Published October 1, 1997
Boogie Nights has been hailed in advance as a contemporary classic and its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, as the new Tarantino. Well, maybe. But where I could see in Pulp Fiction and others of Mr Tarantino’s early works what all the fuss was about, even if I was a bit skeptical, in the case of Mr Anderson, I am mystified. As near as I can figure it, the formula for getting yourself buzzed about as a genius is to make an actor’s film with juicy parts for the likes of Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg (a.k.a. Marky Mark), Julianne Moore, J.C. Reilly, Don Cheadle and others and then overload the soundtrack with loud, obtrusive music so that the audience can’t hear half of what they say. Add to the mix a story about pornography which tells just enough of the true story to stay on the right side of the “R” rating line, and end by making the point that these pathetic intellectual and emotional cripples are worthy our sympathy because they function as a kind of family with respect to each other—as a compensation for the families which none of them seem to have had.
Mr Anderson seems to feel no need to worry about any coherence beyond this rather random assemblage of fashionable elements. I have criticized The Ice Storm for relying too much on its portrayal of an historical moment and so undermining its universal appeal, but Boogie Nights, also set primarily in the 1970s, makes the opposite mistake. Apart from the standard references to clothes, cars and music, the 70s here could as well be the 60s or the 90s. The film takes us well into the 80s but it never mentions AIDS, which was devastating the real porno industry at about that time. The drug scene comes across as repellent, but the implication is that it was somehow tied into the pornography, instead of having a much wider currency. A little history is useful to lend a certain coherence to unfamiliar people and situations, but here there is no history to speak of except in fashion.
Mr Anderson sees things in terms of psychology rather than history. In particular, the porn star Eddie Adams (Mr Wahlberg), who later renames himself “Dirk Diggler,” has a cold, irritable and unloving mother who throws him out for having a girlfriend (if she only knew!). A stupid lad and high school drop out, Mr Diggler, if it hadn’t been for the porn industry, would probably never have risen much above the dishwasher job he is working at when “discovered” by Reynolds’s producer/director, Jack Horner. But he turns to him not only because, as he puts it, “everyone’s blessed with one special thing” (and his special thing is between his legs), but because Jack is like a father to him and his chief female star, Amber Waves (Miss Moore), instantly becomes like a mother. A mother whom he is required to copulate with several times a day. One of the funniest lines in the film comes during a moment of anger when Dirk shouts at her, “You’re not my f****** mother! But of course his f****** mother is exactly what she is.
Yet it gives the film rather a mawkish tone to make her maternal instincts constantly at issue. Jack says that she is “a mother to whoever needs mothering,” and she indeed takes up this role because her former husband will not allow her to see her son, getting the law on his side by revealing her employment in the pornography trade. Poor thing! We see her racked with sobs when the verdict is handed down. So she compensates by mothering not only Dirk but all the other young stars. One of them, another dim dropout called “Rollergirl” (Heather Graham)—whose gimmick is that she never takes off her skates—makes this relationship specific. “I want you to be my mom, Amber. I’ll ask you and you say, ‘Yes, I’m your mom.’” Then she bounces around like a child with delight when Amber obliges her.
Later, Dirk goes through a classic late adolescent falling out with Jack, finds that he is utterly unequipped to survive on his own, comes back, begging for forgiveness, and is received back into the bosom of his “family.” He puts his head on Amber’s lap and cries as she strokes his hair. Everybody here is undergoing a perpetual identity crisis, dreaming like Cheadle’s black cowboy of some “real thing I can do.” Even Jack dreams of fashioning out of his sleazy porno flicks true art, imagining an audience so enrapt by his “films” (as he calls them), that “when they spurt out that joy juice, they just got to sit in it until they find out how it ends.” Dirk himself sees his higher calling in terms of therapy rather than art: “It’s not about me getting off with a million different chicks,” he says; “it’s about how to get your wife off. If we had done this before, we could have saved a million relationships. I’ve saved thousands.”
It is part of the protocol of the industry that everybody believes—or pretends to believe—in everybody else’s fantasies. Fantasies, after all, are their business. Inconvenient truths, when forced onto their attention are either silently complied with (as in Jack’s reluctant transition along with the rest of the trade from film to videotape, which puts paid to his artistic pretensions) or resisted with savage violence (as when Jack and Rollergirl beat up a young man who dares to tell Jack that the quality of his work has fallen off). It is an effective way of representing a certain kind of bogus “tolerance”—associated, like the porn industry itself, with Southern California—but it suffers from another Hollywood bad habit, namely the tendency to get too cozy with its subjects. The film would have been a lot better if one had had the sense that Mr Anderson himself were not affording his characters the same courtesy, of believing in their fantasies.