Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly

 

It didn’t take long for Paul Thomas Anderson to gain recognition as one of America’s most promising young filmmakers. To date, he’s released seven features, and the opening of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film has become one of the biggest events in contemporary cinema. Later films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master have cemented his spot in the pantheon of great 21st century filmmakers, but I find a lot of pleasure in watching his first few features, as well. It’s interesting to watch a great talent struggle to find himself and develop a unique style and voice. Anderson’s 90s films are marked by his perfect mimicry of the style of some of his great influences, but there are also some early indicators of the distinctive visual and narrative style that he would begin to develop after the turn of the century. I’ll be writing about all of Anderson’s films in depth for this project, minus his most recent release, Inherent Vice, which I never picked up despite enjoying a lot. I think it’s fitting, though, to start off with Boogie Nights, even though it isn’t his debut feature, nor was it my first experience with the director. I think it’s fitting to start here, because Boogie Nights is the first, if not best, example of the director’s blend of artful homage and innovative storytelling that would eventually develop into his own directorial signature. I think that it is also Anderson’s most accessible and easy to enjoy film.

Boogie Nights charts the rise and fall of both Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) and the adult film industry through the late 1970s and into the 80s. Loosely based on real-life porn actor John Holmes, Dirk is discovered by Jack Horner (Reynolds), an auteur of pornography, who aims to bring a touch of class and storytelling to the medium. Dirk is added to Horner’s stable of actors, but it doesn’t take long for him to separate himself from the pack and become one of the industry’s shining stars. Horner’s crew forms a sort of surrogate family, with Dirk in the middle as the golden child, around whom all the other performers are orbiting. The crew lets the good times roll throughout the 1970s, with the film reveling in its depictions of bacchanalia, giving the audience an inside look at the seedy, yet somehow still glamorous world of high-end pornography. However, as the calendar turns and as public tastes prove fickle, no one is prepared for the realities that begin to set in in the 1980s. Too much cocaine and too much hubris precipitate Dirk’s ejection from Horner’s troupe, and the rise of video sees the porn industry, in general, facing great changes. Fame is a roller coaster ride, and the dizzying heights must be matched by plummeting depths, and the film’s third act sees all parties finding rock bottom before they can hope to experience any redemption.

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Growing up in a show biz household, surrounded by films, Anderson began experimenting with filmmaking at an early age. By his teens, he was shooting videos and editing them on a VCR, and, in fact, the inspiration for Boogie Nights comes from an early short from this period. When he was 18, Anderson shot a 30-minute mockumentary called The Dirk Diggler Story, which would go on to become Boogie Nights a decade later, with some of the scenes being recreated nearly verbatim, and the mockumentary itself being referenced in an abridged version as the film that Amber Waves (Moore) shoots about Dirk halfway through Boogie Nights. After a decade of development, the final cut of Boogie Nights bears little similarity to its earlier, truncated counterpart. Anderson’s directorial choices reveal a devotion to the New Wave of American Cinema, particularly to the style of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Anderson leans on these pillars of American filmmaking throughout Boogie Nights, evoking their unique filming styles, as well as some of the thematic concerns on display in their filmographies, particularly Altman’s. Though the film wears its influences on its sleeve, to me it doesn’t feel plagiaristic as much as celebratory. Anderson announces his intentions immediately with the film’s opening shot, a three-minute tracking shot that follows Jack and Amber through Maurice’s (Luis Guzman) nightclub. The shot is showy and virtuosic, calling to mind the opening shot of The Player or, perhaps even more immediately due to the nightclub setting, Goodfellas. The camera winds through the club, tilting, spinning, and panning, pausing to light on the faces of the film’s main characters as they catch Jack’s watchful eye. It finally settles on Dirk, then known as Eddie, a busboy at the club who takes the bus in from Torrance just to be close to the action. More than just introducing the principal cast, this opening shot also introduces the world of the film as highly stylized and glamorous, but still slightly seedy. The costumes and sets feel authentic and they pop off the screen, matched by the stylish, attention grabbing camera work of Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit. The film is full of these types of long takes and carefully plotted out tracking shots, and though it may be somewhat derivative, Anderson has clearly set his artistic bar very high as a young filmmaker, and there are few other filmmakers who would be able to deliver this level of homage to acknowledged masters of the medium like Altman and Scorsese.

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Of course there is much more to Boogie Nights than simply period authenticity and fan service to some great American filmmakers. The film marks the first major indication that Anderson is a great director of actors, and a great crafter of nuanced, lived-in characters. The performances in his debut, Hard Eight, are stellar top to bottom, but the scope of what he attempts and manages to pull off in Boogie Nights is on a completely different level. The film has over two dozen speaking roles, and the primary supporting cast around Wahlberg numbers around a dozen, and is made up of veteran character actors and up-and-coming stars. All of the film’s secondary and tertiary characters feel authentic and fleshed out, their side plots unraveling alongside and intertwined with the tale of Dirk’s rise and fall. Anderson’s Academy-Award-nominated screenplay gives these characters detailed backstories that are revealed subtly through overheard pieces of conversation or carefully observed actions, but much of the life is breathed into the characters through the cast’s overall great performances. The film’s supporting cast is deep and diverse, and they are all asked to shed light on different aspects of the tapestry that makes up the world of Boogie Nights through their performances.

Heather Graham delivers a star making turn as the memorable Rollergirl, one of Horner’s actresses. Her performance balances the bubbly, vivacious personality presented by her porn persona with the tragic reality of the girl who had to drop out of high school when her peers found out she was making pornographic films. She shares a scene with Julianne Moore, when she asks Moore’s Amber Waves to be her mother that cuts to the bone, and reveals the shattered little girl that Rollergirl obviously still is, despite her existence in this very adult world. John C. Reilly adds his goofily likable charm to the character of Reed Rothschild, Dirk’s friend and sidekick, while providing much of the film’s humor, along with Guzman. He’s a reassuringly normal oasis in this world of hurt, twisted people. Philip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely appear as porn producers, and lend a suitable level of sleaze to the otherwise light, glamorous proceedings. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a powerful early performance as Scotty J., Horner’s in-house boom operator, who is closeted and in love with Dirk. Hoffman makes Scotty’s shame palpable in the awkward scene where he tries to kiss Dirk, only to be rebuffed, left alone with the car that he bought to impress Dirk. These types of performances would become the norm for Hoffman, and he would go on to bigger and better things, both with and without Anderson, but his sad performance as Scotty has always stood out as one of his best to me. Ditto for Don Cheadle’s performance as Buck Swope, Horner’s token black porn star. Buck spends most of the film caught between worlds, unable to rectify his own perception of himself with the world’s expectations of him as a man. Buck’s dream is to open up a stereo shop, aided by the fame he has garnered through his career in porn, but his ambitions are thwarted at every turn. There is a scene midway through the film where Buck is alone at a party wearing a Rick James-style dreadlock wig, and Cheadle’s still, quietly pained expression tells volumes about Buck’s experience of the world. The wig is patently absurd and humorous, but that humor is covering up a well of pain. All of the characters in Boogie Nights are either running from something or desperately trying to get to something.

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No one in the film personifies this as much as Amber Waves. Moore plays Amber as a matronly figure to the entire production crew, but particularly to Dirk. It’s revealed early in the film that she has lost custody of and contact with her own son, so she uses Dirk as a surrogate. Throughout the film, Moore is asked to portray cocaine-induced mania alongside gut wrenching despair, sometimes even blending the two in the same scene, and she delivers with aplomb. Wahlberg might be the central axis on which the film swings, but Moore’s performance gives it both its heart and its backbone. Anderson offers more direct glimpses into Amber’s backstory than most of the other characters’, but even without the custody hearing scene, the steeliness of Moore’s performance as Amber would be enough to hint at the pain that she has been working for years to heal, or at least numb. Julianne Moore has long been one of my favorite actresses, and her performance in Boogie Nights earned her her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. She has turned in many powerful performances since, but her work in this film still stand out to me as some of her best.

Though the film’s industry setting and expansive ensemble cast recall classic Altman and Anderson’s storytelling structure and shooting style are reminiscent of Scorsese, Boogie Nights has elements of a unique style beginning to bubble up at moments in the film. These impulses wouldn’t crystallize immediately, but there are glimpses here of the voice that would emerge in There Will Be Blood. The most impactful example of Anderson experimenting and developing is in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rob Rahad (Alfred Molina), an unpredictable, violent cocaine dealer. The scene comes near the very end of the film, long after Dirk has descended into a spiral of addiction and desperation that has alienated him from Jack and the rest of the crew. He spends his time exclusively with Reed and Todd, who comes up with a scheme to help them score plenty of coke and the cash they need to support their habits. Anderson masterfully orchestrates the scene, combining masterful shot and framing choices, his actors’ performances, and a perfect soundtrack of 80s classics into a palpably tense, unforgettable moment. While the scene isn’t wholly original, its eccentricity and audacity set it apart from any of Scorsese’s memorable musical sequences. It’s a slow burn of a scene, with the trio of Dirk, Reed, and Todd becoming increasingly more agitated as they realize they’re in over their heads at the sight of Rahad’s bodyguard’s gun, the tension ratcheting higher and higher as Rahad gets increasingly more manic, and Night Rider’s “Sister Christian” builds to a crescendo in the background. There is a persistent weirdness to the scene, with a young Asian man in Rick Springfield T-shirt wordlessly lighting firecrackers and tossing them around the room. Everyone but Rahad flinches at each tiny explosion, while Rahad, dressed in a silk robe and briefs, rants and raves, smoking crack, showing off his gun, and pontificating on his mixtape skills, seemingly unfazed by the incessant pops. The tension in the scene builds to a head when Rahad’s mixing skills are shown to falter and “Sister Christian” cuts off mid-chorus, leaving Rahad stunned and angry. The silence is quickly broken by an exploding firecracker, and Rahad seems to snap out of his temporary, wordless rage, taking another hit off of his crack pipe as the opening riff of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” fills the soundtrack and side two of the mixtape starts up.

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Other filmmakers might use this opportunity to cut straight to the action, but Anderson is content to let the tension continue to build, as he films Molina dancing and singing along to the song. He reverses the shot to a close-up of Dirk’s face, wearing a blank expression as the gravity of the situation washes over him and over the audience. He holds that static close-up for nearly a full minute, an unusually long and uncomfortable shot duration, with Wahlberg’s expression remaining largely unchanged. It’s a microcosm of the scene as a whole, a slow build that is allowed to play out at its own pace and celebrate its own weirdness. When the bullets finally do start flying, the counterpoint of the bright, familiar guitar riff of Springfield’s biggest hit ramp up in the background on the soundtrack, a pairing of music and image that is more ironic than anything Anderson could have borrowed from Scorsese’s catalog. This scene is one of the first times that I think Anderson really starts to emerge as a filmmaker who is in dialogue with his influences, appropriating bits of their style and reimagining them in new and original ways. There would still be refinements and additions that would lead to Anderson becoming one of America’s most original and artistically successful filmmakers, but the evidence is all there in this bold scene.

I don’t watch Boogie Nights all that often. In fact, I’ve probably seen it a half a dozen times or less in my life, despite being a big fan of it as a movie. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that in spite of what a good film it really is, Boogie Nights pales in comparison to the quality of Anderson’s later output. It’s probably also due to the fact that the film is so instantly memorable. Its characters and set pieces are big and bold, and its stylish camera work comes to mind easily. It may not quite rank up among Anderson’s very best work, but Boogie Nights is an accomplishment in any right, and may be Anderson’s most fun film. It’s a big film that is easy to get immersed in, and its world is genuinely enticing, with even the film’s darker third act containing moments of levity and humor. Initially, the film sees its director trying on the clothes of his greatest influences and finding that they are, in fact, a good fit for him, but by the end, it proves to be a crucial link in the chain of Anderson’s development as an auteur. It isn’t quite original enough to earn the masterpiece title that will be bestowed on some of his other films, but it is a perfectly fun and engaging film, enjoyable on several different levels, and a good indication of big things to come.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

 

I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.

For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.

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If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.

Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.

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Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.

The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.

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I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.

Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.