Boogie Nights: A Porn Star’s American Dream

Boogie Nights Poster.jpeg

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997)

It is hard to believe that Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork Boogie Nights turns 20 years old this year. I recently sat down and rewatched this great film with a couple of my friends who had never seen it before. Although I already had fond memories of the film, during this viewing I was able to dig deep and analyze the defining characteristics. It is arguably one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest films. Many would consider it a masterpiece. Boogie Nights stands out for a lot of reasons, a few of which I will discuss in this review. It is both a humorous and poignant film, with a lot of things working under the surface, which is a difficult for a film to achieve.

It is impossible to discuss Boogie Nights without first talking about the time period and how the film’s crew effectively brought it to life. The porn industry was such an important part of the 70’s era, so it is hard to imagine this story taking place in any other time period. The terrific soundtrack plays a major part in setting the tone of the times, but the production design and costumes also play important roles in this. This film breathes the 70’s and transports us back to a simpler time. It is also impressive how this film transitions from the peak of the 70’s era, to the downfall of the 80’s.

The acting in this film is top notch to say the least. From the first long take it is apparent the films of Robert Altman had a big influence on Anderson when making Boogie Nights. Tackling a large cast of characters with multiple separate arcs is no easy feat, but like Altman, Anderson does it in spades. One shining point of the film is Mark Wahlberg’s performance as Dirk Diggler, the central character. Critics like to give Wahlberg a lot of shit for many of his performances, but in this film he really is outstanding. Not to mention the other great cast members who all deliver excellent performances and create memorable characters that the audience learns to love and care about, despite their faults.

The camerawork is intelligent and exciting. A lot of information is given to us through simple camera movements. I love the way the camera zips around in moments, especially when the cocaine hits in the 80’s. There is not much to say that has not already been said about the impressive long takes in this film. They do still stand out as impressive cinematic achievements though. The influence of the films of Martin Scorsese, particularly Goodfellas, is obvious in the way the camera moves.

The themes of this film are rich and there is a lot to dissect here. I love the exploration of this crew as a strange porn family with Amber (Julianne Moore) and Jack (Burt Reynolds) playing the mother and father figures to their crew. The film expertly sets up the family troubles in each of the characters during the first act, and these problems cause faults and further conflict throughout the film.

Another important theme is the American Dream; something we’ve seen tackled again and again in film. However this film tackles the old familiar theme in a completely new light. All Dirk wants to do is to achieve something great. At the beginning of the film he says “Everyone’s blessed with one special thing.” His “special thing” just happens to be his rather large member, which instantly skyrockets him to success and stardom in the porn industry. Like most cautionary tales, once Dirk reaches the top, it is not enough for him. He begins to grow jealous of the new “actors” entering Jack’s films and has a breakdown, which leads to him being fired. This causes him to indulge in excesses, including hard drugs, which send him on a long destructive path. This destruction seems to have a ripple effect on his friends and crew members. Everyone has a moment of pain or suffering toward the end of the film. These moments hit hard because of how well Paul Thomas Anderson has fleshed these characters out so that the audience truly cares about them and wants them to succeed.

Luckily, in the third act, the family comes back together and we get to see them succeed as a unit. In a nod to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Dirk pumps himself up in the mirror (a motif throughout the film) and says, “I’m a big bright shining star.” I think this speaks to the true heart of this film. It is a film about passing through the obstacles of life and achieving your dreams. Only a masterful filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson could perfectly weave this theme into a story of porn actors and crew members. At the end of the day, they are just people, with similar dreams and aspirations to us all. I think there is a little Dirk Diggler in everyone (no pun intended).

Written by: William David Glenn IV

1.18.17

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