Of the six features Paul Thomas Anderson has made over the last 18 years, I would consider all of them to be great films. Last year’s The Master is a strange and beautiful piece exploring themes of fraternal love, the cult of religion and man’s struggle to subjugate the id. 2007’s loose Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood is an epic yet subtle study of greed and antisocial behavior in the context of America’s westward expansion, showcasing an instantly iconic, Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s preceding effort, 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, brought Adam Sandler closer than he will surely ever come again to greatness with this sweet, sad story of love, rage and the insecurities in between. 1999’s Magnolia is a clinic on the intersecting stories sub-genre and a shining example of ensemble acting. Anderson is without question one of the most talented filmmakers working today and his impeccable batting average is one of the main reasons why. But it was his 1997 sophomore feature Boogie Nights that boldly announced the wunderkind filmmaker, only 28 years old at the time of its release, as an exciting and confident new voice in American cinema.
Applying a relatively straightforward rise-and-fall framework to the late 70s/early 80s California porn industry, the writer/director conjures a rich blend of humor and humanity for his characters while truly coming into his own as a visual artist. The story of Dirk Diggler acts as neither an endorsement of nor cautionary tale about the porn industry, but rather uses the setting to speak about more universal issues of family, addiction and the evolution of industries.
Boogie Nights is an abundantly entertaining film with its brashness and humor, but there’s also so much going on formally. Anderson establishes a clear visual language from the outset; several early scenes open with three quick stagnant shots of objects in the room (Dirk’s parents’ kitchen, Roller Girl’s classroom, Sheryl Lynn’s bedroom), establishing an efficient introductory motif for each interaction. In many other cases the camera movements themselves actually say something about what’s going on. Whether mimicking the characters’ actions (zooming in quickly as Dirk, Reed and Todd snort lines of cocaine and then abruptly panning up as they throw back their sweaty heads) or adding meaning to interactions (like when reverse shots at a diner slowly track sideways to isolate Walberg and Moore as their characters key in on each other), the choices are deliberate in adding texture to the content. The overall look of the film, exquisitely fashioned by cinematographer Robert Elswit (who acted as DP on every PTA film except The Master), has a deep, saturated quality that amplifies the feel of the period setting.
The film’s first half is infused with kinetic energy provided by Elswit’s roving camera, well-paced editing and a ceaseless playlist of authentic yet inspired musical selections (I had a used copy of the soundtrack on CD in high school which figured heavily into my driving-around rotation). The following party scene is an oft cited example of how Anderson combines these elements to mesmerizing effect.
This beautifully choreographed ballet of music, performance, blocking and camera work drops the viewer right into the middle of the action while also mining expository value from the interactions and giving the audience a spatial sense of one of the film’s key set pieces (Jack’s backyard). But it’s also just fun! So the camera is going to roam around this sun-drenched California pool party, eavesdropping on several conversations before following a beautifully bronzed body into a pool to the perfectly timed tune of “Spill the Wine”? And the camera goes underwater? And then reemerges topside to catch even more dialogue before finally cutting the up-to-that-point unbroken shot? I mean come on!
But let’s put the technical spectacle aside for a moment and acknowledge the fact that another thing that makes this filmmaker so special is his talent for eliciting amazing performances from his actors (his films have cumulatively yielded 7 Oscar nominations for acting). The cast of Boogie Nights is comprised of a slew of PTA regulars, and also functions as a veritable who’s who of the best actors of a generation, several of whom were still up and coming at the time. Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy all figure into the sprawling cast to greater or lesser extents, and each gives their character a fully realized persona regardless of screen time. Reilly displays a remarkable amount of artistic intelligence with his turn as the dimwitted Reed Rothchild by not only playing him straight the entire time, but also taking it a step further by portraying the character as condescending in his ignorance. I’ve said it for years: John C. Reilly is better at playing Will Ferrell-type characters than Will Ferrell. Hoffman also does a lot with an even smaller role as Scotty, a closeted crew member who can barely contain his infatuation with Dirk, ultimately culminating in one of the films sadder and more pathetic moments. Even in less meaty scenes, such as a quick exchange between Scotty and Dirk as they walk to the set of the latter’s first shoot, Hoffman exudes a palpable sense of nervous sexuality (notice how he gently nibbles the pen on his clipboard). Walberg delivers a career best performance, deftly shouldering the lead of this two and a half hour film, and Burt Reynolds’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the patriarchal director Jack Horner was absolutely well earned.
Boogie Nights is not Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film. The writing is excellent; tonally dynamic and very funny, but less subtle than some of his later work. It also feels just a bit too long, though I can’t pinpoint exactly what I would cut. It is, however, an extremely important film in the evolution of PTA’s career. It’s an arresting combination of youthful panache and sophisticated technique that walks a tightrope of appeal to both critics and mainstream audiences. Without that early success, we may never have been so privileged as to experience his subsequent work.
It’s a little late, I know, but I have to dedicate this article to the memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was a genius and a true artist, and his work meant the world to me. He made me feel like we could have actors like DeNiro, or Brando, or Dustin Hoffman for our own generation. Sometimes when you look at the quality of top grossing movies today it can be quite depressing, but time and time again Hoffman’s work reminded me, and many others, that great acting and great filmmaking are not dead.