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"Boogie Nights" Is An Exhilarating Look At All The Good Reasons To Hate The Seventies

By Stacey Richter

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  BOOGIE NIGHTS IS a dark and sometimes funny chronicle of the porno film business in the 1970s that does something movies rarely do these days: It presents a disturbing, compelling drama without giving explicit instructions on how to interpret what we see. It resists the impulse to contain or explain the violence and sexuality depicted, and leaves the audience to use their own intelligence and judgment. This in itself is exhilarating; when combined with a complex, layered script, spirited directing and subtle performances, you get a nifty little movie that recalls loss-of-innocence gems from the seventies like Midnight Cowboy.

Boogie Nights tracks the career of Eddie Adams (porno name: Dirk Diggler), a sweet kid from The Valley who's not really all that bright. But, as he says, "everyone is blessed with one special thing," and his is located in his pants. (This leads to some great dialogue, like: "Jack says you've got a great big cock.") Dirk is played by Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. Marky Mark, and he brings a thick but impassioned enthusiasm to the role that's dead on. Dirk is recruited by slick operator Jack Horner (a low-key Burt Reynolds), a filmmaker with artistic aspirations. They invent a sophisticated, man-of-action character with the turgid name of Brock Landers. (His sidekick is even better: Chest Rockwell.) Together, they rise to the top of the porno-film world.

But the top of the porno-film world isn't always the greatest place to be. There are bitchin' Camaros, yeah, but there are also hangers-on, jealous outsiders, and of course, the omnipresent new kid waiting to take your place at the top. Everybody wants something from you. And then there's the cocaine.

The sheer volume of powder snorted in Boogie Nights is impressive (there's way more drugs than sex), and it quickly becomes disgusting, as young girls with bloody noses are carried "out the back" to be dropped off in emergency rooms. What's interesting about all this is how writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson takes pains to make drug use look fun as well as scary. He uses long, snaky tracking sequences during the party and disco scenes, dipping the camera in and out of conversations like a coked-up guest wandering from group to group. Ain't no doubt, we are here to party.

Until recently, the seventies were a widely hated era, and with wit and humor, Boogie Nights reminds us why. The glorification of earth-tones, synthetics and strange proportions are really emphasized by Jack Horner's stable of porno players, an insecure and newly rich bunch desperate to furnish themselves as serious "actors." The music, too, swings from disco treasures like Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing," to the worst of self-absorbed seventies art-rock. And the anything-goes sex and drug parties, complete with hot tubs, have a habit of turning sour.

Anderson combines affection and horror in his version of the seventies while avoiding the trap of nostalgia. He shows us empty, aimless characters in empty, aimless times, but he sees something funny and beautiful there, too. There's a kind of redemptive, reflective power to the porno films themselves. (It's interesting to note that everything starts to go to hell when Horner switches from film to video, as though something precious has been killed.) The little snippets of the Horner's porno films we see are probably the most intriguing part of Boogie Nights because they mirror the movie we're watching. Dirk Diggler's first porno film is about a young man auditioning to be in his first porno film. It's like Anderson is showing us a low-budget, deeply seedy version of the film we're in the middle of viewing, and asking: Is this really all that different?

It's not surprising that a film about a sweet, innocent kid acting in adult movies would descend. It's inevitable that Dirk Diggler is going to fall from his silk-screened, polyester-and-Italian-leather heights, but what's surprising about this movie is that pornography comes to represent both sin and redemption. Porno films eventually send Dirk into a drug-induced spiral, but he still has his "special gift," which saves him--and what's more, we get to view it at the end of the movie! It's as though Anderson wants to prove that what Dirk has is truly a God-given gift, his only one--seriously.

It's a great movie moment when he pulls it out. Everybody in the theater felt compelled to comment: "It's a deformity!" said a woman to the right. "All that, and he talks too!" said another to my left.

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