“When I close my eyes, I see this thing, a sign, I see this name in bright blue neon lights with a purple outline. And this name is so bright and so sharp that the sign – it just blows up because the name is so powerful…”
It was a time, alright, and Paul Thomas Anderson, despite the fact that he was only about ten years old when it all went down, captures the end of modern society’s most hedonistic decade with remarkable insight and unflinching humor. He audaciously sets his sights on exploring the outermost extremities of the period – the Golden Age of Porn – that mainstreamed sex and drugs to such a degree and intensity that a sociological burnout was unavoidable, but he does it in a non-judgmental way so that we can become emotionally invested in the characters without hesitation. And that is a pretty neat trick in these extremely judgmental and puritanical times.
His famous opening shot – a steadicam homage to his two mentors, Robert Altman and Marty Scorsese – starts with a circus dirge before it bursts into the disco classic “Best of My Love”, as though we are looking back from our grey present into the flash of the mid-70s. It’s here he introduces us to nearly all of the major characters, each of them played by actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time. Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, John C Reilly, Luis Guzman, Thomas Jane, William H Macy, and a very nerdy Philip Seymour Hoffman all owe the kick-start of their careers to PTA. Only rapper “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and has-been Burt Reynolds were household names at the time and were gifted with roles of a lifetime, a fact that, ironically, neither embraces to this day. That’s a shame, really, because neither has come close to comparable stellar turns either before or after this experience, and they fail to recognize that.
Anderson based his opus on a short that he had done called The Dirk Diggler Story in 1988, loosely based on the 13” career of porn star John Holmes. By expanding his scope (and cast), he captures representation of all the basic players of the era, from porn queens “Amber Waves”, the aging hippie mother figure (Moore), to the drug-addled and emotionally forlorn “Rollergirl” (Graham). His high flying but delusional studs “Reed Rothchild” (Reilly), “Buck Swope” (Cheadle) and “Todd Parker” (Jane) seem to think they are talking a good game, but don’t have much in intellectual reserve for the present, let alone the future. Porn lords (Phillip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely) are trying to outrun the advent of videotape that means the end of film, as such, and a game-change in their lucrative industry. Hangers-on, like the idol-worshiping boom operator “Scotty” (Hoffman) and the domestically challenged cuckold assistant director “Little Bill” (Macy) are the bystanders pummeled by emotional shrapnel as excess thrashes the hustle to an exhausted end.
Boogie Nights, for all of its foreboding about the collapse of pure abandon in the face of financial and moralistic changes, is probably Anderson’s most gleeful film. His affection for the innocent foolishness of the era is highlighted in every scene, be it the shag-carpeted interior of a van or the hilarious “tech-talk” in a stereo store. He winks at the birth of indie filmmaking with his riotous Dirk Diggler action film vehicles – even film awards take a hit – and he seizes the opportunity to sound-out, for the first time, his own personal opposition to the replacement of film: Director Horner (Reynolds) says, at one point, “I’m a filmmaker, which is why I will never make a movie on tape,” only to be followed-up later by, “We’re about to make film history, right here…on videotape.”
His climax – when desperation brought on by addiction and exhaustion finally overtakes the libertine recklessness in a scene involving Dirk and buddies taking on a psychotic dealer (Alfred Molina), Anderson executes the scene with a houseboy setting off firecrackers in the house to the strains of “Jessie’s Girl” blasting from a mixed tape. The scene is a masterful blend of extreme tension, danger and hilarity. From this point onward, Anderson grabs and holds those disco balls until the era collapses into itself in front of our eyes, making way for the Reagan Era, the “me” generation, AIDS, and the new “morality” from which we are still trying to recover.
Anderson’s auteur career is anchored in Boogie Nights, setting the pattern for producing, writing and directing all of his own work. That unfortunately means the rest of us wait between two and five years for our “PTA Recharge”, but it also means that we always get a return tenfold. His courage in storytelling is unfiltered and he is capable of giving us a little shoves outside of our comfort zone with films so rich that one can’t possibly digest them in a single sitting. Boogie Nights blazed the trail for masterworks Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread. Like each of the films that followed it, Boogie Nights is a classic period piece totally unique from anything we’ve ever seen or dared to imagine. Like all of Anderson’s work, few knew what to make of Boogie Nights at the time of its release. All eyes – and hearts – were on James Cameron’s insipid boat ‘n berg epic, but twenty years later, there is little doubt which of the two films advanced the legacy of American filmmaking. Paul Thomas Anderson has a vision and I doubt he cares what we might think of it…and thank goodness for us all.