Volume , Number 0
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Freeport - McMoran Mining Corporate â€¦
Jenna e. Ziman
One Minute You're Changing Diapers, â€¦
The Asian Crises and U.S. â€¦
title("Washington's Role in Colombian Repression")
Senate Hearings Missed the Real â€¦
Rob richie and steven Hill
The Human Rights Charade
Editorial: Media Madness
Welfare Rights Redux
Christopher d. Cook
Slippin' & Slidin'
MAQUILADORA WORKERS ELECT THEIR FIRST â€¦
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There is so much to like and admire about Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights that small qualms or reservations seem petty. The tone -- and the plot -- of the movie is summed up in its subtitle (when was the last time a movie had a subtitle?): "The Life of a Dreamer, the Days of a Business and the Nights in Between." This might have been the subtitle of a Horatio Alger pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps novel -- Ragged Dick? -- or some 1960s young man as dreamer movie a la The Graduate. But Boogie Nights is the story of Eddie (Mark Whalberg) a sweet, ingratiating busboy with a huge dick who is reinvented as Dirk Diggler, a porn star who has charm as well as schlong.
Boogie Nights tales place over seven years -- from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s -- and uses its porn industry setting to chart changes in U.S. culture. We go from disco and coke to violence and videotape, from instant celebrity for sex to a backlash against sexual expression. At the heart of this story is Dirk Diggler's endless adventures as a niaf in the world of knaves. If there is a template for
Boogie Nights it is not the Horatio Alger epic, but Voltaire's Candide. Mark Whalberg's Eddie -- and his reincarnation as Dirk -- is just really a nice simple guy who wants to get through life and have people like him. In his first sex movie with the motherly Amber Waves (a great performance by Julianne Moore) he asks with great sincerity "Is it all right if I try to make it look sexy?" and with the charm of a neophyte asks "Where do you want me to come?" Like Candide, Dick feels he has the whole world before him -- fame, money, a new family. He even has his own personal guide -- a contemporary, sleezed out version of Dr. Pangloss -- Jack Horner (Bert Reynolds) a sweet talking porn director who discovers Eddie and opens his home, family style, to the women and men who work for him. But then things begin to go wrong: Dirk gets a little too old, his coke and crystal meth habits get out of control, violence begins breaking out all around him, he takes to hustling. Like Candide, who survives pirates, earthquakes, corrupt clergy, duplicitous whores, and his own stupidity, Dirk Diggler manages to come through in the end and return to his home -- Jack Horner's house as a stand-in for Westphalia -- and, like Candide, to cultivate his garden by making run-of-the-mill porn.
The great thing about Boogie Nights is that it captures, perfectly, the naive insanity of the late 1970s. This is all new -- sex, drugs, disco, fame, money -- and Diggler, Amber Waves, Jack Horner and his crew are completely taken with it. While Anderson shows that there is already corruption surrounding them (and more moving in) he presents the people and their time as basically good and well intentioned. There is no glossing over the fact that sometimes someone ODs on coke, or that sexual experiment has its downside (a key member of the group kills his wife and then commits suicide because he can't deal with their open marriage) but at heart Anderson views and celebrates this period as a time of freedom. Given the pervasive moralism that has been creeping into every aspect of American life over the past thirty years, it is amazing to see a movie that presents sex and drugs without overt condemnation or a sense of outrage.
The ability to do this is a direct outcome of Anderson's determination to find the essential good, the human worth in his characters. Towards the end of the film Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a fragile porn actress who does too much coke and needs too much love from her fellow performers, begins viciously beating up a guy who knew her from high-school after he insults her during a misguided sexual encounter. The attack is bloody and mostly unwarranted, but when it happens we -- shockingly -- side with Rollergirl because we believe Anderson's view that although she might be a coked up prostitute and sleazy porn star, her personal integrity has been deeply wounded. It is an amazing feat of filmmaking to sustain an audience's empathy for characters who are, in the end, not all that likable.
But in spite of this, there are aspects of Boogie Nights that mitigate against it being a truly great film. Anderson's empathy for his characters too often translates into sentimentality. A harsh scene in the beginning of Eddie arguing with his confused and angry mother (a great cameo by Joanna Gleason) hits home with a wallop that never again catches his complexity. Towards the end of the film a scene of Amber and Rollergirl doing coke together and getting so trashed that their psychic insides keep spilling all over the room -- Rollergirl wants to call Amber "mom" and Amber is both deeply moved and repelled -- throws us out of our seats with its emotional honesty. But for the most part, Boogie Nights prefers its emotional content to be safe and a little pre-packaged: sentimentality that moves us without really challenging us. This tendency to sentimentality is also at the heart of the film's political problems. At first glance, Boogie Nights has a very post-modern feminist feel to it. The women who work in the porno industry are not portrayed as automatic victims, and are presented with a complexity that most of the male characters don't possess. Neither is the industry simply glorified, or misogyny glossed over -- both Amber Waves and Rollergirl are fully realized, vibrant characters who are shown functioning as well as they can in this male-centered world. In a deeply disturbing scene in which she is once again denied visiting rights to see her son because of her irresponsibility and emotional unsteadiness Anderson juxtaposes Amber's -- seemingly bizarre -- maternal instincts for her fellow performers with her emotional pain and confusion about her biological mothering. What shocks here is not the easy equation that she has substituted one relationship for another, but the emotional complexity that suggests a host of provocative possibilities from the sexualization of parenthood to the ability to infuse the sexually routine world of porn making -- classic alienated labor -- with an authentic emotional experience.
Anderson is also interested in charting the manifestations of women-hating in the culture. Early in the film the naive Dirk protests loudly against porno films in which women are subjected to violence or even insulted -- for him this is about "love." But as he becomes more famous, and self-centered -- and as the industry becomes increasingly commercialized -- his films (in particular a James Bond parody series he writes and stars in) begin to include scenes of his hitting and assaulting women. Anderson is a smart enough writer to make this sea change shocking. It is as though Dirk -- after years of porn stardom -- actually begins to lose his innocence here. But this is not a simple minded critique of pornography -- Dirk's parody is, after all, simply a reflection of the ugly sexualized violence of mainstream Hollywood films -- and Anderson makes it clear to us that whatever porn is (and it changes through the course of the film) it is never disconnected from mainstream culture.
The entrance of violence into the porn film also singles the appearance of violence in the film's real world and towards the end of Boogie Nights there are two long set pieces -- a violent nighttime robbery in a doughnut shop and a drug deal gone completely insane -- that move us out of recreations of the late 1970s into the stylized, violent world of Quentin Tarantino. While both these scenes generate enormous energy they ultimately don't work. Anderson clearly intends for them to symbolize -- or manifest -- the economic and psychological desperateness of the 1980s in stark relief to the more innocent 1970s, but they are so bravura, so visually pleased with themselves that they (like Pulp Fiction) end up celebrating the violence. This is surprising because in the film's other two scenes of physical violence -- Rollergirl's attack on her angry trick, and a violent queer bashing of Dirk (after he begins hustling) by straight hoods -- Anderson uses the violence to illuminate the character's emotional states but also to place these people in the context of a changing, confusing, world. Nothing here feels exploitative or gratuitous, the violence has enormous psychological resonance. In contrast, the drug deal and robbery scenes begin to feel fake, emotionally false to the film's basic view of the world. This emotional falseness is similar -- actually the obverse of -- Boogie Nights' sentimentality. The problem with the scenes is not simply that the violence is artistically or emotionally misplaced, but that, like sentimentality, it opts for easy and unsatisfying interpretations of complicated material.
It would be easy to claim that as good as Anderson can be these scenes of misplaced violence are simply a case of his not trusting himself enough to follow his best instincts. But the problem is a little more complicated. Boogie Nights clearly wants to be about more then a pop movie about porn and by escalating the violence Anderson is trying to say something bigger, grander about America. On some level Anderson feels that these are his best instincts.
Boogie Nights has been compared by several critics to Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville and while it is ambitious and sprawling it has none of that film's emotional or political scope.
Nashville worked because Altman's politics were visceral and immediate; he forced us to look at popular culture and -- while being both charmed and repelled -- grapple with its political meanings. Anderson isn't as smart as Altman, nor does he have that director's ability to shape deadpan cynicism and unalloyed optimism into something that looks like a coherent, progressive vision. If Altman's 1960s counterculture political grounding made Nashville work, it is perhaps Anderson's late 1990s sense of despair that drives him into -- at the film's worst moments -- sentimental revisionism.
Boogie Nights can't really imagine a better future, so the only redemption it can offer its characters is relief from the horrors of everyday life and the ability to return -- battered and only a little wiser -- to a seemingly less complicated past.
The artistic and emotional downside of this is evident at the end of the film. In the film's final shot Dirk is about to begin shoot a scene for a new porn film. To prep himself emotionally for the shoot he takes out his dick -- a lovely, very long objet d'art attached artfully to Mr. Whalberg -- looks into the mirror and proclaims, in hushed tones, to himself and us that he is a star. But the scene is a disaster. By now we have come to believe that Dirk Diggler is successful because is he nice, sweet, sincere, and a good person, not just because he has a big dick. The scene is jolting and creates some Brechtian distance, but it deprives us of our positive feelings about Dirk, making him stupidly shallow and unaware of himself or his world. The reality is that if this was only about Dirk's dick we would not have remained interested for almost three hours.
Candide resonants because we are all Candide, living in a horrible world that makes no sense and has no real moral structures except those we create ourselves. When Boogie Nights works, which is a lot of the time, it is because in seduces us into wanting the freedom and the pleasure that these characters experience (even with their downside). Our engagement with the film comes from emotionally negotiating this vicarious pleasure. And in the end we know that pleasure -- sexual or otherwise -- is about far many more things than simply having, or wanting, a big dick.