Monday, April 16, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Boogie Nights

Ask the average person what the first word that comes to mind is when THE GODFATHER is mentioned and I would bet most would say 'gangster'. Ask that same person what word BOOGIE NIGHTS springs to mind and I am guessing the response would be 'porn'. I would answer the question the same way to either one of these films, my answer would be 'family'.
The films of Paul Thomas Anderson are all in some way centered on family, sometimes real families and other times surrogate ones. It seems to be the connecting line in his already fascinating body of work that started with SYDNEY (HARD EIGHT) and will no doubt continue with the upcoming THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
There is a moment just before the famous long tracking shot that opens BOOGIE NIGHTS that I remember clearly being hit by at the film's opening night. The New Line logo, a black screen and then an extremely sad sounding Jon Brion-Michael Penn instrumental. These near silent mournful few moments signal that this film isn't going to be just another nostalgia filled ride through the free and fun loving seventies, it's a lovely way to open the film and I always look forward to it each time I put in the dvd.
The Penn-Brion track quickly gives way to The Emotions BEST OF MY LOVE and the film is off and running. The opening moments of BOOGIE NIGHTS are still some of the most exhilarating I have ever seen as Anderson expertly introduces us to nearly all the main players in a breathtaking long tracking shot that works thematically as well as stylistically. As the camera finally settles on Mark Wahlberg we realize that Anderson has just centered his film on one character, the rest of the cast however important will ultimately travel around him.
Wahlberg is extraordinary in this movie. The early scenes of his home life surrounded by the comfort of his posters of Bruce Lee, Al Pacino and other Seventies icons are crushed quickly by his smothering and harsh mother and weak near invisible father. One can easily see why Eddie would want to, and need to, get away from this so called family. An early moment between him and a girlfriend has him revealing that even he "is blessed with one special thing" and he soon finds someone who recognizes it.
Adult film director Jack Horner is the one who is going to let him use that one special thing and the film quickly roles into overdrive with Eddie leaving home and becoming the superstar Dirk Diggler. He finds a new home with his new 'father' Horner and a sweet caring new 'mother' Amber Waves. Also on board, and all lost in their own way, are co-star Reed Rothchild, teenage sex queen Roller-Girl and the dreamer Buck Swope. They all have one thing in common, they are all lost and need love.
Dirk's rise to the top of the adult film world and Horner's ambition to make one film "that's true" make the first half of BOOGIE NIGHTS one of the funnest films of the nineties. There are of course drugs and flirtations with disasters from the beginning but as long as the film stays in the seventies, everything will be okay.
Along the way we find out more about the supporting characters. Reed wants badly to be a magician, Amber wants her real son back, Buck wants to have a family and open a stereo shop, and Roller-Girl ultimately wants love and respect. Anderson gives all of these characters an amazing amount of life and we are totally sympathetic to them. These aren't adult film stars but real people all needing and wanting very specific things.
Dirk Diggler wants to be one of those posters from his wall and prove to his mother that his is indeed 'somebody'. For the films first half all seems to be working with Dirk winning many awards and getting more and more money but as 1980 hits the film begins a downward spiral into addiction, darkness and tragedy.
The second half of BOOGIE NIGHTS is as dark as the first half is light. The comedic touches disappear and the film becomes more and more frantic and ragged as Dirk's cocaine addiction becomes as out of control as his ego.
Many people including Pauline Kael had issues with the second half of the film but I find it to be among the most thrilling and audacious hours in American cinema. It's like the climax of GOODFELLAS only more intense and more tragic.
The film is, of course, based partially on John Holmes and his Johnny Wadd character. Although it should be noted that this is not a straight bio-pic by any means, at one point Dirk even mentions his distaste for Holmes and the Wadd characterization. Still Anderson has been very up front on how much the films of Holmes and the documentary EXHAUSTED influenced BOOGIE NIGHTS. BOOGIE NIGHTS climax at the Alfred Molina household is Anderson's own take on the Wonderland tragedy and I can still remember the intense and visceral reactions the scene got the four times I saw this in a theater. I have seen very few films that have caused so many people to be on the edge of their seats and jump so much. Anderson creates a tension that, when seen with other people, almost becomes a whole separate character.
BOOGIE NIGHTS ends in a way happily. It isn't a traditional happy ending and perhaps only Buck really gets what he wants but still Anderson allows these people that we have come to love to at least end on a calm note. The use of The Beach Boys powerful GOD ONLY KNOWS is one of the great musical choices Anderson has ever made in his career and it brings the film to a sweetly sad ending.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is a film that obviously means a great deal to me. I wouldn't even know how to go by accurately 'reviewing' it. I still meet people who have never seen it because of its subject matter which strikes me as very odd. There is something about sex in American film that remains more loaded than any horrible war or personal atrocity that a person can think up and gladly pay money to see. Ironically BOOGIE NIGHTS has very little sex, but a whole lot of heart.

Paul Thomas Anderson would do the impossible and top BOOGIE NIGHTS with his next film, the wondrous MAGNOLIA. BOOGIE NIGHTS though will always remain something special to me, a film that in itself became my own surrogate family when I needed one the most. I am eternally grateful to Anderson for delivering a film in my 23rd year that could mean so much to me. I watch BOOGIE NIGHTS at least a couple of times a year and for that 156 minutes I am 23 all over again...and I always find exactly what I need.

-Jeremy Richey, 2007-


Anonymous said...

Great job man! Enjoyed it! Thanks for posting.

Jeremy Richey said...

I really enjoyed paying tribute to this film and I am glad someone enjoyed looking.
Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts. I love "Boogie Nights" and also watch it multiple times every year (more than I'll admit!). This film has everything, and though it may sound corny, I am thankful to P.T. Anderson for creating this world for me to visit.

Jeremy Richey said...

Not corny at all, I feel the same way about all of PTA's films.
Thanks for reading and commenting.