watching him. Jack Horner acts as the “father” to Eddie as the “son”. In short order, we learn that Jack Horner is a director of porn films, that his wife, Amber Waves, and Rollergirl are actresses in the films. We learn that Eddie is unusually well endowed and that Jack wants him to be a star in his films. The family motif is enforced as we see hints of Eddie’s real, passive father and overly protective and shrewish mother. This is contrasted with Jack’s fatherly affection towards Eddie, as well as Amber’s need to mother him, Rollergirl as a younger sister and Reed Rothchild as an older brother. Of course, since this is the porn industry, Eddie ends up having sex with both Amber and Rollergirl, taking on incestuous overtones. PT Anderson, however, found this to be typical of the society in the porn world.
Once Eddie has decided to be part of the porn industry, there is another ambitious tracking shot that follows him around a party that Jack throws for him, only ending as the camera itself jumps into the water after a diving woman. During this party, Eddie decides to become Dirk Diggler. We are introduced to the financer Colonel James, the cameraman Kurt Longjohn, the assistant director Little Bill, fellow actors Buck Swope and Jessie St. Vincent and the soundman Scotty. It is clear right away that Scotty has a crush on Eddie. The film continues to show Dirk Diggler’s rapid rise, as he wins awards at Adult Film Awards several years running. By the end of the first hour of the film, Dirk is on top of the (adult film) world.
The second hour of the film begins with a New Year’s Party to introduce the year 1980. It is here that everything begins to go wrong for everyone. At the party, we discover that, although Jack is determined to stay fast in his film world, videotape is set to become the future of porn, as it is much cheaper and is “the real world.” We see Amber corrupt Dirk and give him his first taste of cocaine. We also see the arrival of an old friend of Reed’s, Todd Parker. The party ends with yet another brilliant tracking shot as Little Bill arrives, discovers (yet again) his wife having sex with another man, goes to his car, gets his gun, kills both of them and then himself. (A Side Note: Anderson was alarmed at a preview screening of the film because the audience started to cheer and laugh at this scene. Anderson was horrified, especially as it was a tracking shot and he would not be able to “fix” it in the editing room. When Little Bill shot himself, however, the crowd went completely silent—suddenly aware that this movie had taken a dark turn and wasn’t going to shy away from the consequences of life in the porn world. Anderson was comforted.)
In short order, The Colonel is indicted for child pornography, Dirk (with Reed and Todd) becomes so immersed in cocaine use that he can no longer get an erection, thus getting booted from his career, Amber loses her child custody due to her career, Buck cannot secure a small business loan because of his career, and Scotty’s crush on Dirk is rejected. At this point in the commentary, Anderson notes that most people do not get out of the porn industry—they either discover Christ or die.
The film ends with two sequences. The first is a drug deal gone wrong based, as is most of the film, on the real-life adventures of porn star John Holmes. Desperately in need of cash, Reed, Dirk and Todd pawn off baking soda on a drug czar. In a ludicrously over-the-top performance, Alfred Molina’s Rahad Jackson accepts the drugs, while setting off firecrackers, playing Russian roulette and air drumming to “Jessie’s Girl”. It all goes wrong, of course, and ends with the deaths of several people.
Dirk returns to Jack with his tail between his legs and Jack accepts him. The second last shot of the film is yet another tracking shot, showing the surrogate family reunited as the usual crew prepares yet another film (this one shot on video). The final shot is Eddie Adams, who we have seen in early scenes as a fan of typical macho movies of the seventies, reciting lines in front of a mirror, in an echo of Raging Bull. It is entirely possible that Eddie (the character) has actually seen Raging Bull, however, and so this scene becomes Eddie Adams being Dirk Diggler being Brock Landers being Robert DeNiro being Jake LeMotta being Marlon Brando being Terry Malloy – by this point, Eddie has so completely submerged himself in his new world that he no longer exists.
In contrast to Tarantino, who finds many of his influences in world cinema, Anderson is highly influenced by a trifecta of American cinema: Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. Watching Boogie Nights is like playing spot-the-influence: there’s a giant close-up of a handshake right out of Silence of the Lambs!; there’s a tracking shot from GoodFellas!; or there’s a party scene right out of M*A*S*H!
The film mostly avoids the salacious aspects of an exposé of the porn industry, but does not avoid the darkness inherent in that world. I haven’t even touched on how brilliant the acting is from everyone – especially Mark Wahlberg – or how funny, touching and affecting the movie is.
Up Next in the Film Canon: An eligible bachelor tries to find himself a bride.