Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Movies of my Life

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights opened in 1997, I loved it immediately, but not for all the right reasons. I was at that time (and still am) a great admirer of the work of Robert Altman, and Anderson’s paean to the porn industry was a great Altman film not done by Altman. I think my thought process might have been “This is good – Altman is getting up in years – Here is someone who can make “his” films after he is dead.” That attitude, it turned out, was unfair to Anderson. His subsequent work revealed an artist who was much more than just a junior version of someone else.

To my mind, BN is the second-best film of the 1990’s, and it has more in it that I love that just about anything else I can name.

The music – I swear to God, whoever came up with the soundtrack for this film must have been tuned into the circuitry in my head. I am about the age that the Dirk Diggler character would be, so the tunes that keep popping up were a real blast from the past for me. Songs like “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff’n the Tears and “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan were staples of my teen years. I never get tired of watching the pool party sequence with War’s “Spill the Wine” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” as the backdrop.

Have a look (and listen) at this great sequence, where Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C Reilly) find themselves in a situation that is plainly heading for violence. There are a lot of great factors at work here. Notice how tense Dirk and Reed are, and how strung-out Todd (Thomas Jane) is, and how the firecrackers help both illustrate this and amp up the tension. Notice Alfred Molina’s out-of-it drug dealer, who doesn’t pick up on his guests’ signals. And finally, the music. Playing pop music like “Sister Christian” and “Jesse’s Girl” over this shouldn’t be this effective, but it is.

BN is like a summer camp for great character actors. Think of the best ones of the last 20 years and then realize how many of them turn up here. This was the first time I laid eyes on Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a great little bit as the gay Scottie. There’s Don Cheadle. William H. Macy has a small bit as a man whose porn-star wife is unfaithful in a comically up-front manner. The Molina drug dealer from the clip is a great, great character compressed into one ten-minute sequence.

Strange to say, I often think of The Godfather when I watch this film. The two films are pretty dissimilar, except for one point. Both portray closed societies, where everyone you see and interact with is like you. The porn industry world of BN is normal for the people within it, but when the film allows the outside world in, it’s illuminating. There’s a moment when Dirk is introduced to Amber (Julianne Moore), and her husband Jack (Burt Reynolds) states “She’s a wonderful mother…She’s a mother to all those who need love.” That line doesn’t really grab until a later scene when Amber appears at a custody hearing for her children, and she is completely destroyed when her lifestyle becomes the topic. For all her motherly qualities, in reality, she’s an abject failure with her own children. It’s truly a heartbreaking scene.

Watch Heather Graham’s Rollergirl in the scene near the end when she encounters someone from her past life. She’s clearly uncomfortable being reminded that she is really someone else, and when the guy finally angrily says to her “You’ve made a fine life for yourself!” she snaps. She can’t bear someone else saying what she may secretly believe about herself.

That’s the thing about this group – They’re a family. An abnormal, poorly adjusted one, to be sure but they are a family nonetheless.

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