To Porn, With Love – Review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Boogie Nights’

Rating: 60% / BB

Cover of "Boogie Nights"

Cover of Boogie Nights

In a memorable scene from Out of Africa, Meryl Streep‘s character Karen Blixen is taken for a ride in Robert Redford‘s biplane. They fly above the trees, farmlands and streams of Gnong hills, and throughout the flight, Streep’s simultaneously nervous and exulted face is captured in close-ups.

Now, instead of this, suppose Robert’s character is a billionaire business tycoon who purchases a private jet and takes Meryl on her ‘maiden voyage’ over Gnong hills in that private jet, the seat-belt strapped tightly around her delicate waist and her view limited to whatever’s visible through her window. Think she’d open her mouth in wonderment the way she would in a biplane? With no ‘wind in her hair’?

A movie like Boogie Nights makes me so aware that there’s a screen between me and the film I feel as though it wants me to stay out of its business. Apart from the lack of character development, I also sensed a complacent smugness and self-satisfaction of director Paul Thomas Anderson emanating throughout the film. He mentions in the director’s commentary that he has ‘written the movie for himself’, and that’s a positive thing to say as a writer, no doubt. On the other hand, a director’s magic works when he successfully vanishes as soon as the film begins for his audience. He should apply his style in a way that the audience feels the style is necessary for the characters in the film, to incite an emotional response.

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Akira Kurusawa’s Rashomon are exemplary works where the camera has been used to draw us into the film and its characters, and not towards the direction itself. Maybe Paul deliberately in this way just as porn actors act for the cameras; there’s a scene in Boogie Nights in which a camera zooms into the camera lens that in turn zooms into the actors who are having sex off-screen, which may be a subliminal hint from Paul that he’ll direct in an intrusive manner. The drawback here is it feels like watching a Sims game, with a God-hand creating a world, placing characters within it, making them interact and bumping them off whenever he wishes. An interesting and watchable world, no doubt, but lifeless and lacking emotional involvement, even with Sim pets!

I remember watching Anurag Kashyap’s 6 hour epic ‘Gangs of Wasseypur‘ (an Indian film released in 2009 in two parts) and forgetting the film soon after the end credits. The film’s visual style could rival Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but I ultimately found Wasseypur lacking in emotional value – even a marketer will tell you how important it is for any product to have emotional value. Boogie Nights suffers from the same problem. Back to the Meryl Streep problem i.e. will she be able to view Gnong hills with the same wonderment from a private jet? A private jet, in spite of the elaborate set-up or arrangement, still won’t bring the excitement or awe a biplane would. Paul Thomas Anderson has directed Boogie Nights to please himself… that HE has directed the film, that HE has used the camera in a myriad ways, even when neither his script nor its characters demand it. Everyone except Paul seems left out.

While Gangs of Wasseypur was about the developing state of gang warfare in Wasseypur area of Jharkhand (from war over coal to drugs to scrap trade auctions), Boogie Nights is about the changing times of porn in the late seventies and early eighties, covering the popularity and downfall of cinema porn and the rise of videoporn. As Anderson says in his commentary, the film focuses greatly on the sociocultural, financial and emotional state of its characters during this period.

It’s about Jack Homer (Burt Reynolds, in a deserving Oscar nominated performance), who directs porn for the theatres and observes his work like any committed film director would – the Scorcese of Porn. Its about Eddie (‘phresh out of the rap-way Marky Mark Matt Damon), whose ‘Torpedo area’ is greatly endowed, and his rise in the porn industry as lead actor with pseudonym Dirk Diggler and eventual fall when his ego (plus drugs gets the better of him- the Kanye West of porn. It’s about Amber Waves (ever reliable Julianne Moore), who’s a veteran porn actress and a den mother taking all newcomers under her care – the Madonna of porn. It’s about Buck (Don Cheadle), a black country-music loving pornstar who dreams of opening a stereo equipment store but is denied a loan due to the nature of his profession and not his skin color (for a change!) – the (fill-in-the-blank) of porn. Its about Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a stereotype with great earnestness), the gay boom mic operator with a not-so-secret crush on Dirk and his ‘asset’ (he’s got only one)– the any-gay-stereotype of porn. It’s about Brandi (Heather Graham), a nice girl forever on roller skates who’s constantly picked on in college and who ultimately beats the shit out of her bullies – the Carrie of porn. It’s about Reed Rothchild (John Reily), Dirk’s best buddy and partner in an action themed porn series – the Robin (i.e. Batman/Robin) of porn.

The quick exposition sequences preceding porn are shot on grainy 16mm film, and the crew watches like any professional film crew would. They are impressed with Dirk’s little-big man when he reveals it in front of the camera for the first time, and Scotty almost hyperventilates. Here is a bum, a loser taunted by his vitriolic mother for his lack of ambition, climbing the ladder of success, winning every-possible accolades at adult film awards (shot in a similar style as the game show sequence in Paul Thomas’ succeeding film Magnolia) and living life on his terms: the male equivalent of Meryl Streep, except in films she won’t dare to touch. His breakdown begins with the threat posed by a newcomer’s entry, and its the first time I’ve witnessed breakdown sequence with the guy in his undies. It annoyed me that the crew reacted so predictably, like characters from a partly-staged reality show. They were probably instructed by Paul ‘Basically, you play the best buddy / the gay crew member / the mother figure and I want you to act according to how I planned the whole thing, so better keep improvisations to the minimum’, so these characters stay as representations throughout the film. As representations, they aren’t memorable enough. Imagine how Tarantino would’ve characterized these representations with his monologues. Or David O Russell with improvs. Paul disallows his actors from taking charge once the camera rolls, and there seems to be a tightly held tension they want to release.

He allows this to happen (albeit rarely) with the use of silence. There’s a shot of Julianne Moore weeping after a failed battle in court over the custody of her child. The camera begins with her facing to the right and holding one hand to her stomach while crying and people pass by in the foreground (its court so the sight of a grieving person is too common to take notice of), and the three quarter body shot soon zooms in to her face. We sense a moment of tender vulnerability and wish there were more. There’s another scene involving the bank refusing to grant  Don Cheadle a loan, and it achieves its emotional impact using the basic film technique of shot/reverse shot. There’s no music to play over these scenes, and actors exhibit emotions freely. Was it not simply ridiculous when they inserted music of Bach at Meryl Streep’s farewell in Iron Lady? Similarly, Paul uses music extensively in Boogie Nights, plus he’s got a great soundtrack. He should’ve used more silences, more close-up shots. And pithier camera movements. In this film, his tonal change is vague and disparate than distinctive, a conglomerate of inspirations that stand out more than necessary. Even if you haven’t seen the films he’s inspired by, you’ll sense he’s picked up from other films. I could easily notice it in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 corpses, before he made his awesome Devil’s Rejects.

Similarly, to me, Magnolia is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first real film, one that lays its foundations seamlessly and allows its characters to grow independently within. It has greater close-ups, more touching moments, far intricate characterization and sweeping use of music and magic. By contrast, Boogie Nights, a love letter to porn, is an ersatz film I don’t plan to watch in future. It loses its charm quicker than porn.

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For those yet unconvinced with the review, watch the number of films and in once instance, a videogame I’ve referred to. Are all these references necessary? Don’t some of them stand out oddly? I could’ve proved my point without some of these, couldn’t I?

I think I’ve proved it already.

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