Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Running time 154 mins
Well, let's get that over and done with. This is, after all, a film about a man with a very large penis. By now, with all the advance word, you'll already know that the main character has a 13 inch penis, which you do get to see. Much of the film is implicitly build-up to this moment. You wait two and a half hours, you see a very large penis, you get to go home.
It is rather unfortunate that all the advance word about Boogie Nights concentrated on the size of the prosthetic member in question. Because we all know that the final shot is of the penis, it cuts out any doubt as to whether there is any nudity in the movie: after all, this is a film about the porn and not a porn flick. It would, therefore, be quite easy to make this a completely skin-free flick, but director Anderson has quite wisely decided to avoid that path. The porn trade is about nudity and therefore the places of employment, the bars and film sets and photographic studios, will have naked people around. To avoid this fact would be like making an Antarctic nature documentary without penguins: possible, but incomplete.
Anderson's genius is that there is not, in over two and a half hours of screen time, a single unessential, titillating or exploitative frame. Instead, he has created an endearing, charming and supremely well acted piece about an industry that earns more per annum than the conventional Hollywood film makes can possibly hope to achieve.
Boogie Nights is one man's love letter to the porn industry. It is therefore staggeringly uncritical of just about everybody involved in the trade, from performers to money men and their audience. It therefore, as with all great love letters, downplays many negative aspects, such as the widespread drugs abuse, the demeaning portrayal and treatment of women and the, while completely ignoring the worst excesses and the most unsightly aspect, like drugging runaways on Sunset Strip, or the mafia involvement, or the infection or the unexpected pregnancies and so on and so forth. But let's be fair: most of Woody Allen's movies have been paeans to New York and no-one gets on his back for not having muggers, panhandlers and crack houses as significant plot elements.
Of course, it is very hard for film critics to talk with any degree of authority about a film like Boogie Nights, because so much of it is tied up in the real history and nature of skin flicks. How do you write a knowledgable review about a topic that you are not really supposed to know anything about?
A lot of critics get around this by just talking uninformed nonsense. Some, by contrast, have tried to avoid talking about the pornography element altogether, claiming that accuracy can be sacrificed in favour of plot and characterisation: a reasonable point, but easily countered by the fact that Anderson has put so much effort into recreating the era and analysing the subject, it would be churlish not to comment on this. Some critics have, therefore, claimed that they have gathered the information they require for the task from the press notes and if that's what they say, then who am I to counter them. Personally, I can cover myself by saying that I received a (very lightly) illustrated history of the skin flick at Christmas and that is the sum total of my interest in and knowledge of the subject. Guv.
Anderson has set his movie in what can be regarded as the golden age of the porn industry, the late 70s. This comes just after the release of Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door, two movies that had not quite given hardcore porn respectability, but had allowed the topic to be discussed in respectable forums in terms other than merely disdain. Budgets were high, the sex was explicit, profits were enormous and film makers could put their trade down on their tax forms. Yet this also leads into what Anderson regards as the darkest era of pornography, the 80s, when the great stars of the industry, who aspired to making works of art on film, were replaced by straight-to-video home movies. Hell, I would have said that a cum shot is a cum shot, whether it is justified by the plot or not, but it seems there's a lot more to this than anyone could have expected.
The film is basically a once-removed biopic of one of the greatest and most infamous of all porn stars, the hugely endowed John Holmes. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Holmes never had surgery or used a prosthetic: while King Dong was really a latex sock, Holmes earned a fortune and cult status employing his penis in a whole slew of porn epics. He even went so far as to create his own series of detective movies, the Johnny Wad flicks, were his huge penis was the only ID he needed. Unfortunately the 80s were a cocaine-fuelled trip into poverty and crime: here the movie and reality part ways, because the happy-go-lucky Boogie Nights doesn't involve manslaughter investigations, AIDS or colonic cancer.
Dirk Diggler is the name of the priapic hero of the film, a dense LA pot washer and carwash assistant who is discovered by Jack Horner, producer of porn flicks and a wannabe artist. Horner introduces the wide-eyed and bulging-panted Diggler to the world of having sex on camera for money, with celebrities that he has only seen in adult picture houses, like the legendary Amber Waves or the up-and-coming (no jokes, please) Rollergirl. Yet what this new world provides for Diggler is not merely sex on tap, but a sense of community and belonging. The child of a broken home, and a particularly thick child at that, he knows that he only has one talent and this strange new environment not only accepts it, but cherishes and nurtures it and him. He can finally become a major star for his big penis, rather than merely living with terminal chafing.
Equally, the other members of his new family are all emotionally damaged goods in some way or other. Horner has ambitions that are beyond both his reach and, as the mock skin flick clips we are exposed to show, his talent. Amber Waves has lost the only person that really mattered to her, he son, due to her trade and so has become a mother figure to all her little charges on set, while Rollergirl's failed attempts at education have forced her into a career that can be seen as a salvation from prostitution. The story is therefore about the creation, collapse and eventual reunion of a family and not about breast size at all.
It therefore requires a strong cast and by some deeply unusual casting Anderson has set a pretty serious standard for ensemble pieces in the late 90s. Burt Reynolds has, with few exceptions, been a laughing stock since The Mean Machine but here he continues the personal come-back that he started with his critically well-received performance in the otherwise avoidable Striptease. His Jack Horner is two parts Ed Wood to 5 parts Radley Metzger, a man as committed to his cast as his art. Similarly, Julianne Moore's Amber Waves re-enforces her reputation as the finest character actress in Hollywood and also, between this, The Lost World and The Myth Of Fingerprints, one of its most hard working. Heather Graham, although less well known, provides a wide-eyed and desperate innocence as Rollergirl, a part as far removed from her most famous roles, Agent Dale Cooper's virginal girlfriend Annie in Twin Peaks and the 'nice girl' from the final dance sequence of Swingers, as imaginable.
All three of these performances seem guaranteed Oscar nominations, but there are two that should go home with that most valued of baubles. Although he is only on-screen for around twenty minutes, William H. Macy is quite extraordinary as Little Bill, Horner's perpetually hassled and often-cuckolded producer. Bill's distress and final slide into depression present the darkest side of even the most socially responsible porn flick, the simple fact that it places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of voyeur. Since a supporting actor should be there to assist, without grandstanding, the flow and message of the film, Macy's award should be assured.
As for the other deserving nominee, then by process of elimination you should have worked out by now that it must be Dirk Diggler himself. Yes, Mark "brother of Donny" Wahlberg, former whitebread rapper and underpants model, is fast becoming an extraordinary talent. In all the fuss to canonise Leonardo DiCaprio for sterling performances in Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, many critics forget that he was matched in his first major outing, The Basketball Diaries, by Wahlberg's vicious junkie thug. Both actors have progressed greatly, but while DiCaprio could find himself hampered by his pretty-boy looks when it comes to casting, Wahlberg has sufficient punch-bag dents to explore a wider range of roles. Somewhere along the line he has become an actor of supreme variety and strength, reminiscent in some ways of a young Al Pacino. His great achievement here is that, even at Diggler's moments of greatest arrogance and stupidity, the audience pities, rather than despises, him. No mean achievement for a fifth film or for his second leading role.
So, after all that lionization of the cast, when am I going to start raising the flaws in the movie? Well, I'm not, because there aren't any. Anderson's vision is superb, recreating the worst excesses of the 70s and 80s with a rare eye for era and set dressing. His soundtrack gathers the kitchiest and most horrendous music of the era, from the vile bubblegum pop of Melanie's Brand New Key to the overblown stadium pomp of Nightranger, all the while retaining a soft spot for even those fake lizard skin moments of disco life. There's even some genuine waa-waa peddle and synth porn music, so beloved of the easy listening generation. Goddamit, even the cinematography should win immense plaudits, with a fantastic steadicam style that takes the audience from being a gently ambling but complicit guest at the 70s party to becoming a shambling, tilted witness to the horrors of the 80s. A similarly divided style shows through in the depiction of the sexual act, with the fantasy world of pornography depicted in through the distancing media of shabby 16mm stag flicks and mirrors, while the harsher, crueler aspects of real live sex occur just off camera or hidden by scenery. The result of this conceit is an audience that has lost its heart, if not quite its head, to the poor beleaguered souls of the cast.
If Anderson has a point, it is that porn, if created and distributed properly, can be a positive force for society and that pornographers are not necessarily bad people. Whether the audience agrees with him or not, they have to accept that he presents his argument with a vivacity and charm that negates any suggestions of titillation or sleaze.
The greatest measure of the success of the movie is the now legendary final shot, in which Dirk's, well, enormous penis is finally revealed. That this is a scene of surprising tenderness and humanity, rather than an exploitative todger shot, indicates a film that truly deserves all the applause.