Boogie Nights Review: You're the Cock of the Walk, Baby!

By Drew Morton | Film Reviews | February 4, 2011 | Comments ()


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Boogie Nights (1997), Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to his stellar chamber/crime drama Hard Eight (AKA Sydney, 1996), is a film that has stayed with me since I saw it as a freshman or sophomore in high school. Contrary to what may be your gut reaction, my favorable reaction to the film was not inspired by the nude beauty of either Julianne Moore or Heather Graham. Rather than being swept away by the sensual presence of the female form, I was dazzled and intoxicated by Anderson's embrace of film form to capture the tone and mood of what is essentially a three-hour version of a VH1 "Behind the Music" special except, in this case, the story is the rise and fall of a porn star primarily; Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) only attempts to be a pop star...poorly.

When the film begins in the late 1970s at a discotheque in the San Fernando Valley, Anderson's style flies as high as Amber Waves (Moore) after a line of coke. Split-screens, Steadicam shots, and overlapping edits are used to introduce us to this peanut gallery of a family, formed not by marriage and genetic bond, but by their social outcast status. For instance, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is down and out because he does not embody the black, masculine ideal. A stereo salesman by day, Swope's demo music of choice when testing out the bassy kick of the TK-421 is not the funky sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire or Sly and the Family Stone. Rather, it is pure, unadulterated, country. His trajectory throughout the film is one of looking for identity. When he skews the other way and attends a "Hello, 80s!" New Year's Party, he dons a Rick "Super Freak" James outfit. Yet, by the end, Buck finds a way to deal with his outcast status and he embraces who he really is after a violent encounter in a doughnut shop. His tale stands as a start contrast to protagonist Dirk Diggler.

Diggler, or the kid formerly known as Eddie Adams from Torrence, is introduced to us in the nightclub as well. A bus boy in his late teens with assets of mythic proportions, Eddie is so attracted by the nightlife offered by the club that the long bus ride from south of LAX to the northern end of the city is not of any consequence. We soon find out what he is running from: a family life defined by a shrew of a mother, who belittles her child for taking the road to nowhere. While he attempts to escape into the womb of his room, lined with posters of fast cars and faster women, not even Farrah Fawcett can keep mom at bay. Eddie is kicked out of the house and seeks shelter with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), porn director.

Eddie's escape from home begins his journey to redefine his identity. In the beginning, he's Eddie Adams from Torrence. Once he reaches Jack's house and is embraced in the form of a massive pool party, complete with girls ODing on coke, margaritas mixed by resident magician turned stunt cock (John C. Reilly), and gravel-assed driveway sex, Eddie goes out the window and becomes, lined in neon, Dirk Diggler. On the set of his films, he insists on being called Dirk. After becoming successful in the spunk racket, his drapes are monogramed with his stage name; his posters of fast cars and fast women have been replaced by their actual. Eddie Adams has become the house that Dirk Diggler can never return to. Instead of realizing his identity over the course of the years like Buck does, Diggler fools himself into believing he's a star. It's a tragedy. Watching Boogie Nights is akin to watching a car crash in progress.

The reason why Diggler's transformation towards the dark side works so well is primarily due to two factors. First, in one of his first screen roles, Wahlberg's portrayal, unlike his later roles (The Other Guys, The Departed) is played as faux cockiness. Diggler's desperate attempts to underline his own significance portray a buried vulnerability, a pathetic quality. Over the years, Wahlberg has turned this into actual cockiness and swagger, and it takes away everything that is endearing about the persona he established in Boogie Nights. It feels forced into overly masculine heights and, quite simply, feels like getting hit on the noggin with a tack hammer after a while. The second trait the film has in its corner for telling the rise and fall of Diggler is again, Anderson's wrangling of film form to fit mood. The first half, chronicling the 70s, is defined by hyperkinetic camera and editing techniques. We are invited into the world of Jack Horner, Amber Waves, and Dirk Diggler with flash and pizazz. Yet, the film includes a Steadicam shot that effectively breaks the spell of drugs, soul, and sex. During the transition from 1979 to 1980, Little Bill (William H. Macy), one of the technicians on the set of Horner's porn epics, discovers that his wife (porn starlet Nina Hartley) is once again being unfaithful. Having been disgraced numerous times before, Bill reaches his breaking point and Anderson follows him, dazed, through the party in an unbroken shot. When Bill arrives at his car and removes a handgun, the conclusion is obvious.

The second-half of the film trades flash for an ominous gloom. Diggler remains largely the same, intoxicated by his ego, but the form of the film no longer allows us to buy into his lifestyle. When he quits porn and attempts to break into the music industry with "You've Got the Touch" and "Feel My Heat," we feel a distance from the character that is markedly different from the beginning. Instead of being an object of desire, Diggler has become a self-obsessed caricature, held up for our ridicule. The characters who have been led into a life of illusion hit bottom hard, Michael Penn's score underlying the inevitable sadness with bells chiming and Anderson exchanging the free will of montage to the fatalism of the long take.

My main criticism of the film, and a slight one at that, is that Anderson never acknowledges the elephant in the room: the AIDS crisis and how it affected the porn industry. As a somewhat historic study of the industry, it's odd that he deals with the transition from film to video but not the more physical toll that porn takes on its talent. I did not wish to see Diggler, Amber, or the other family members "punished" for their actions by contracting HIV, but to never mention the disease at all or steps taken on behalf of the production crew is akin to making a film about King George VI and only focusing on how the guy couldn't speak publically. Still, like The King's Speech (2010), Boogie Nights flies thanks to its performances. But this one also has Anderson's honed style, an asset of even bigger proportions than Dirk's member.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, Senses of Cinema, and Studies in Comics. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.



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