We are less than a month away from the release of Inherent Vice and I am only on the second film in my Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective. My prospects for completing the project are not looking great, but I shall continue on anyway. The good news is that Boogie Nights is the last PTA movie that I had not seen previously, so I have now watched each of his films at least once. Boogie Nights was released only one year after Hard Eight, Anderson’s debut, but his artistic progression is so great that you might be forgiven for guessing something more like ten years had passed.
Depicting the porn boom through the end of the 70’s and 80’s, Boogie Nights features Anderson’s first foray into a large ensemble piece, a format he will subsequently perfect and then abandon with Magnolia. Mark Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams (a.k.a. Dirk Diggler), a young southern Californian who finds himself recruited into the pornography industry by director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) on the merits of his giant penis. Once involved he becomes familiar with both performers – including Jack’s lover Amber (Julianne Moore), a young skates-bound starlet known only as “Rollergirl” (Heather Graham), a new best friend in the form of Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and actor-turned-entrepreneur Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) – and crew members – such as emotionally-tortured boom operator Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cuckolded assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy), and money man The Colonel (Robert Ridgely). Each character struggles with ennui, time, and more concrete conflicts as their chosen profession evolves faster than they are able to.
The cast is huge, and Anderson takes great care to ensure each character gets as much attention as possible – even smaller parts played by actors such as Luis Guzmán, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Jane, and Alfred Molina. Anderson’s generosity of screentime is evident from the very opening shot, a singular handheld take that introduces us to Guzmán, Reynolds, Moore, Reilly, Cheadle, Graham, and Wahlberg, without ever cutting. This opening moment gives us an impression of who each of these characters are: Reynolds’s Jack holds court over everyone, while Cheadle’s Buck seeks approval and Reilly’s Reed tries to impress; Rollergirl looks to Amber as a mother, and Wahlberg’s wide-eyed outsider watches it all with excitement and curiosity.
Anderson has faith in his cinematographer Robert Elswit, with whom he worked on Hard Eight. Together the craft several of these long takes, often weaving in and around Jack’s house. Anderson uses these scenes to convey the droll mundanities of a industry which could so easily be glamorized – or at the very least sensationalized. So while a supposed party is taking place, we are instead treated to Reed’s nerdy fascination with magic or a treatise on Buck’s newest look. Even in the midst of shooting one of Jack’s pictures, the more interesting action is found in all of the technical aspects than in the action on-camera. And when Anderson does indulge in the debauchery, he finds ways to undermine it; such is the case when a child calls Jack’s house during a party, desperately looking to speak with his mother. That darker edge comes more to the forefront as the film transitions into the 80’s. Suddenly all of the tedium is replaced by the sad realities of the lives these people lead. All the while, Anderson contrasts these scenes with the quintessential soundtrack of the era, as if to score the fun time that the characters actively are not having.
Boogie Nights is Anderson’s first masterpiece, but it won’t be his last. His move away from overt plot developments benefits the reality of his film, and his loose structure allows for characters to enter and exit the narrative as necessary, without worrying that the audience won’t follow along. Anderson’s faith in the viewer is not misguided, though he does lose sight of it near the end. Anderson becomes so focused on providing us with satisfying endings, that he loses touch with the tone up to that point. However, the end of the film doesn’t mean the end of these characters’ lives; they will continue to make the same mistake and feel the same feelings. Perhaps though, each character has learned something from their experience. It’s clear that Anderson has.