Anderson, Paul Thomas: Director Profile
Paul Thomas Anderson's striking command of technique, bravura filmmaking, and passion to explore the possibilities of new kinds of storytelling, recalled the young Scorsese. His darkly comic Boogie Nights (1997) was one of the most ambitious films to have come out of Hollywood in years. Spanning the height of the disco era, 1977-1984, it offers a visually stunning exploration of the porn industry, centering on a hardcore movie outfit which functions as a close-knit family. Riske subject matter excited critics, but divided audiences and tarnished box-office results. Budgeted at $15.5 million by New Line, Boogie Nights didn't do well at the box-office (about $26 million), but it established Anderson as the hottest director of the year.
Anderson dropped out of NYU film school to shoot a short, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” which showed at the 1993 Sundance Festival, leading to an invitation to attend Sundance's Filmmaking Lab. His first feature, Sydney, was bankrolled by Rysher Entertainment, which interfered with his work. Anderson was able to get his movie back, when Rysher agreed to release his cut provided that he retitle the film to Hard Eight.
Like Scorsese's Casino's, Hard Eight is set in a gambling mecca, and like the former, Anderson skillfully conveys the lurid, tawdry atmosphere of all-night casinos and restaurants. Though premiering at Sundance and successfully playing at Cannes, the film never found its audience. Following the rave reviews for Boogie Nights, Hard Eight became known as Anderson's “other” film.
Anderson grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he became aware of porn movies. He wrote Boogie Nights when he was 17, after watching a lot of porn in that “half-juvenile horny-young-man way.” He first scripted the story as a short and filmed it on video, but the idea stuck with him and years later he wrote a documentary version and then a feature.
In the exquisitely-produced Boogie Nights, Anderson made a quantum leap forward. The opening sequence owes to Scorsese's Mean Streets and to Scorsese's noted Steadicam shot in GoodFellas of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copa through the kitchen. And Boogie Nights' last scene, when porn star Dirk stands in front of the mirror flaunting his dick and saying, “I'm a star, I'm a star,” recalls Raging Bull, when Jake La Motta rehearses movie dialogue in front of the mirror.
In its approach to the porn industry as a unique social milieu, with its own “heroes,” norms and lifestyle, Boogie Nights resembles GoodFellas, Scorsese's chronicle of organized crime, and Altman's cynical take on studio politics in The Player. All three movies document “exotic” subcultures (at least from mainstream society's perspective), with their duality of values: the seamy, sordid elements as well as the more humanistic and familial ones. The porn industry is even more ruthless and cutthroat than Hollywood, for its stars are totally dependant on their youthful looks and physical attributes. Of course, the use of sex as a commodity can inbreed alienation, reducing its participants to merchants effective at trading their goods at the marketplace so long as there's demand for them.
Relying on the rags-to-riches format, the film follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Wahlberg), a handsome, uneducated teenager who works at the kitchen of a San Fernando club. Back at home, Eddie has to face the oppressive company of a passive father and a domineering mother, who perceives him as a failure. However, spotted at the club by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a successful porn producer, Eddie is instantly lured to a promising career in the adult entertainment industry. Naive and gullible, Eddie immerses himself wholeheartedly in the new world, which offers a substitute family for the biological one he deserted, and the seductive lifestyle of sex-music-drugs.
Adopting a new name, Dirk Diggler, and a new look to match, Dirk soon becomes a hot property, rising to the top. From his P.O.V., it's the American Dream, with all of its success symbols: a luxurious house, a fancy wardrobe, a red sports car. Hard-working, Dirk comes up with a novel concept, a film series that flaunts his skills as an action hero–a porn James Bond.
As the tale moves into the 1980s, Diggler's excessive drug-use, endless partying, and enormous ego begin to interfere with his work. Failing to realize the industry's competitive nature, and that he's easily replaceable by the next stud around the block, Dirk confronts Jack with outlandish demands and is humiliatingly removed from the set. Dirk is then diminished to a hustler selling his services to a male customer in a parking lot, then brutally assaulted in a vicious gay-bashing.
Anderson goes for something broader and more ambitious than an account of the inner working of the adult industry at a time of change, precipitated by the video revolution. Like Scorsese's GoodFellas and Casino, Boogie Nights is a parable of the greedy, decadent 1980s. Yet, considering the material's potentially explosive nature, Anderson's strategy is nonsensationalistic.
The erotic scenes–the films within film–flaunt nudity but they are handled with discretion and sardonic humor. Structured unevenly, the film's first hour, which is devoted to one year (1977), is nothing short of brilliant, narratively and technically. But subsequent chapters, which get increasingly shorter, makes the saga sprawling and messy.
A well-crafted, overextended canvas, the picture comes across as a piercing, serio-comic inquiry into the personal lives of the players involved. Superbly cast, there's not a single flawed performance, beginning with Wahlberg as the gullible lad who truly believes that he should be “generous” with his natural biological gifts, and Reynolds, as the moral center, a surrogate father-filmmaker who takes pride in his metier, attempting to elevate the crassly commercial into the genuinely artistic.
Each individual is given a distinctive profile–and a bag of problems to handle: Amber (Julianne Moore), the company's female star and surrogate mother, who loses custody of her boy due to “irresponsible” lifestyle; a cuckold husband (William H. Macy) who ends up killing himself; a blonde rollergirl (Heather Graham) who demands respect from sex partners; a decent man (Don Cheadle) who dreams of opening a stereo store; a rich drugee (Alfred Molina) who's smarter than he appears to be and whose scenes are the film's most brilliantly staged.
related article 1: There Will Be Blood.
related article 2: Magnolia.
related article 3: Boogie Nights: DVD Edition.
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