How Paul Thomas Anderson Predicted Shifting Attitudes Toward Art, Porn, and making cold hard cash in Boogie Nights
Anderson's breakthrough movie also perfectly encapsulated what it meant to follow your aspirations despite the hardships.
A depiction of the Golden Age of Porn featuring a fantastic cast of young breakout performers (Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman), rising character actors (Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore), and Hollywood veterans (Burt Reynolds, Philip Baker Hall) debuted in theatres a quarter of a century ago, it still looks fresh and feels as vital as ever. The film introduced audiences to a promising auteur-in-waiting (Paul Thomas Anderson).
Anderson's sun-drenched account of the San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s captured an apparently idyllic age in American society. It was laced with vivid historical detail and had a lively wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop, dance, and Motown. It was a time when "sex was safe, pleasure was a business, and business was booming," as the movie's trailer puts it. Boogie Nights seems to imply that we were once a respectable nation.
Anderson uses the collaboration between well-known porn Jack Horner and high school dropout Eddie Adams (Wahlberg) to sift through all the apparent love, optimism, and wealth from that time (Reynolds). Eddie is cast in Jack's next movie on a tragic night at the Reseda nightclub Jack frequents and works at. Due to his huge appendage and troubled home life in Torrance, Eddie decides to play Jack's muse and successfully assumes the identity of Dirk Diggler for the pornographic porn.
With the help of hapless single mother Amber Waves (Moore), radio salesman Buck Swope (Cheadle), aspiring magician Reed Rothchild (Reily), cuckolded assistant director Little Bill (Macy), awkward gay boom operator Scotty (Hoffman), and the young Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Dirk becomes a part of Jack's loving but transgressive surrogate family.
Dirk's sexual prowess as a young man serves as both a symbol of Jack's artistic and financial potential and an embodiment of Anderson's own hot-shot ingenuity—the writer-director made Boogie Nights at the age of 26. Everybody, including Dirk, experiences some type of domestic, professional, or romantic rejection that both fuels their quest for independence and puts them all on a path to failure or self-destruction.
The greedy, sleazy exploitation and drug-fueled violence lurking beneath the adult film industry come into full view as Boogie Nights enters its cynical, frequently taxing second half, set during the conservative, materialistic Reagan years of the 1980s.
Profits are given more importance than spirit and vision. Production businesses switch from analogue film's rich grain to VHS's garish lo-fi style. On Jack's shows, even the vocabulary used to discuss permission and limits shifts from exuberant and direct to hesitant and impersonal. The "pleasure business" is no longer enjoyable, and Dirk, Jack, and the rest of the group start to fall apart as a result.
Boogie Nights sheds light on a tonne of amazing, profound truths about self, purpose, and unrealised goals, but what makes the 1997 classic so fascinating and foreboding is how it explores the conflict between art and commerce. The tension between the desire to create something and the limitations imposed by the time's economic and creative requirements not only spoke to the developing technology and competing ideologies that marked those two decades, but also to our current media environment.
For instance, with the rise of streaming services over the past ten years, storytelling has effectively been reduced to content. Although the streaming industry has produced many excellent works of fiction, its economic model favours and markets stories that follow the dictates of an algorithm above those that might have a greater cultural influence.
Yes, there is greater accessibility than ever before to watching and discussing movies and television shows, but there is also a notable loss in how we currently experience tales, especially in a time when everything seems to be reverse-engineered to become social media fodder.
However, Jack's videos demonstrate that porn can have just as much creative quality as any other widely accepted work of art. It is possible to argue that porn is simply content as well, a plain spectacle meant to be swiftly devoured and discarded. Even if they are crude and frequently ridiculous, they undoubtedly have a joyful, scrappy spirit about them that conveys Jack's desire to make films that are "true and right and dramatic," a remark he says to Dirk early in Boogie Nights.
Jack also serves as a metaphor for Anderson's creative side, which is both passionate and irritated. Jack has faith in what he is creating, despite the fact that his work may not be flawless or approachable for the typical spectator. Jack develops a resigned disinterest in the alchemical process and attention to detail that drove his earlier work, but once he's forced to cut expenditures and adapt to VHS, his pictures turn darker and more obscene.
The same is true of Dirk, who, as his cocaine addiction worsens and he adopts the sexism of his on-screen alter ego, Brock Landers, regresses from his copious sensual stamina and boyish charm into impotence and hot-headed arrogance.
Intense jealously over Johnny Doe, his doppelgänger substitute, widens the gap between him and Jack, which leads to a breakdown that leaves Dirk jobless and in need of money. Jack and Dirk prioritise control over workmanship because they both stake so much of their identity and self-worth in their jobs. As a result, they lose sight of what first brought them together.
Boogie Nights's unsettling portrayal of this cultural shift also portended how our society would eventually see movie sex. Although there has been a puritanical attitude towards media over the past few years, moral panic over on-screen images of sexuality and nudity has existed since the Hays Code era. People have argued over whether sex scenes in movies and television are really necessary, especially on internet forums.
Not that sex scenes are useless, but rather a serious lack of imagination prevents on-screen sex from being more erotic and entertaining to watch. Similar to how streaming has developed a more effective, if dull, formula for keeping viewers interested, conventional cinema has struggled to titillate viewers, instead choosing either vacuous provocation or sanitization.
Boogie Nights serves as an example of the importance of imagination in both porn and cinema as a whole, showing how it not only helps to create an intimate setting but also one that is coordinated and comfortable. Watching hot couples interact on screen is entertaining, but nothing beats witnessing an idea come to fruition with ease, zeal, and care. The opportunity to create something unique and significant increases when storytellers and performers enjoy their work, are paid fairly for it, and are not constrained by industry constraints.
The subtext, or what isn't visible or is only mentioned, can be equally creative and provocative. For instance, Dirk's cartoonishly huge penis isn't actually shown until the movie's iconic closing moment; it's only hinted at by various individuals' shocked and awed reactions. In reality, the curious, entranced reactions of Jack's crew members or onlookers cover up the majority of Boogie Nights' numerous sex scenes.
Boogie Nights establishes an intriguing mystery around sex by emphasising the wonderment surrounding the spectacle as much as the spectacle itself. This edges the spectator just enough to make those fleeting, vivid moments of sensual pleasure feel all the more rewarding.
Naturally, there is a rationale for the movie's sporadic elliptical inclinations when it comes to showing graphic scenes: Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson originally requested an NC-17 certification, but New Line Cinema producer Michael de Luca informed him it needed to suit an R. In William H. Macy's oral history of the movie, he claims that the MPAA made more of a fuss about the movie's nudity than its violent violence.
Boogie Nights like many of Anderson's previous movies do deal with violence; it does so as a result of institutional compulsion, commodification, and the requirements for success in the United States, a country founded on violent opportunism. It plays a crucial role in the equally thrilling and heartbreaking closing act of the movie, where violent meetings between Jack and Dirk result in their reconciliation.
Limiting the exposure of sex, however, deprives viewers of the opportunity to enjoy one of the many pleasures of being a human. Even if it wasn't Anderson's intention, the metatext surrounding New Line Cinema's efforts to censor Boogie Nights' most graphic scenes raises some important issues. Why do we as a civilisation frequently choose harshness to pleasure, especially in the media that we watch? Is it because sex demands more openness? Because we can watch it passively rather than aggressively, isn't that horrific visual more therapeutic to digest?
Boogie Nights doesn't directly address these issues, but its sincere, upbeat conclusion does suggest how we might accept the situation we are in. Anderson depicts Jack's unorthodox family unit coming back together in an emotionally stirring tracking shot that parallels the technically challenging opening of the movie. Each person's personal tragedies have left them with lasting wounds, but they have also helped them become a little more mature.
With a newfound sense of confidence, Dirk gets his act together and practises his lines in front of a mirror before displaying his engorged member and reinforcing his star status. According to Anderson, every pursuit is worthwhile if we can endure through challenging times in our lives and keep the drive to follow our genuine purpose. Making something, whether it be a movie or a family, is the truly rewarding part.