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Boogie Nights: Starlight

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“All I ever wanted was a cool ’78 Vette, and a house in the country.

– Dirk Diggler


To be the “best” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinema is both a blessing and a curse. No matter how rich the payoff, no matter how numerous the accolades, the costs always seem to eventually catch up to the rewards. “Action” needs “cut.” A climax begets a refractory period. The rise must fall in equal and opposite reactions. A star collapses into a black hole. Yet this inevitably does not dissuade the thoughtful dreamers in Anderson’s stories – it energizes. Nothing can ever compare to the rush of doing, of disruption and discovery.

The pursuits of greatness in Anderson’s work are traceable to his earliest extant film, available online and made when the director was 17: “The Dirk Diggler Story”. Shot on tape, the 30-minute fictional documentary explicitly investigates the nature of greatness and its conflation with celebrity via a tabloid profile of acclaimed pornstarlet Dirk Diggler – dead at 20 from a drug overdose. Citizen Kane-style, the film is framed as an investigation, interviewing Dirk’s colleagues in an attempt to understand who he was, what made him so talented, and what led to his untimely demise.

Anderson dedicates the film to Dirk’s spirit, concluding that while greatness can live on through legacy (and videotape), it all ultimately ends on the same title-card.

This notion of reputation and legacy – what gets left behind – is one that recurs in Anderson’s films, but it’s all borne out of this short. The chosen families, the mythmaking scale, the melancholic yearning, the reflexive foregrounding of medium as form and content. Where the gritty, handheld video aesthetic could help sell a then-contemporary portrait of a 1980s porn set, the mockumentary style would not translate, 10 years later, when Anderson reconfigured the story into a period piece of the 1970s.

Opting instead for 35mm widescreen, Anderson would re-litigate the fatal conclusions of “The Dirk Diggler Story”’s posthumous framing in his feature-length magnum-cum-opus, Boogie Nights – which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Boogie Nights is the first of Anderson’s California Myths. One of many tales of gods and mortals competing for spatial and spiritual control of the West Coast’s desert dynasties – landscapes haunted by curses, stigmas, and sometimes actual ghosts. Emotions and characters, bigger than life. The film’s larger canvas is filled by an ensemble of new pornographers from Reseda, whose private and professional lives become permanently entwined over five turbulent years of California history. Full of marriages, break-ups, death, and birth, the film is cyclical in structure while still sweeping in scope.

As his first period piece, Anderson begins Boogie Nights in 1977, co-mingling the creative zeniths of both American art cinema and shot-on-film pornography into a single chamber of reflection. Cinema and sex; Hollywood and the Valley. Where later films would take him farther away and further back in time – There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread – Anderson’s sophomore reset assembles a recent past into a self-portrait of his own youth spent surfing sketchy studio backlots and making short films with his friends. Moment to moment, Anderson and his company have clear fun playing with the ’70s period elements: the groovy diegetic tunes, the 16mm analog aesthetics, the foxy wardrobes. The “vibes,” as it were, are immaculate.

As production designer Bob Ziembicki recalled, “[Anderson] presented the picture to me as either — and I can’t remember which it was — I think Robert Altman doing a John Cassavetes movie or John Cassavetes doing a Robert Altman movie.” The stylistic synthesis of east and west. Static and Steadicam, ensemble and character study, stage and street. Both Cassavetes and Altman have made work that observes the soluble membrane between performance and reality (Opening Night, Nashville), which are predicated on the hyper-detailed worlds they create. As improvisers, both directors also model a regimented chaos in their productions that was adopted by Anderson, who experiments with his actors’ ad-libbed lines, stutters, and stammers within the framework of his dense script.

As planned, each scene therefore bristles with the excitement of spontaneity à la Altman and Cassavetes, of magic in the air. Possibilities. When art, and time itself, were slippery and fluid – capable of changing from one moment to the next.

In breathless reiterations, Eddie Addams (Mark Wahlberg) from Torrance expresses his desire to be “a star” throughout the film. An act of manifesting reality that wouldn’t look out of place in the teachings of The Cause, Eddie’s quest for stardom is one of many ways that characters wield language in Boogie Nights as extensions of their identity. In this case, a mantra-like refrain of radical positivity in post-hippie Los Angeles. You are what you speak. This extends to the characters’ colorful stage names, which further blur the lines between performance and identity in the film: Amber Waves, Rollergirl, Reed Rothchild, The Colonel, take your pick.

In the safety of a jacuzzi one night after a party, Eddie relays a vision he’s had of his future name. The film cuts away to a fiery, explosive shot of the name “DIRK DIGGLER” emblazoned in neon and crackling from sheer raw power. A tactile, typographic portrait that rhymes with the opening shot of the theater marquee bearing the film’s title. The exhilaration of your name in lights like a North Star to transcendence.

Adult filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) attempts transcendence of a different sort, trying to distinguish his product in the marketplace of smut with compelling stories over degrading (and fleeting) carnal novelty. In this way, Boogie Nights succeeds for much of its runtime as, essentially, a workplace comedy. A backstage porno-disco musical. Snapshots of an industry in motion set to a four on the floor beat. After so many years in the business, enervated by a routine of mediocrity, Jack wants to become an artist. He dreams of righteous truth and high drama coexisting onscreen with hardcore sex.

Anderson uses Boogie Nights as a proof of concept for Jack’s vision. An art film about pornography. During the film’s more explicit sex-scene scenes (of which there actually aren’t that many), Anderson keeps the focus on the medium instead of the nudity: film running through a camera, the difference between “minimal” and “natural” lighting, the inverted image of the camera’s “eye,” the principles of continuity editing; Jack Horner and his crew are participating in an independent filmmaking tradition. Their works are screened in actual movie theaters and reviewed by critics in magazines! How could it not feel like art? Other than the sex, the film shows us there’s not much difference between making Jaws and making Deepthroat.

Just as in other Anderson scripts, language has a lyrical, sometimes corrosive, structuring quality in Boogie Nights. Many scenes are staged around the turgid grammar of industry terminology and technical jargon that underscores the films’ themes of miscommunication and misunderstanding. While largely played for laughs (“Nah man, it’s not evil. It’s an illusion.”), there is a very grave sense of danger in the third act of this movie once these characters stop understanding one another. A danger that exists in all Anderson films, of illusions broken and bubbles burst. What remains and what becomes. How the universe restores order to itself.

Basically, Boogie Nights is like a disco ball: you can get lost looking at it because of how much it reflects. To describe it is to describe but a single square in it. And, like a disco ball, it is the universal shorthand for having a good time. For all the elegant writing and empathetic close-ups, it cannot be overstated how offbeat and fun the film is. Anderson’s sense of humor pervades the film and is amplified by his onscreen collaborators, who are unafraid to go broad, reveling in the pulpiness of the milieu.

By the end of the film, an ecstatic union between father and prodigal son balances out the menace of that which separated them. It might be temporary, but there’s no harm in indulging the pleasure of now. Parties always end. The record will always need to be flipped. All you can do is bask in the celestial glow and groove until the last stars fade.

Boogie Nights screens starting Thursday, December 22nd.
Thursday, Dec 22 – 5pm, 8:15pm
Friday, Dec 23 – 5pm
Tickets

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