THE P.T. ANDERSON FILES: BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

It’s a strange thing to consider but for all of the power that sex wields to start wars, topple the powerful, and put people into financial or personal ruin, the porn industry is small time. That’s not to say that the porn business doesn’t make boatloads of cash. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I mean, if one really wants to believe that the only things subsidizing the porn industry are the spending habits of amoral perverts, that person may want to try and show their math on that assertion if only to sooner realize that there just aren’t that many degenerates wandering the earth. In other words, a whole lot of people you encounter at work, in the streets, and (gasp) at church have at least dipped a toe or, more likely, engaged in a full baptism into one of the four corners in the pool of the sex industry. But yet, for all of the dough the films generate, there are precious few hardcore actors or directors that have been able to transcend the hermetic shell of the adult film world either in name or deed. For every John Holmes, Ron Jeremy, or Sasha Grey, there are a thousand others whose stopover into the world of porn occurs because it’s a place that, if they can’t build a legacy, they can definitely make a buck.

It is because of this that, despite actually working at a General Cinemas theater at the time, I’m unsure as to what went through the public’s mind when they saw the expertly cut and energetic trailers for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights prior to its release in the summer of 1997. Here was a film that was going to be playing in the multiplexes and malls across America that would, in seemingly frank terms, follow the story of an ersatz John Holmes as he navigated the literal ups and downs in the pornographic film industry in the 1970’s and 80’s. Would America be able to reckon with its very real attachment to pornography to feel comfortable enough to go and see it and give it the respect it deserved or would the film flop given the culture’s mind-bogglingly puritanical attitude towards THIS KIND OF SEX™️? If there is anything to challenge the accepted notion that sex sells, it’s to invite people to sit through two-and-a-half hours of it.

But Boogie Nights was a hit and, surprisingly, a quite sizable one. Anchored in the front by a dynamite and keenly sensitive central performance from a then-risky Mark Wahlberg and, in the back, by a jaw-dropping return to form by Burt Reynolds with incredible, fearless performances by Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (among others) between them, Boogie Nights was received as a rollicking, exhilarating American epic that was an intoxicating mix of Scorsese-like rhythms and editing being navigated by Demme/Ashby-like heart across an Altman-like canvas; the most joyous piece of pop filmmaking since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction three years earlier.

Boogie Nights appeared at just the right time in America to make the splash that it did. The years of peace and economic expansion under the Clinton administration turned the 90’s into a freewheeling party which saw the birth of the internet and, also, a certain lax in our social mores as latchkey kids from the 70’s who grew up sneaking peeks at their parents’ poorly hidden porn stashes rolled into their twenties with a more permissive, NBD attitude towards Boogie Nights’s subject matter. All of the moments within the film that focused on the hilariously crude approach to adult filmmaking (and its spot-on recreations of the final product) were met with the appropriately knowing chuckles of an audience that couldn’t do anything but acknowledge that they understood exactly what they were looking at and, in the words of Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, it was (at long last) ok with them. And it was the good fortune of everyone cast in the film that the worm of American culture had somewhat turned as Boogie Nights is a virtual “who’s who” of talent that was just beginning to crest a professional summit out of indie-world and the film’s success would propel almost every single one of them to mainstream fame.

One of the things that has continued to work in Boogie Nights’s favor almost a quarter century later is its anticipation of the succeeding generation’s devotion to 100% acceptance and the encouragement of full positivity among its peers. To this end, Anderson doesn’t excuse his characters’ flaws but is ultimately sympathetic to all of them (save and except Diggler’s mother, Joanna Gleason in a ferociously monstrous performance). The characters are small time but, almost presciently, exist in a world of total support and encouragement; one in which, from the point of view of those on the ground in the actual time and place, seemed like more of a legitimate enterprise than, say, selling blowjobs on Hollywood Boulevard for a hot meal and/or somewhere to sleep. So maybe it’s technically incorrect (and borderline irresponsible) for Julianne Moore’s mother-surrogate, Amber Waves, to fawn over Wahlberg’s decidedly not-very-talented (but massively endowed) Dirk Diggler as “so fucking talented,” but is it really worse than how his actual mother treats him in the neatly trimmed “normal” world of Torrance? Sure, Jessie St. Vincent’s (Melora Walters) paintings are uniquely awful but, really, are they any more subpar than some of the tacky prints that adorned the walls of suburbia at the same time? Are those adult award shows any more moronic and stupidly self-congratulatory than the Oscars? Certainly, the ephemeral static attached to the porn industry doesn’t make it look like the most positive environment to some people who live nine-to-five existences but, as the film makes crystal clear, the need-driven support structure within it is mighty alluring for the socially outcast, the marginalized, and the abused.

And Boogie Nights was never going to be a movie that reveled in its orgiastic pleasures for its own sake. Much like Goodfellas, there is a real “set ‘em up and knock ‘em down” formula to the film’s structure. The film’s first half looks like a total blast of wanton abandon; an effervescent celebration of the largesse of the sexual revolution replete with a pulsating soundtrack and the promise of a perpetual California sunset. As an audience member, you WANT to be there, even if you’re just hanging out in a lounge chair poolside while drinking a margarita while everything else swirls around you. But, sweet Christ, brutal is the comedown that occurs in the second half of the film when the organic pleasures of the 70’s are replaced with the synthetic coke high of the 80’s. A nonstop stack of nightmares including a murder-suicide, crippling addiction, accompanying sexual dysfunction, mounting legal challenges, the cold yet practical move from film to video, and violent moments of terrifying, rock-bottom sobriety show that Boogie Nights is just as eager to argue the downslope as convincingly as it does the ascension, though without any kind of sanctimony in regards to its characters’ plights.

But as much as Robert Altman utilized the titular city to examine America as a whole in 1975’s Nashville, Anderson is using the porn industry in the bracketed time frame to explore the fluid boundaries of family much like he did in Hard Eight the year before and he would in Magnolia two years later. And, to be sure, the world of Boogie Nights remains his best Petri dish in which to study this dynamic as the film’s libertine atmosphere mixes with its members’ outcast and discarded statuses which create disarmingly moving and powerful moments throughout the film, most especially those involving any combination of Wahlberg, Reynolds, and/or Moore.

And so it is that Boogie Nights endures not just because it’s a naughtily hilarious and dramatically satisfying film, well-remembered by Gen-Xers who pine for the sun-kissed days of the mid-90’s. It endures due to the fact that it was written and directed by a guy not yet twenty eight who could resist the easy temptation of sniggering at its subject matter in favor of focusing on the longer view that included poignancy, care, and familial love shared among its characters, ensuring that it would continue to pay dividends to its audience well into the future.

Adam Resnick’s Cabin Boy

I’ve always kind of known Cabin Boy existed, but I’ve skirted around it for years because.. well, as funny as that Chris Elliott guy is in other stuff (he’s the best part about Scary Movie 2) I just didn’t think he could carry an entire comedy on his own, and the thing just looked stupid based on the DVD cover. Well the good news is that he doesn’t have to carry the whole thing on his own because this thing is so packed with character actors, super random cameos, bizarre practical effects, trippy vignettes and eccentric humour it carries itself on sheer outlandish momentum alone. I also wasn’t prepared for how fucking weirdly surreal and unearthly much of it is, it in fact might be one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen and in that regard it succeeds on sheer cult status merit alone. Elliott is pretty idiotic as a self proclaimed “fancylad” (they pronounce it as one word), a rich, spoiled little asshole who leaves his cushy life to run his father’s business in Hawaii but accidentally boards a salty fishing vessel after being given wrong given directions by David Letterman (I’m not making that up). The crew of this boat is populated by the grizzled likes of James Gammon, Brion James, Brian Doyle Murray, Ritch Brinkley (the obnoxious county prosecutor from Twin Peaks, for anyone as nerdy as me who remembers) and a young Andy Richter. They don’t take kindly to Elliott’s snooty attitude though and basically make him the Boat’s Bitch until he can earn his stripes. The film is terminally dumb in many areas but sometimes the script really surprised me with hilariously subtle comedic dialogue and deftly hysterical performances from the main cast and cameos alike. The central plot at some point gives way to a jaw dropping, delirious bout of random interludes including an iceberg monster, a Norwegian half man/half shark creature called Chocki (Russ Tamblyn, of all people), a pissed off Olympic swimmer (Melora Walters), a floating cupcake (Jim Cummings), a cave dwelling Kama Sutra goddess (Ann Magnuson) and in the film’s funniest bit, her Brooklyn born giant of a husband (Mike Starr, always love this guy) who tries to open a hardware store for seagulls. It’s about as fucking off the wall as it gets and suffice to say I was not prepared for the brand of deranged lunacy this film has to offer but I quite enjoyed a good portion of it. In a world where the comedy genre is so saturated with uninspired, limp-dick efforts and terminal misfires, I appreciate something with the verve, lack of inhibitions and capacity for abstract thought that lets it all hang out and throws every certifiably insane idea at the wall to see what sticks. Most of it does.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: American Strays

There’s a turn of phrase that I like to avoid in where a writer compares any eclectic crime film they can find to the work of Quentin Tarantino by labelling it a ‘Tarantino knockoff’, or any variation in vocabulary. I renounce this lazy, unimaginative jab as it’s based in the worst form of criticism, that of negative comparison and ignorance of a film’s original qualities. However, in the case of American Strays, even I have to concede that it’s a blatant, unapologetic ripoff of QT’s style that makes no efforts to mask the plagiarism or do it’s own thing. He should sue. Not to mention the fact that on it’s own terms it’s just a horrible, boring, awkward fuckin piece of shit movie. It’s set up in the same anthology sequence except none of them are even connected, let alone make sense. Two nimrod hit men (James Russo and Joe Viterelli) drive through the desert engaging in strained extended dialogue that’s neither funny nor stimulating. A psychotic vacuum salesman (the great John Savage) goes door to door harassing people until he meets his match in a femme fatale housewife (Jennifer Tilly). A stressed out family man (Eric Roberts, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else) drives his dysfunctional brood through the desert. Elsewhere, Luke Perry plays a depressed, suicidal weirdo who sits around in a shack with a guy he’s paid to literally beat the shit out of him. The worst is a cutesy pie, insufferable Bonnie and Clyde style couple that are so obviously emulating Clarence and Alabama from Tarantino’s True Romance that you begin to wonder if they gave up and just set the script on autopilot like one of those knowingly ridiculous knockoffs you see on Netflix that are simply there to decoy you out into clicking a title that looks *almost* like what you want to watch (TransMorphers, anyone?). None of these vignettes are remotely engaging, it’s like a parade of shitty, awkward, misguided SNL skits from a dimension where humour and wit don’t exist. Every actor just looks tired, every line lands with a hollow thud. Just. Don’t. Bother.

B Movie Glory with Nate: The River Murders 

The River Murders is a fairly entertaining thriller vehicle for Ray Liotta that tries hard to be in the same grisly territory as stuff like Sev7n, and winds up looking pretty silly in its efforts. It takes place on a rural community in the Midwest, where a serial killer is leaving bodies for authorities to find. Detective Jack Verdon (Liotta) does some digging and finds that that himself and the killer may have met before in the past, making it personal. This causes unrest for both the department and Verdon’s mental state, prompting the arrival of an overzealous Federal agent (Christian Slater, annoying as hell here), and the concern of his captain (Ving Rhames). It’s fun watching Liotta spin out of control, and the film climaxes with reasonable intensity, but showcases nothing unique or noteworthy. Raymond J. Barry has a nice bit as Liotta’s father too.