Boogie Nights (1997)
There's a weird temporal convergence to *Boogie Nights*, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's chronicle of the rise and fall of a porn star. On the one hand, *Boogie Nights* attempts to recapture the hedonistic heyday of the late 70s, the pre-plague years when sex and drugs could seemingly be indulged without consequence. On the other hand, *Boogie Nights* as a *film* is very much influenced by the 90s, recalling both *Pulp Fiction* and *Trainspotting* (through which 70s film influences are filtered), with the attendant moral relativism, matter-of-fact decadence and depravity, and de riguer violence. In that world, only stupidity is a punishable sin. Then again, aspects of *Boogie Nights* have the moralistic ring of the 50s, with appropriate chastisement meted out to all wayward sinners.
This strange, anachronistic conflation of movie Zeitgeist and historical Zeitgeist is unsettling, because *Boogie Nights*, although largely about the 70s, is a film that never would have been made *in* the 70s. It leaves in its wake lingering questions about the relationship between movies as pop culture, and society. It's a chicken-and-egg quandary -- which came first, pop culture or Zeitgeist, or are they the same thing? It gets even more dicey when you jump back two decades and are forced to consider the changing social influence of cinema. Can a movie that is stylistically and narratively shaped by one era accurately reflect the psychological mood of another? *Boogie Nights* doesn't provide a conclusive argument for either side, because what starts out as a fresh, exciting, ecstatically stylish film eventually loses its way.
*Boogie Nights* begins on a night in 1977, with a visual plunge into the darkness of a California discotheque, where all the players are assembled. It is there that high school dropout Eddie Adams (Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg) first catches the discerning eye of porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in a terrific, solid performance). Eddie's only talent is a generous natural endowment that Horner can readily appreciate ("Everyone is blessed with one special thing," Eddie modestly tells his admiring girlfriend). Horner, weary and paternal, is surrounded by his surrogate family: leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), sad and dysfunctionally maternal; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never removes her skates, even during her many sexual escapades; and porn stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), and Becky Barnett (Nicole Parker). What these characters all have in common is the guileless perspective of the big fish in a little pond-- they don't seem to realize that theirs is, at best, a low-rent, third-rate celebrity. Eddie shares their capacity for self-delusion. Oddly wholesome, gentle and polite, he's also familiar with Horner's work, and eager to be a star. When his Mom kicks him out of the house because she doesn't like his girlfriend (a very 70s, movie-of-the-week plot device), he gets his chance, and is quickly absorbed into the adult entertainment demimonde of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The wholesome California boy renames himself Dirk Diggler, drops his pants, and a star is born.
Dirk's career hangs on his hang, (extraordinary enough to attract attention even among Horner's jaded, seen-it-all film crew), and he quickly rises to the top of the skin flick scene, remaining boyishly wholesome despite the permanent house party atmosphere of his new life. As the decade winds down, Dirk's star continues to rise -- he's soon got his own bachelor pad and sports car, and life is a hedonistic joyride.
The decline begins on New Year's Eve, 1979, as drugs and violence assume a more prominent role in the lives of Dirk and company. This second half of *Boogie Nights* loses steam as it chronicles the rapid decline of the whole dysfunctional family (except Horner who is only forced to compromise his artistic integrity to the fiscally obsessed 80s, by switching from film to video). Part one of the movie is a giddy, camp-free slice o' life that, although about a small subculture, neatly captures the spirit of the late 70s and the post-war, eat, drink and be merry mood reflected in the pop culture of the period (whether life on Main Street was ever like that is an entirely different question). The nostalgia trip of *Boogie Nights* is far more titillating than the fairly discreet sex and nudity. The film is exacting in all its details, from Qiana shirts and platform heels to 8-track Hi-Fi and disco music, and seeing the horrible form-fitting pants and gigantic collars, the hideous furniture and ankle-spraining heels displayed with such earnestness, such conviction, is rather intoxicating. There's not a hint of condescension about all that tacky glitz in Anderson's film, and there's something strangely touching about the genuine fondness for, and sense of innocence about, these far from innocent fashion victims. That same sense of fondness and utter lack of camp pervades the often hilarious filmmaking scenes, with their amateurish acting and production values -- the movie respects the artistic pretensions of these pornographers, even while it fully exposes their aesthetic shortcomings. Thus, when the lives of these characters hit the skids, it is less tragic than disappointing -- there's something retributive about it that is out of place, as if Anderson forgot that their lives were already pretty sorry, that the glamor was just a facade plastered over empty, lonely lives.
This second half of *Boogie Nights* feels rigged from the start -- from the way the movie is neatly bisected into the last three years of the 70s and the first three years of the 80s (which it treats as mostly a 70s hangover, the inevitable morning after, with all the attendant regret), to the familiarity of the sudden, downhill path taken by virtually all of the characters. The story feels preordained in a way that mitigates against surprise, and almost negates the freshness, vividness and vibrancy of the first half of the film by creating a sense that it was there only to portend inevitable doom, as if time and history looked backwards and set these people up. This second part of *Boogie Nights* just doesn't ring true -- it *feels* like a movie (this is especially true of the tidy coda), whereas the first and far better half feels exuberantly real.