Saturday, June 9, 2012

Boogie Nights (1997) Directed by P. T. Anderson

Boogie Nights and Magnolia are not only directed and scripted by the same guy, P. T. Anderson, they have mostly the same cast too. The two films are eternally linked in my mind. Like Magnolia, so Boogie Nights had a relatively huge impact on me growing up. Their shared and pessimistic outlook on life in general seemed real to me then. I did not see it as overly dramatic. Also, the fact that Boogie Nights deals with the beginnings of the porn industry as we know it, is important and was crucially overlooked by me in the past.

The way I remember the film and the way I experienced it now are two very separate perspectives: The porn film making content, the always naked women, the drugs and the eventual judgment the film appears to pass were all one big teaching video for the teenage-me. Instead of feeling uncomfortable and critical towards the way women were in Boogie Nights, I felt uncomfortable and as if this was a here's-how-to guide. It is baffling to realize how much a teenager watches a fictional piece of art and reads it as a lesson on Real Life, Real Sex and Real Relationships. I think I came out of seeing this one for the first time thinking something like: 'ok, cool women are available and enjoy sex with anyone at any time, they drown their sorrow into silence and always look good no matter what.'

This time around Boogie Nights seemed tame as well as overly dramatic, unnecessarily violent, shallow, pretentiously sad and mildly dated. I sensed no pressure from the film, it was not suggesting ways of being anymore. I felt also that Anderson was possibly playing with too simplistic stereotypes about porn. It may be that the director was being judgmental, looking down on people who make porn their occupation. He even mixed the issue of child porn and molestation with adult porn thus making the old-fashioned 'cigarettes lead to drug use and porn to crime' -claim. If I'm honest, this time I was a little bored and not very entertained.

Do you remember a time when people thought Fionna Apple was somehow the musical zeitgeist? It correlates with a time when P.T.Anderson was regarded as the savior of modern cinema. This feels oddly conservative to me. But I think it's true to say of most things that seem cutting edge at the time, when we look back, we realize it was just more of the same. Apple seems to have disappeared into some vacuum. With Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to have passed his fan-boy period and shows signs of becoming that predicted savior. Bloody hell, the then approaching pre-Millenium 1990's, remember that time? One could be mistaken for thinking that Anderson as well as savior, perfectionist and friend of Aimee Mann was also the oracle, as demonstrated by the consciously "intelligent" Magnolia of 1999. Boogie Nights placed Anderson on the map and made him hot hot hot.

There is no way round this, but to not note the specific influence of Scorsese on Boogie Nights is to miss something crucial with the picture. From the use of long camera shots and fast editing to the constant 1970's soundtrack, Boogie Nights stylistically is the work of another director. It's second hand goods watching Boogie Nights (primarily Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino). Rather like the debt to Altman on display in Magnolia. It doesn't stop Boogie Nights being a blast at times. The first hour is a non stop disco ride of good looking men and women "getting it on" on the dance floor or in front of camera. The picture has energy. Excellent scene after scene is readily crafted here (especially the 1970's period), every detail shot to perfection. The ensemble cast (many would re-appear in Magnolia) is universally excellent. Burt Reynolds surprises with his smoothness and sometimes sensitivity. Still, you do have to wonder what Julian Moore has done to Anderson for him to always have her play such desperate characters in his pictures. But this brings us to another element which constantly raises it's head in Anderson's early films : depression.

The second half of Boogie Nights is depressingly drawn out. Characters we don't really connect with or know suddenly find themselves in life changing situations. Simultaneously, Anderson does not deal in any depth with the porn industry of the 1970's (a far more interesting movie awaits). So, Anderson digresses by having his main protagonist, exceptionally well endowed porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Whalberg) descend into a cliched portrayal of drug abuse. It made me yawn. Two excellent scenes come out of this malaise : Dirk Diggler's attempted early 1980's music career (after turning his back on the porn industry) and the later drug exchange with Alfred Molina's Rick Springfield obsessed druggie.
Moments like this make Boogie Nights worth it, just. It's a long movie that outstays it's welcome. Anderson decides in the end that everything really does turn out OK and hell, we all need some kind of family. So, this can be a frustrating film, which is also occasionally brilliant.