Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
Unlike Film Dunce pieces I’ve written in the past, where I consciously avoided movies because of prejudicial, philosophical disagreements (Forrest Gump) or because of sheer stubbornness (Back to the Future), I have absolutely no argument as to why I never got around to viewing Boogie Nights. It is, after all the action-packed movie that offers viewers both Heather Graham naked on roller-skates as the one-word-named Rollergirl, as well as Julianne Moore delivering the line, “Cum on my tits.” These things, wrapped up into an aesthetically accurate period piece, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and featuring Burt Reynolds in a comeback role promise for a film that’s squarely in the Middleman wheelhouse. So, why hadn’t I seen it? I was probably too busy watching .38 Special videos on YouTube all these years.
I had seen a midnight showing of Magnolia when it was first released, but I was otherwise distracted by sitting next to a girl I was sweet on back then, so, I don’t remember much of it. Thus, 2007’s There Will Be Blood colored my impression of Anderson the most before seeing Boogie Nights, a film that conveyed a relentless intensity and a stark, crisp rendering of the human character at its worst. I expected Boogie Nights, then, in its journey of Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, to be a seamy, seedy exploration of the back-room business dealings and sordid past-times of the kind of men and women responsible for the pictures that would end up playing on 42nd Street during the ’70s.
So, what surprised me, then, was just how goofy the movie’s tone is. From Luis Guzman’s motormouthed nightclub owner Maurice to to the well-meaning, yet dumb as rocks Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Wahlberg’s porn-phenom naif, no slouch himself when it comes to emotional retardation, is given any number of whifty flake-os to bounce dialogue, a la Altman, off of. You can’t help but chuckle at Wahlberg and Reilly’s first meeting, where they sheepishly discuss how much they can bench, or marvel at the blissful youthfulness of Rollergirl or feel genuine empathy for Reynolds’ Jack Horner, a man who sincerely believes in the artistic portent of the films he’s directing. Cinematographer Robert Elswit uses a beautiful color palate that evokes the hyper-saturated videotape and periodical images of the era, but, most strikingly for me, the music that’s selected is just as much an actor in the film itself.
Rather than use your go-to ’70s signifier tracks by major (read: mainstream, well-respected artists) artists like, say, Elton John’s “Rocketman” or Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Anderson and his music supervisors choose mainly cut-out bin one hit wonders – songs so purely tied into their time that, for many young viewers, no preexisting connotations will exist. Additionally, using slick, sugary pop like Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” help evoke a vicarious, heady experience; these slick, polyester tunes are the perfect accompaniment for spending two hours with a bunch of people whose entire life is pleasure.
All this giddiness, which I found tone-deaf initially, of course pays off in the film’s final 30 minutes. Soundtracked now by a solemn, tolling bell, Anderson’s characters suddenly suffer grim atrocities brought on equally by their poor decisions and the very ostracizing nature of pornography upon those whom make it. Violent beatings, gay-bashing, addiction and economic failure are all cast in unsettlingly stark relief, compared with the first two hours of the film, where you rolled along with Rollergirl, heavy-lidded with a dumb smirk on your face. Anderson knows, too, how to weird you out further, having you laugh at Rollergirl’s decimation of on-screen talent’s face with her skates, a blackly humorous treatment of violence that recalls the final moments of Blood. Boogie Nights’ and Anderson’s real achievement here is the not dissimilar reactions evoked in the viewer between movie’s first four fifths, where everyone’s fucking, to the final fifth, where everyone’s getting fucked up.