Sunday, March 23, 2014

Boogie Nights


US Air has found only 13 pieces of my missing luggage so far. How it ended up in Singapore, they are unable to explain. I hate it when my suitcases travel more widely than I do. Rather than worry about the additional 59 pieces, which are probably winging their way to Ulan Bator, I decided to immerse myself in Norman and his needs. Norman passed on the Confessions of Saint Augustine project after learning of the extensive screen nudity the role would require. While Norman has no objections to nudity in his private life, he does not feel the screen is quite ready for his famous physique to be fully unveiled. He has been sent a new script, a conceptual production of The School for Scandal set in a modern low-rent trailer park. In order to get a handle on the part of Cletus Teazle, Norman feels a real need to understand mundane life; so we loaded him up in the car and went in search of the nearest Wal-Mart. Normally, I would never deign to enter anywhere less prestigious than Bijan or Ferragamo but research is research.

The local Wal-Mart is a large boxy building in a sea of asphalt that seems crowded with extras from The Grapes of Wrath . It contains aisle upon aisle of unnecessary shoddy merchandise. I was prepared to be amused by the spectacle, until, while perusing the ladies' gowns, I stumbled upon a cheap polyester knock-off of the exquisite white satin Bombalurina gown from my GlamourPuss collection. Not only that, it appeared under Kathie Lee Gifford's label! I thought that hussy was a friend! I am simply outraged. Outraged!! I have a call in to Fajer amd Hellmann, my lawyers, to see what can be done about this matter. I want damages.

I was so upset, that I had to retire to the home theater and revive my senses with a little disco music. 70s pop can be a wonderful tonic for whatever ails you. In my 'to view' pile, I found the DVD of Paul Thomas Anderson's ode to the late 70s and early 80s, Boogie Nights so I popped that in for a look. Boogie Nights is an involved and extended ensemble piece, a strange cross between epic and soap opera, that takes a look at the unlikely subject of the San Fernando Valley pornography industry. The film opens with a black screen and a circus waltz played as funeral dirge (a tribute to enforced gaiety from human degradation?) when suddenly there's a blast of disco, the screen is filled with neon color, and we launch into a major three minute shot that takes in the entire world of 1977 Reseda disco culture, introducing eight major characters and setting up all that is to follow.

We meet Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a none too bright high school dropout busboy at the disco who has only one thing going for him, a good body with a superior endowment. He runs into adult entertainment impresario Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who recognizes talent of a type he can use. Eddie, after a fight with his mother (a searing Joanna Gleason), leaves suburban Torrance behind and moves in to Jack's large extended porn family, including his other stars Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and Buck (Don Cheadle). Together, this motley group of misfits forms a type of supportive family while making their films. Eddie changes his name to the highly improbable Dirk Diggler and becomes a star in this strange little world. Then, as video is introduced, changing the economics and art of the business forever, things start to go wrong as the characters descend into a hell of drugs, failed relationships, and self degradation. When porn was shot on film, it required a certain amount of talent to produce a finished product; the makers could delude themselves that they were indeed a part of the motion picture industry (and the open society of the time accepted pornography as an outré, but real art form). Video reduced it to point and shoot and a dull grind.

The critics lavished a lot of praise on this film when it was released in 1997 and Paul Thomas Anderson, the young writer/director, was hailed as a major find. He was 24 when he wrote the script and therefore had no firsthand knowledge of the period. The film is actually based on a short fictional documentary he made at the age of 17 called 'The Rise and Fall of Dirk Diggler' which included many of the elements which gave rise to Boogie Nights and which was, in turn, inspired by the life of porn star John Holmes. I have a hard time accepting that the parents of young Mr. Anderson would have approved his rather open interest in the world of pornography at so young an age but I am not one to question how others raise their children.

Did Anderson deserve the critical hype? The direction is certainly extremely assured for one so young and he makes marvelous use of extended takes and tracking shots, together with the staccato punctuation of extreme close-ups. He has learned his film school lessons well and has the makings of a true visual stylist. He is also a reasonable film storyteller - he allows his characters room to breathe and doesn't feel the need to explain everything to the audience in words of one syllable. He's also clever enough to make a movie about the pornography industry with a minimum of sex scenes and genitalia. However, he has a lot to learn about movie structure. The first 2/3 of the film works seamlessly in painting his sprawling canvas and letting the audience inside this world. Then, he rips the heart out of it by subjecting characters he has treated with affection to hellacious consequences in sequences that seem to have been lifted out of a completely different film, something by Quentin Tarantino. By the time we get to Alfred Molina as a drugged out Iranian capering around in his underwear, we've been bludgeoned senseless by the primitive morality play and cease to care about any of the characters that we had such affection for only an hour ago. Anderson the writer/director is in dire need of Anderson the editor.

I've come to the conclusion that the mistakes in the film are the result of Anderson's relative youth. The bold themes that he stakes out (such as creation of family, how a subculture holds it own in a hostile world, what happens to a people when they are dealt a crippling economic blow) are not yet within his life experience so he doesn't always recognize what he's got hold of and wastes potential moments in his attempt to get back to his knowledge of the world of porn. A good example of this is his early dumping of Eddie/Dirk's family. Joanna Gleason, as his alcoholic mother with an obvious Jocasta complex, disappears fifteen minutes into the film never to be seen again. Eddie/Dirk forges a new maternal relationship with Amber, a woman with whom he repeatedly has sex in the most public of fashions. Where is the confrontation between these two maternal ideals? How would his mother, with her fantasies, react to his public sexual exhibitionism? This is upheld by the personality of P.T. Anderson as it comes through on the director's commentary track. This is an immature young man with a fascination with the world of porn and its seamier stories, not a man with major insights into the human condition.

The performances in this film are excellent in the individual and the aggregate. The actors obviously had a ball working together (and the reappearance of many of them in his later Magnolia suggest the formation of the P.T. Anderson repertory company) and a lot of the film has a loose, improvisational feel. Much of Anderson's gift may be the ability to write for an ensemble, assemble a talented group, and then get out of the way and let them do their stuff. Mark Wahlberg, as the central figure, is, in some ways, the weakest link but his relative naiveté and inexperience amongst the heavy hitters works for his character. Burt Reynolds turns in a real performance, as the impresario, not just a Burt Reynolds turn, and takes some real risks as an actor. He's not afraid to 'not do' in key scenes where lesser actors might have tried to eat the scenery. William H. Macy, with his droopy basset hound face is a marvel as the cinematographer and Julianne Moore shines as Amber, bringing a couple of bright spots to the sordid second half, especially in a courtroom scene.

The DVD contains the feature in wide screen with an excellent sound and picture transfer. There are two commentary tracks, one with director Anderson alone and one with the director and cast members. The cast member track is a jumbled mess with children and cell phones and other distractions - skip it unless you're a masochist. The director track gives some insight into where the material originated and Anderson's intentions. A second disc contains a number of cut scenes (which would not have added anything to the film if they'd remained in) with director commentary. There are also a few out takes that seem to be John C. Reilly doing improv. As a last bonus, there is a music video of Michael Penn's song Try which Anderson directed during the post-production on Boogie Nights (and in which you can spot various cast members). Penn (brother of Sean and Chris) was the composer of the film's score and has a cameo in the film as a befuddled sound engineer in one of its funniest sequences.

There are beauties here and the film is worth a look (if the subject matter does not offend) but the viewer should recognize that Anderson has some growing up to do before he can live up to his potential.

Polaroid cameras. Lighted disco floor. Prosthetic penis. Farrah Fawcett poster. Gratuitous Robert Downey Senior. Bad singing. Cocaine use. Amphetamine use. Corvette abuse. Naked Mark Wahlberg. Naked Julianne Moore. Naked Heather Graham. No naked William H. Macy. Gratuitous 70s porn star cameos. Irritating firecrackers. Donut shop blood bath. Country western coffee drinking. Bad oil paintings.

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