in Profiles | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

(Show Me The) Money Shot

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) reveals the desperation and malaise of 70s SoCal pop culture

in Profiles | 10 SEP 97

‘I need actors’ insists pornographic film director Jack Horner, played to perfection by Burt Reynolds in 26-year-old writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). It's 1977 and like everyone in this movie, he has a dream: ‘A film that’s true, right, and dramatic... What keeps them in their seats even after they've come? The beauty and the acting. They’ll squirt their load and sit in it - just to see how the story ends’. Jack is a leader in his field and he has an eye for new talent - the film begins with him plucking a new male lead from obscurity and making him a star. Moving from nightclub busboy to porn superstar in one quick step, high-school dropout Eddie lives with his abusive, unloving mother and henpecked father in Torrance (the same nowheresville suburban setting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, 1997), feinting karate moves in a bedroom whose walls are plastered with posters that constitute a fantasy life of narcissistic hypermasculinity. The size of Eddie’s talent - ‘Everyone is given one special thing’ as he puts it - is what makes him more than just another wannabe and Jack’s fantasies of cinematic artistry fuel Eddie’s fantasies of stardom without limits. The profound dissociation of talent (here equated with anatomy) and performance is a central concern in Boogie Nights.

Embarking on a new life, Eddie’s identity is split in two. Like all porn stars, he supplies himself with a stage name and filmic alter ego, becoming Dirk Diggler, and asks actors and crew to call him by his assumed name, so intent is he on erasing his former self. 

Dirk conceives a third identity: Brock Landers, a James Bond action hero featured in a series of tacky espionage porn adventures. At the beginning of his decline, he reinvents himself yet again as a third-rate cock-rock singer. (Fittingly, Eddie is played with amazing conviction by Mark Wahlberg, formerly known as white-boy rapper concoction Marky Mark and homoerotic icon of Calvin Klein print ads.) The lives of the four main characters - Eddie, Jack, Jack’s wife-cum-leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and resident starlet Rollergirl (Heather Graham) - are all built on the dangerous ground where fantasy and insecurity intersect with denial and delusion. This is nowhere more evident than in the collective dissociation that enables the quartet to constitute themselves as the core of an incestuous, surrogate, extended family. Amber’s compulsive mothering goes hand in hand with introducing both her surrogate children to cocaine, while Jack is a figure of benign corruption who watches approvingly - and films - as Eddie routinely fucks both his ‘sister’ and his ‘mother’ before turning prodigal son.

Like Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, a twisting, compelling tour de force about professional gamblers, Boogie Nights charts the dynamics of a scenario in which a father figure/mentor grooms a stray dog to stardom and then watches powerlessly as his protege overreaches himself. The narrative of Eddie’s moral transformation from willing innocent to coked-out ego-tripper spans 1977-84 and Boogie Nights’ very title evokes the disco era. But despite the wall-to-wall disco soundtrack, Anderson doesn’t traffic in the obvious possibilities of 70s kitsch. Nor does he set out to indict the porn industry, though there is plenty of collateral damage: a teenage OD, a running gag about the assistant director’s repeated cuckolding, and a violent downward spiral to rock bottom in the final act. What Boogie Nights does do extremely well is locate the desperation and malaise that galvanise the unreflecting, relentless hedonism and naiveté of 70s SoCal pop culture, in which even the most banal thoughts or actions are ‘great’. The film’s midpoint, New Year’s Eve 1980, is inaugurated with a pièce-de-resistance party sequence that ushers in the spectre of home video and culminates in a double murder and suicide. The subsequent downturn in Eddie’s fortunes is indexed to the porn industry’s fall from grace as the video revolution transforms the business and buries Jack’s artistic aspirations.

To some extent, Anderson too is afflicted with an impulse to overreach himself - at two and a half hours, the film is at once excessive and insufficient: its busy, uneven narrative is truncated, yet rich and humming with energy. Anderson has an acute eye for transfixing moments of pivotal psychic freefall - Julianne Moore and Heather Graham on a coke binge, Mark Wahlberg frozen as a drug deal drifts towards murder - and a dazzling way with the camera, typified in the film’s opening shot that introduces all the characters in one giddy steadicam glide. Anderson is unmistakably indebted to Scorsese for some of Boogie Nights’ stylistic and thematic momentum: GoodFellas’ razor sharp hunger and whiplash energy and Casino’s baroque, mock-epic sense of cultural bankruptcy. More crucially, he has reconfigured the critique of narcissistic masculinity to deliver a startlingly different payload. The film’s final scene is a recuperation of Eddie/Dirk’s dissociative integrity: a Jake La Motta-esque dressing-room mirror soliloquy and anatomical disclosure that affords Boogie Nights the next best thing to porn's Holy Grail - the definitive (Show Me the) Money Shot.