This micro-strand is a spin off of a recently posted Criticwire Survey, in which I was invited to discuss my relationship with the work of the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Inspired to expand further upon that response, and with The Master almost upon us, now would appear to be the perfect opportunity to revisit PTA’s entire body of work, and from a wholly personal point of view to boot.
This will be the first in an occasional series focussing on Anderson’s body of work in the run up to the UK release date of The Master in November.
It’s been interesting to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock rise considerably over the last 14 years or so, not least because our cinematic paths have intertwined considerably. Anderson’s sophomore effort, the breezy and utter joy that is Boogie Nights, saw theatrical release in the UK in January 1998, just weeks after I turned 15 years of age and was deemed “old enough” by my liberal minded father to accompany him to more testing cinematic matter. While not much of a cinephile himself, in the days prior to wall-to-wall film-on-television services my father would make the effort to see films on the big screen (an activity which has all but passed now). Never one to do anything alone, he would take me along. I remember the screening of Boogie Nights in particular, as it was the first time I’d made it in to an 18 rated movie. Boogie Nights was first brought to my attention thanks to a Total Film magazine cover piece, which saw Heather Graham feature and contained an enlightening interview with Paul Thomas Anderson (all these years on I still remember in great detail Anderson’s remarks concerning relatively throw-away bits like moments from the scripts of the in-film “movies” and the origins of the songs sung by Wahlberg’s ‘Dirk Diggler’). Only recently introduced to the concept of “The Filmmaker”, and openly fascinated by such a figure, I examined the piece time and time again, before the neighbourhood cinema (with a relaxed approach to identification) picked up the film, and lo’ my opportunity to actually see the film had arrived.
There might be a case for Boogie Nights being the most appropriate first “adult” film of all, given the naivety of the films protagonist, Eddie ‘Dirk Diggler’ Adams, the 17-year old porn-prodigy at the centre of Anderson’s sprawling tale. The film traces Eddie’s odyssey, as he goes from bright eyed potential megastar to burnt-out junkie, and back again, across a period that straddles the 1970’s and 1980’s. It’s equally appropriate that paternal influence brought me to Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature, given that the role of the father might just be the films core theme. Adams’ own father is only seen twice, in the films opening minutes, with his first appearance near silent while the second is wholly dialogue free, and he remains unnamed. Instead, Jack Horner, the porn director who “discovers” Adams’ talent acts as the patrilineal figure in every real sense.
Theoretically Boogie Nights should be an odd film to sit through with your father. Especially at 15 years of age. And yet, the wit with which the film is held together makes for a surprisingly lax affair. One might say that that is a perfect analogy for Anderson’s entire body of work: material which might provoke a certain reaction *in theory*, yet is completely redefined in it’s execution (That Punch-Drunk Love can be summed up as “A 90-minute Adam Sandler Rom-com” sums up this idea perfectly).
The key to Anderson’s success comes down to one very simple reason: he’s an old-fashioned cinéaste. The movies inform *his* movies. He understands how cinema works, with each of his pictures making this clear, either through mastery of technique or in his ability to subvert conventions or formula to suit his needs. Boogie Nights is at it’s heart a film about about storytelling, with Horner’s dream to make a movie with enough substance to maintain an audience beyond the proverbial bang. That the film is set at the tail-end of the 1970’s means that it correlates nicely with the rise of the blockbuster, which in itself makes for an apt companion to pornography (structurally they work on a similar principal, one of build up, climax, build up, climax, repeat for 90 mins). The creative figures in Horner’s on-screen crew attempt to maintain an artistry in their work (“Each film has a distinctive look“), in spite of the subject matter. Anderson also places figures usually preoccupied with the behind-the-scenes area of the movies in front of the camera. Filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and magician Ricky Jay both make appearances in the film, in important roles.
The film itself is shot with a stylistic emphasis. Shifts in film (and, importantly video) stocks occur throughout the picture, with the subject matter informing the stylistic coda. The audience is quite literally taken inside of the camera at one point, as the lens glances away from the sex scene, again, echoing the naivety (not) on show. There’s a real emphasis on cameras throughout: when the gang initially comes together a camera is present, as they are at the awards show, the marriage etc. The anatomy of the camera is explored thoroughly, in close-up and slow motion. As the 1970’s become the 1980’s there is a very defined shift in tone. This is displayed by a number of very literal tokens. While there are several, none is as influential, nor more narratively affecting than the arrival of cocaine, one of the cinemas great deus ex machina’s, on the scene.
While the film’s inspiration comes from all manner of sources, from Robert Altman, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle and the aforementioned Robert Downey Sr. amongst others, the most frequent comparisons with Boogie Nights are generally made towards the work of Martin Scorsese, and specifically Goodfellas. While seemingly projected as such in some quarters, this is my no mean a bad thing. The long shots in Anderson’s film are awe-inspiring, the opening San Fernando Valley shot and the swimming pool scene the equal of Scorsese’s Layla or Copa, while the ‘The Long Way Down (One Last Thing)’ sequence is a constructed very much in the key of the numerous table scenes that punctuate Goodfellas. Aesthetics and form aside, both films deal with subcultures deemed socially negative, and do so in a manner which doesn’t overly glorify such fare in to the area of romanticism.
While it’s Mark Wahlberg* and Burt Reynolds that were the subject of many of the plaudits levelled at Boogie Nights upon theatrical release, much of the films great success lies in a phenomenal supporting cast. With the likes of Luis Guzmán, Don Cheadle, Thomas Jane and Heather Graham filling out the secondary roles, and a powerhouse turn from Julianne Moore, it’s not difficult to see why this ensemble is considered so highly. Robert Ridgely’s Colonel James, all haute-tan and tinted lens and one of the great monsters of the mainstream cinema channels Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, forty years on from North By Northwest, while the one-time PTA repertoire of Melora Walters, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall all serve as a reminder of how downright satisfying that troupe were at their height.
With every viewing one finds themselves questioning whether there has ever been a more assured sophomore effort than Boogie Nights (While Hard Eight is by no means a bad movie, the leap from that to this is major in its significance). It moves along at a breathtaking pace and contains some truly remarkable moments, that would ordinarily hint at a filmmaker a great deal more experienced (The Colonel’s confession is one of the most well crafted scenes in the American cinema of the 1990’s). Be it as a veiled commentary on the rise of the blockbuster, or straight drama about one of the more curious asides of the American film industry, Boogie Nights had a profound and invaluable effect on the impressionable 15-year old me, and continues to inspire almost just as many years on.
*Rather fantastically, and in a neat turn of events, Joaquin Phoenix, Anderson’s star for The Master was initially in the running for the role of Adams/Diggler.