Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

Notable Festivals: Toronto, New York

For most filmmakers, every one has that singular film that serves as a flashpoint in their own individual development; a film that lets them see the whole medium of cinema through new eyes, informing and shaping everything that comes after it. My flashpoint arrived in the winter of 2005—I had just moved to Boston to attend Emerson College, and my film watching experience was limited to whatever was new in theatres or at Blockbuster. One night, my new roommates sat me down to watch a film by a director I had never of heard of before—Paul Thomas Anderson. The film? Anderson’s second feature:BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). I was transfixed; riveted by the subtle layers and subtext unfolding before me in such rich, dynamic and new ways. BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my favorite films of all time—a film that I return to time after time for inspiration and guidance.

Despite having previously made the well-received HARD EIGHT in 1996, BOOGIE NIGHTS became Anderson’s breakout force and announced him to the film community as a bold, new force to be reckoned with. The success of HARD EIGHT had enabled access to the executives at New Line Cinema, who wanted to help him make his follow-up. With these powerful forces at his side, Anderson turned to his 1988 short, THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, for inspiration in creating the backbone of a new story. He fleshed this little nugget out into a sprawling meditation on the San Fernando Valley’s pornography industry over two decades of success and upheaval.

BOOGIE NIGHTS begins amidst the glittering disco lights of 1977, before the specter of AIDS took away the notion of free love without consequences and spurred heavy government regulation on the porn industry. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a young high school dropout from Torrance who buses into his nightly job as a bar-back for a disco club out in Reseda. Eddie is a quiet, unassuming boy, save for his hidden talent: an abnormally large penis, which he uses to generate extra income by masturbating in front of strangers for money. One night, he meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director of exotic adult films who invites Eddie into his world with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. Eddie eagerly takes Horner up on his offer, quickly ingratiating himself into the larger-than-life world of pornography and finding a close-knit family in the group of collaborators that Horner has assembled around himself.

Eddie takes the stage name Dirk Diggler, and with his inherent natural talent and sexual prowess, soon takes the entire operation into the stratosphere. Diggler and company ride high through the remainder of the 70’s, but a murder/suicide committed in Jack’s house on New Year’s Eve 1979 welcomes the 80’s with a foreboding, bloody omen. The dawn of a new decade also heralds the arrival of a new technology that promises to upend the industry as they know it: videotape. As video becomes more commonplace, Jack Horner and company find their artistic integrity compromised, and their personal lives significantly altered for the worse. As Dirk strays increasingly further from Jack’s clan, he risks destroying himself upon the very altar of his own success.

Despite dealing with such lurid subject matter, Anderson finds a peculiar kind of dignity and grace within his characters. He shows us that pornographers are people too—just as capable of real love as we are. Before BOOGIE NIGHTS, Wahlberg was “Marky Mark”, a young rapper with a few unimpressive film credits to his name, but the role of Dirk Diggler established him as a genuine acting force that persists to this day.

Reynolds is inspired casting as the patriarch of his little porno family/empire. Like John Travolta in Quentin Tarantino’sPULP FICTION (1994), Reynolds’ against-type performance resulted in a newfound cultural relevancy after a long spell of waning popularity, eventually culminating in an Oscar nomination for his performance. Ironically, Reynolds hated the role and didn’t get along with Anderson during filming. He even went so far as to fire his agent for recommending the role to him.

Julianne Moore counters the two-fisted machismo of Wahlberg and Reynolds as Amber Waves, Horner’s wife and a mother figure to Dirk. She’s heartbroken over her real son being taken away from her by child services, so she turns to Dirk for a surrogate relationship—one that becomes incestuously sexual. Moore turns in one of her most beautiful performances here as a conflicted, inherently sad woman with deep reservoirs of unconditional love, walking away with an Oscar nomination for her efforts.

BOOGIE NIGHTS also serves as an establishment of Anderson’s close-knit repertory of performers—actors who have come to regularly appear in his films throughout his career. These include Luis Guzman (as a nightclub owner and pornstar-wannabe), John C Reilly (as Dirk’s doggishly loyal friend and co-performer), William H Macy (as the disgruntled, cuckolded assistant director), Ricky Jay (as the droll cinematographer), and Philip Baker Hall (as Floyd Gondolli, a smug rival of Jack Horner’s who personifies the encroaching malevolence of videotape). On the female side, there’s Melora Walters as a sweet and naïve porn actress, and Heather Graham as the plucky, somewhat-ditzy Rollergirl. Further rounding out the cast is Don Cheadle as urban cowboy Buck Swope, Thomas Jane as cocky bad boy Todd Parker, and Bob Ridgley, who starred as Jack Horner in THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY and makes his last film appearance before his death here as The Colonel, an eccentric dandy who finances Jack’s films. And last but not least, there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s closest acting collaborator who tragically passed away last week. He left behind an enduring legacy of masterful performances, one of which is found in BOOGIE NIGHTS’ Scotty J, a sexually confused and awkward boom operator who carries a one-sided torch for Dirk.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is the work of a young, ambitious filmmaker with bottomless reserves of zeal and talent. The tone is a distinctive blend of the multiple-perspective affectations of Robert Altman and the volatile, kinetic energy of Martin Scorsese. HARD EIGHT’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, returns to shoot the film in the true anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (achieved this time via actual anamorphic lenses and not a workaround like Anderson and Elswit had done previously). Bob Ziembecki’s authentic period production design never reads as over-the-top and kitschy, instead popping from the frame in appropriate blasts of psychedelic color. The brilliant performances and Anderson’s bold narrative are aided by a constantly-moving camera that glides through the various scenes like an unstoppable rollercoaster. Even from an early age, Anderson has utilized the camera more confidently and audaciously than any of his peers, effortlessly mixing Steadicam, dolly, and handheld shots into a coherent whole.

Anderson’s use of the Steadicam in particular is worth noting, choosing to cover many of the scenes in long, traveling shots. The most notable of this is BOOGIE NIGHTS’ opening shot, which is, bar none, one of the best openings in recent film history. We start on a neon marquee flashing the film’s title, and then crane down to reveal a lively street scene that establishes both the setting and the time period. Then, without skipping a beat, the camera operator steps off his platform on the crane and then enters Guzman’s nightclub as Anderson introduces us to all the major players of the story in one unbroken take, a la Altman’s iconic opening to THE PLAYER (1992). Of course, all this virtuoso camerawork wouldn’t be nearly as effective without editor Dylan Tichenor to stitch it all together. The film runs nearly three hours long, but if feels half that length thanks to Tichenor’s breathless pacing and exuberant sense of energy.

A major commercial selling point of BOOGIE NIGHTS was the music—specifically, the glut of 1970’s and 80’s pop hits that likely moved more copies of the soundtrack CD than the actual film itself. Anderson’s ear for music is spot-on, using several well-known cues in interesting ways that fill out the reality and authenticity of the period. The indulgence of the era is reflected in the glitzy needledrops, oftentimes creating an association between song and picture that becomes forever joined in the mind. One instance of this is a scene where Alfred Molina’s drug dealer character sings along to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” during a particularly foreboding business exchange. It’s an unbearably tense sequence and a master-class in direction even without the music, but its inclusion transforms the scene into a truly transcendent moment.

For the score, Anderson recruits HARD EIGHT’s Michael Penn, who bases his musical palette around an inspired conceit—a carnival. The film opens against black with a somber dirge that sounds like a sad clown flailing around under the big top, a theme that reprises itself later on as a motif signifying Jack Horner’s little family unit. The strange, carnivalesque nature of Penn’s score reflects Anderson’s bizarre, yet touching display of humanity while highlighting the hidden similarities between two decidedly different performance-based occupations.

Several of Anderson’s thematic preoccupations are present here, coalescing into an identifiable set of tropes. As a member of the first generation to come up under the rise of video, Anderson’s incorporation of the medium is more involved than any other filmmaker of his ilk. In BOOGIE NIGHTS, the arrival of video is a major plot point, throwing the industry into a state of massive flux and becoming the fulcrum of conflict between Reynolds and Hall’s characters. Videotape highlights the characters as ideological opposites, fighting a war that pits economics vs. artistry—a conflict that can be argued to encapsulate the film industry as a whole.

To the characters of BOOGIE NIGHTS, video is a harbinger of doom and betrayal. Its arrival coincides with the fall of Dirk Diggler and Jack Horner, the fallout on their professional and personal lives being akin to a devastating meteor, or a nuclear bomb. BOOGIE NIGHTS shows remarkable prescience in its insights into video’s role in the video arts. We’re still having the film vs. video argument today, although now the two mediums are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Because Anderson’s films very rarely have life or death stakes, the driving force and the emotional drama stems from the theme of family—specifically the threat of abandonment or loss. BOOGIE NIGHTS places this dynamic at the core of its story, presenting Horner’s filmmaking crew as a legitimate family, sharing in each other’s big life moments and cheering them on at weddings and awards shows. Anderson also shows us how Dirk Diggler’s abandonment of his adopted family of pornographers leads to ruin. At the end of the day, he saves himself by crawling back in shame to Horner’s patriarch figure. In ending his story in this fashion, Anderson has created a prodigal son fable for the twentieth century. It’s a parable that illustrates the conceit that tragedy will ultimately befall those who choose to permanently turn away from family.

Anderson’s films often set their stories in his home state of California, and BOOGIE NIGHTS—perhaps more so than his other works—could not have taken place anywhere else but the Golden State. The San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, has served as the epicenter of the porn industry since its inception. Just like porn plays the redheaded, swept-under-the-rug stepchild to the Hollywood film industry, so too does the Valley sit offset from Los Angeles, stigmatized and dismissed because of its sleepy, suburban airs. Like it or not, the porn industry is very much a part of southern California’s cultural heritage, so who better to paint its portrait than Anderson, the great cinematic recorder of California himself.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is also perhaps the most frank look at another of Anderson’s key recurring themes, that of sex dependence. HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS both flirt with sex as a paid profession: the former’s emotional tensions that stem from the troubles of Gwyneth Paltrow’s weary hooker Clementine contrasts with the latter’s celebration of sex on camera as an act of liberation and expression. This also highlights a strange double standard when it comes to paid sex—the presence of the camera, for whatever reason, is the final arbiter between what is legal and what is not. The characters ofBOOGIE NIGHTS come to depend on their sexuality, as if it were a drug. Towards the end of the film, Dirk Diggler is back to where he started, reduced to jerking himself off in front of strangers for a couple bucks. For others, like Cheadles’ Buck Swope, their past as porn stars hangs like a noose around their necks, impeding their progress in real world pursuits like starting a family or taking out a business loan.

BOOGIE NIGHTS caused quite a stir when it released, with high praise for prestigious film festivals like Toronto and New York leading to three Oscar nominations (one of which was a Screenplay nod for Anderson himself). The film was a breakout hit, its success arguably fueled by a bout of 70’s nostalgia that was pervading pop culture at the time. Thankfully, BOOGIE NIGHTS’ legacy has outshined the trends of it day, enduring to become one of the best films of its decade and ensuring Anderson’s future as a major new talent on the scene.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from New Line Cinema.

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Lloyd Kevin, Daniel Lupi, John Lyons, JoAnne Sellar
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Production Designer: Bob Ziembecki
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Music: Michael Penn