Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights: An Introduction

Last week we showed Boogie Nights in conjunction with our new film education course, Paul Thomas Anderson: Cinematic Cypher. Taught by Paul Wright, Ph.D., the class starts tonight. In case you couldn't come to one or both, you can check out an abridged version of BMFI Manager Alexis Mayer's introduction to Boogie Nights below.

Boogie Nights: An Introduction
By Alexis Mayer, BMFI Theater Manager

Boogie Nights is Anderson's second film and he was 26 when he made it. The inspiration came from his own fascination and love of pornography, a fascination which he has made clear in countless interviews, he is neither embarrassed nor apologetic about. The film takes place over the transitional period of pornography--on film and in movie theaters, to video and at home.  It is an homage to a time when Anderson felt there was more emphasis on story and characters, and pornography was its own genre, rather than a sleazy parallel culture.

While the film is about pornography, it's not one that takes a political stance, and that was not Anderson's intention. He didn't want to tell a story about pornography's impact on society, but rather the lives of the pornographers themselves and their human qualities. As Roger Ebert puts it in his review, "They may live in a disreputable world, but they have the same ambitions and in a weird way similar values as mainstream Hollywood."

Many of the characters in Boogie Nights are influenced by real life porn figures and their real life experiences and two of the supporting actors are porn actors themselves. Mark Wahlberg's character Dirk Diggler is loosely based on porn star of the time John Holmes, and the final chapter reflects similar events in which Holmes was a murder suspect. Nina Hartley plays the wife of William H. Macy's character Little Bill. And the role of the family court judge in the custody hearing between Amber Waves, played by Julianne Moore, and her ex-husband is performed by actress Veronica Hart, who Anderson likes to call the Meryl Streep of pornography.

Anderson does gloss over some details. Most notably, it was illegal to film pornography in California in the '70s, where and when Boogie Nights takes place. But I forgive him that one. This is a great story, with great performances from a great supporting cast, including Don Cheadle, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Riley, Ricky Jay, and Alfred Molina, to name a few not already mentioned. Mark Wahlberg plays the central character of the film Dirk Diggler but the role was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio turned it down to play Titanic. The role of Jack Horner, porno producer, director and father figure to his gang of actors, is played by Burt Reynolds who refused the role several times before finally accepting, believing it to be an exploitation flick. And supposedly, after seeing a rough cut of the film, he was so disappointed that he fired his agents. And then of course, the film got nominated for three Oscars, including best supporting actor for Mr. Reynolds.

There's a parallel between the character of Dirk Diggler and Paul Thomas Anderson himself that I really like. Anderson says in an interview for Creative Screenwriting Magazine that following big disappointments with his debut feature Hard Eight, he wrote Boogie Nights "fueled by a desire for revenge on all the people who told me I'd ever amount to anything." I think of the scene in the beginning of Boogie Nights where Eddie, before he becomes Dirk, has a fight with his mom and says, "You don't know what I can do, what I'm gonna do, or what I'm gonna be. You don't know I'm good, I have good things you don't know about, and I'm gonna be something! I am!" Dirk goes on to win an Adult Film Award for Best Penis, and Anderson gets his Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

For Further Reading:
Mottram, James, The Sundance Kids - How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood, New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2006

Theater Manager Alexis Mayer is a film handler and projectionist with a B.F.A. in Visual and Media Arts from Emerson College and a professional certificate in the Preservation and Restoration of Motion Picture Films from the L. Jefferey Selznick School of Film Preservation.

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