Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible sophomore effort, was based on The Dirk Diggler Story, a short film that he made when he was a film student, about a ludicrously well-endowed porn star named Dirk Diggler. Boogie Nights pretty much takes that premise and expands it into Anderson’s first great vision of the San Fernando Valley, moving us from the 70s to the 90s, while evoking the changes in cinematic experience and attachment over those twenty years. Mark Wahlberg plays Diggler, originally Eddie Adams, Burt Reynolds plays his mentor and director, Jack Horner, and they’re joined by an enormous ensemble cast that makes Boogie Nights something of an experiment in continuing the collective visions of Robert Altman into the 90s. In fact, Boogie Nights often plays as a who’s-who of 90s indie cinema, cementing many up-and-coming actors in the popular imagination, and providing them with roles that would help shape their career over the coming decade. John C. Reilly is here again, as Reed Rothchild, a fellow porn star, and he’s joined by Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, Jack’s wife and leading lady; Don Cheadle as Bruce Swope, another porn star; William H. Macy as “Little Bill” Thompson, a camera operator whose wife is always having sex with other men, in public, at pool parties; Heather Graham as Rollergirl, a porn star who never takes off her roller skates, not even when she’s filming, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty J., a cameraman who develops a debilitating crush on Diggler.
Rewatching these actors and characters as they circulate through Anderson’s film, I was struck by how emphatically their poses and gestures were etched into my unconscious memory as emblems of indie cinema in the 90s – both individually and collectively, since Anderson would go on to work with many of these characters time and again, and had already cast John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman in his first film, Hard Eight, along with Philip Baker Hall, who appears here as Floyd Gondolli, a businessman who forces Jack to force some hard truths about the transition from film to video in the porn industry. Speaking of transitions, Boogie Nights also now feels very much of its time in terms of the evolution of porn in the late 90s as an experience that was suddenly available to any American who had access to a desktop computer and basic dial-up. At a time when internet availability suddenly domesticated porn, and exposed its banality, Boogie Nights looks back with longing to the Golden Age of Porn in the mid to late 70s – the moment when relaxed censorship, European influences, a reinvigorated American film industry, and a new era of sexual liberation unleashed a new potential for hardcore porn to flourish as a cinematic art.
In many ways, that potential is the subject of Boogie Nights. Like Tarantino, Anderson seems prescient that something has been lost in the transition from 70s to 90s American cinema, and looks back to the 70s as the source of his own indie impulses. Yet where Tarantino lights upon blaxploitation as the balm to his anxieties about white masculinity in the 90s, Anderson instead sees porn as the apex of 70s cinema, and the phallic potency of 70s cinema. Recovering the potential of 70s porn, and fulfilling that potential, becomes synonymous with Anderson’s own project, which finds its cipher in the character of Jack, played by Burt Reynolds, whose dream is to make the first great work of art porn – a film that is hardcore enough to make people come in the cinema, but cinematic enough to ensure that they remain in their seats “after they’ve come,” until the final credits roll. For Jack, Dirk Diggler is the key to this dream of a porn film that is “true and right and dramatic,” since he senses – quite rightly – that Dirk is one of those rare figures who will work equally well as a porn star and as a Hollywood leading man. Accordingly, he plans a whole franchise of films with Diggler, each of which will have its own distinctive stylistic signature, while also reflecting their ongoing auteurist collaboration with each other, which becomes akin to the collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, or any major director and major star, including, of course, the ongoing auteurist relationships that Anderson forges with many of his actors right here.
Over the first half of the film, this collaboration not only seems to consummates the promise of the Golden Age of Porn, but the broader promise of New Hollywood cinema. Most of this first half is composed of extravagant sequence-shots, starting with a four minute shot that opens the film, introducing us to virtually every major character before segueing into the momentum of Rollergirl as she skates across a Technicolor dancefloor, as Anderson shifts from one ecstatic dance track to another. Like Rollergirl, Anderson’s camera never takes off its skates during this first act, sometimes wobbling, and sometimes veering off course, but always recovering its balance to stay mobile, especially during the extensive poolside scenes, which trace the development of Jack’s personal and professional relationship with Diggler. The most incredible of these tracking-shots sees the camera float around a party for minutes and minutes, before descending into Jack’s pool, where it weaves and slides between swimmers before returning to the surface for a bout of fresh air.
The logic of this incredible tracking-shot fuses the logic of New Hollywood and the logic of Golden Age Porn, pairing a dazzling technical virtuosity with a sense of space that is as vicous, embodied and slickly contoured by other bodies as the camera’s final dive through the pool. In effect, Anderson reimagines the most avant-garde gestures of New Hollywood, and cinema more generally, as a porn effect, as if the legendary tracking-shot of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba, in which the camera floats underwater in a similar manner, had been reimagined as a skin flick, or as an integral part of a skin flick. Of course, this is vastly more accomplished than anything to come out of actual Golden Age porn, but Anderson’s project is not merely to depict, but to consummate, the dream of Golden Age porn – the dream of a collective sexual jouissance; the socialist impulse and the burnished crowds of Soy Cuba repurposed for a late capitalist milieu. As a result, these tracking-shots that comprise the first half of the film seem to be continually refracted through the surface of the pool, and poised just above the surface of the pool, which becomes a fluid threshold where Jack and Anderson’s aspirations converge, and where Anderson evokes the film Jack can never make.
As a result, the pool tends to mark the transition between Anderson’s mise-en-scenes, and the mise-en-scenes that Jack orchestrates in his own films. It’s only when Jack is shooting that Anderson’s camera slows down, becoming looser and indier as Jack’s camera takes on the onus of elaborate composition. Since Jack believes that Golden Age porn should allegorise its own conditions of production, his films often replicate, or seem to be reaching for, the film that Anderson is making. In Diggler’s first film, for example, Amber plays a porn producer who interviews him for the role, resulting in a conversation that reiterates, in a less assured way, the conversation that Anderson sets up between Diggler and Jack in the opening scene of his film. Yet while Anderson is quite content to show nudity in explicit detail, he tends to avoid the sex scenes at the heart of Jack’s vision, often showing us the characters poised just before or after sex, or if they are interrupted in the midst of sex, but rarely showing them actually having sex. Instead, he marks the sex scenes in Jack’s film by focusing in on the granular minutiae of the recording apparatus, especially during Diggler’s debut. For another director, this might be read as a tactful or prudish gesture, but Anderson’s comfort with nudity instead suggests that the full erotic impact of Golden Age porn can only be understood as a cinematic potentiality that was never historically fulfilled.
The reason for this thwarted fulfilment becomes clear towards the end of the first act – the arrival of video. While Golden Age porn may have marked the apotheosis of 70s cinematic ambition, at least in Anderson’s account, the very conditions that made Golden Age porn so fruitful also meant that it was destined to die out rapidly with the advent of video. The whole fluid world of the first act of Boogie Nights takes place in the slippery space between the emergence of Golden Age porn and the arrival of video, and between the masterpiece Jack wants to make, and a new market based on much more functional and generic conceptions of porn – the same conceptions that would culminate with much of the first wave of internet porn that peaked in the late 90s. Since Golden Age porn never had time to fulfil itself before the arrival of video, it only existed in fantasy – or, to use a metaphor suggested by the film, it was edged out of existence, massaged into ever more flamboyant configurations as video arrived, but never quite allowed to ejaculate into a genuine crossover cinematic experience in the way that Jack and Diggler fervently anticipate. During the first scene between Diggler and Amber – Diggler’s first time being filmed – the first reel of film rolls out, but the sex is so good that Jack tells them to keep going while he loads a new reel. As the first act runs down, that brief unfilmed space, when we revert to Anderson’s camera instead of Jack’s camera, feels more and more like a cipher for Boogie Nights’ yearning for what was lost, unrecorded and never fulfilled during this porn heyday.
No surprise, then, that both Jack and Diggler are opposed to video on principle. For them, video doesn’t simply mean the end of Golden Age porn, but the end of 70s cinema, much as Anderson presents the fantasmastic horizon of Golden Age porn as the driving force behind, and logical endpoint of, what we think of as 70s cinematic style in the United States. Much of Boogie Nights is suspended between Anderson’s lived experience of the 70s, and his fantasy of the 70s as expressed in art porn – the same combination of authenticity and idealization that tends to characterize all films that look back on the past from a twenty year distance, and films in which a whole generation seems to be coming to terms with its own myths of origin. By presenting Golden Age porn as the artistic vanguard of the decade, Anderson also suggests, quite provocatively, that other American cinema was only experimental insofar as it approached the ambitions of Golden Age porn, or included porn scenes within its own diegesis. At times, Anderson seems to be imagining how every classic 70s genre would look if it happened to include hardcore porn, since the ultimate aim of Golden Age porn was to completely eclipse cinema – to replicate the best of every genre while also including hardcore sex – making it the genre most traumatized by video viewers.
In addition to presenting Golden Age porn as the artistic apex of the decade, Anderson also presents it as the social apex, blending Jack’s house and the studio into a collective propulsion that often recalls Robert Altman’s efforts to map the internal dynamic and momentum of the counterculture as it evolved, and devolved, on its way to the 80s. Jack doesn’t just provide a studio, but a surrogate family, headed by Amber, “a mother to all those that need love,” making Boogie Nights a bit like the hardcore porn film that Altman never made. Any film that tries to capture the 70s in its totality, for Anderson, must do so on a bedrock of porn, just as any film that tries to do the same, for Tarantino, must do so on a bedrock of blaxploitation. For me, this makes Anderson more compelling than Tarantino in traversing the gap between the 70s and the 90s – a process that occupies the second half of Boogie Nights, which charts the fate of this Golden Age porn collective through the arrival of videotape and out the other side, undercutting the nostalgic fantasy of the opening act in quite an incredible and evocative way, starting with a pool party on New Year’s Eve in 1979.
While we return to Jack’s house later in the film, this is the last of the great poolside scenes, and marks the end of the opening act of the film. Following a New Year’s dedication from Jack that he will never make a porn on videotape, Anderson provides us with the final bravura tracking-shot of the film. Once again, his camera takes on the entire texture of the party, but its focus is less collective, and more tethered to a single body – in this case, the body of Bill Thompson, William H. Macy’s character, who encounters his wife having sex with yet another man, but this time shoots her, shoots the man, and then shoots himself, at which point Anderson abruptly transitions to the second act of the film, simply titled “80s.” This shift in focus from a collective sensual masculinity to a paranoid individual masculinity is quite violent, and yet it has also been foreshadowed by the development of the first act, which gradually orients Golden Age porn around a central paradox – that it was aimed at male viewers, required male actors, but was also premised on male viewers not watching male actors in any sustained way. In a sense, Golden Age porn couldn’t ever be properly watched, at least not without admitting a continuity with Golden Age gay porn that isn’t a part of the Golden Age fantasy – or, rather, without admitting a studied discontinuity between Golden Age porn and Golden Age gay porn that fuels the following act of the film.
The first part of this second act is driven by Jack and Diggler’s plan to combat the rise of video – a film franchise about a cop named Brock Landers that also happens to contain hardcore sex. Even as they get to work on this series, though, they’re forced to confront the paradox of Golden Age porn in a different way – namely, that the 70s genres that seem to benefit the most from hardcore porn scenes are also those that are most focused on male bonding and male buddies. As Jack and Diggler try to square the circle between male bonding and hardcore sex, without allowing the two to overlap, the fantasy of Golden Age porn starts to crumble. Even if video hadn’t arrived, Boogie Nights seems to suggest, Golden Age porn would have eventually reached a point where a cinematic mode of porn made the internal contradictions of Golden Age porn untenable, and unleashed its homoerotic energy in ways that made it impossible to command a conventional, heterosexual male gaze. This starts to occur towards the end of the first act, when gay camera man Scotty, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, tries to kiss Diggler on the mouth. While Scotty is humiliated when Diggler rebuffs him, he’s also surprised, since, as he explains, he assumed that their relation to each other, as mediated through his porn camera, was always headed for this moment.
As a result, Scotty becomes much more prominent in the second act, where he forms a still point amidst the ensemble as it starts to fracture around Jack and Diggler’s increasingly fraught relationship, and the failure of the Brock Landers franchise. This corresponds to a sharp stylistic shift in the film, which now moves away from the fluid tracking-sequences of the first half. These sequences tended to precluded characterisation in a traditional sense, since nobody was fully differentiated from the collective flux of Jack’s porn family, not even Dirk Diggler. The only image that was really differentiated was Diggler’s enormous penis – the only sight that genuinely caused people and scenes to pause in their tracks – and yet it simultaneously functioned as the motor engine of Anderson’s tracking shots, the mobile epicentre around which the continuous motion of the film’s open hour was orchestrated. By the time we arrive at the 80s, Diggler’s cocaine epidemic has resulted in erectile dysfunction, and Anderson’s tracking-shots have grown flaccid too, decelerating and diminishing both in length and rapidity, or else taking us through drabber spaces, most of which relate to the encroachment of video upon cinema. The longest of these fragmented tracking-shots follows Jack as he walks through a video warehouse to a bland editing room – light years away from the pool parties of the opening act – before fading out right when one of the tracking-shots from the 70s sequences would have just started to peak and develop.
Gradually, these residual tracking-shots vanish altogether, and are deflected into a different kind of camera mobility – frantic, frenetic focus pulls that follow the characters as they perpetually look up in bewilderment, whether trying to hold onto the collective rhythm of the 70s, or else escape it entirely in order to avoid the new stigma of having worked in porn. These focus pulls, which will become the central signature of Magnolia, grow more manic and abbreviated as the second act proceeds, as if the entire film is desperately trying to recover the momentum of the 70s tracking-shot, both as a stylistic and ideological statement. They also correspond to the shift from psychedelic drugs to cocaine, and often follow the characters as they look up from doing a line in an effort to suddenly, momentarily and precariously resume their focus, and their awareness of themselves as situated in a broader collective milieu. In many cases, the characters seem to look up from doing cocaine to suddenly register, as if for the first time, or an intensified way, that the 70s have passed, before returning to their line to convince themselves that the decade is still alive and well.
This transition from tracking-shot to focus pulls, and the decline of the tracking-shot as a collective gesture, culminates with “On the Lookout” – a continuous, real-time, videotape experiment in which Jack cruises the San Fernando Valley in a limousine, and invites strangers in to have sex with Rollergirl, all the while filming it in an unbroken video stream, in a forerunner of the webcams and live feeds that dominated internet porn at the time Anderson was filming. This experiment forms Jack’s last bid to broker his art porn aspirations with the demands of videotape – “we’re going to make film history right here on videotape” – and marks the point in Boogie Nights at which the 70s decisively devolves into the 80s. For all the continuous mobility of the limousine and videotape feed, this whole sequence is overlaid with a fatalistic stasis that couldn’t be further from the tracking-shots of the first half, as the wall-to-wall disco soundtrack is now condensed into a monotonous electronic pulse that continues for about fifteen minutes as the scene plays itself out. For the first time, we see Rollergirl is detached from her role as a surrogate for Anderson’s tracking-shots, since we see her sitting instead of standing, while she is further divorced from her Rollergirl persona when the man that Jack picks up recognises her from high school, and calls her by her actual name – Brandy – before getting rough with her in the car.
While Jack and Rollergirl throw the man out of the car, and Rollergirl uses her skates to break the man’s face in as he lies on the pavement, she’s been irrevocably severed from the smooth mobility she brought to the first half. Meanwhile, this scene is intercut with a second scene, in which Diggler is forced to prostitute his body for cash, although in a different kind of way. After being approached by a man in a parking lot, he agrees to masturbate for cash, and yet while Anderson depicts this whole display in sordid detail, this is is also the first time in the film that he doesn’t give us a reaction shot when Diggler gets out his penis. Watching, and obviously enjoying, Diggler right up until the moment of climax, the man leaves the car right before he ejaculates, and calls on a bevy of friends to come in and bash him up for being a “faggot,” as the homosocial energy of the 70s sequences finally gives way to the homophobic paranoia of the 80s. The languor of the 70s is now the brinksmanship of the 80s, as both Diggler and the man take their shared homosocial energy as far as possible before the man feels compelled to respond with violence, setting up a Mexican standoff in a San Fernando carpark where Rollergirl and Diggler’s nights converge.
The Mexican standoff has traditionally been seen as one of Tarantino’s key signatures, where it often seems to indicate a bad faith rapport between the 90s and the 70s, or else a determination to draw upon the 70s, in the 90s, without engaging with any of the connective tissue that is Anderson’s subject matter here. For that reason, Mexican standoffs are often summative spectacles in Tarantino’s films – they usher in the end of both Reservoir Dogs and in Pulp Fiction – whereas for Anderson the zero-sum game of the Mexican standoff becomes a question that is raised rather than an answer that is provided. In Boogie Nights, the Mexican Standoff formally ushers in the 80s, rather than providing a false equivalence between the 70s and 90s, taking us into the most distinctive 80s space of the film – a drug dealer’s pad, clad in 80s furniture, where Diggler and his friend Reed try to pull a heist in one last desperate effort to recoup the losses of the previous decade. Anderson’s focus pulls are now condensed into firecrackers that are set off by an errant drug user at irregular intervals, meaning that the audience, like the characters, have to continually recalibrate and refocus, and are never able to immerse themselves in the scene, let alone immerse themselves with the fluidity and elegance of the previous tracking-shots.
In that sense, these firecrackers are the aural equivalent of the focus pulls, or a more abrasive and anarchic version of the pulse that accompanies the previous scene with Rollergirl and Diggler, continually shocking us, and the characters, out of the action. As with the 70s sequences, there’s now back-to-back music, since the drug dealer, Rahad Jackson, played by Alfred Molina, keeps a tape playing continuously in his house. Yet like videotape, this cassette tape can only provide a false continuity and collectivity. Just as the first part of the film was driven by the moment when Diggler and Amber continued to have sex between the first and second reel of Jack’s film, this scene climaxes when the audio cassette comes to an end, and takes a couple of seconds to switch over to the other side. However, whereas the space between reels was presented as the pinnacle of Golden Age porn, and its ideation of a new kind of cinema, the space between cassette sides just enhances the ugliness and irregularity of the firecrackers, which eventually segue into the backfiring of Diggler’s car as he flees the drug dealer’s paranoid ravings. Before this happens, all the duration of Anderson’s tracking-shots is condensed into a single, long, still shot that simply depicts Diggler blanking out, unwittingly absenting himself from the scene, even as the atonality and abrasion of events defies any coherent sense of a scene unfolding or progressing. When this “scene” ends, it’s with another Mexican standoff, but as a parody effect, an impoverished cinematic lexicon that marks the end of Diggler’s Golden Age porn ambitions.
Finally, then, in the third, abbreviated act, we move to the 90s. Diggler has moved back in with Jack, and the porn family has regathered, but without the sinuous tracking-shots of the 70s sequences. The family vibe is also more modest, as Buck and his wife, Jessie St. Vincent, played by Melora Walters, bathe their baby in the pool, indicating that the pool is no longer the sensuous trigger of tracking-shots it was two decades ago. All the furniture and décor looks tired and dated, Jack insists that he just wants “mellow, mellow” in his films, and the score starts to shift to the Jon Brion tones that will percolate through Magnolia, which already feels very present here. In the very last shot, we see Diggler talking to himself in the mirror, amping himself up for his porn comeback, before taking his penis out and telling himself that “you’re a star, a big bright shining star.” Yet just as Anderson elided the reaction shot when Diggler brought out his penis in the car, here the audience seems deprived of their own reaction shot – the reaction shot that all the 70s tracking-shots, which were generated by Diggler’s penis, seemed to promise. In part, that’s because his penis is clearly prosthetic, but it’s also because his penis has lost its phallic potency, its capacity to gather the camera and gaze around its presence. Watching Diggler talk to his penis in these final lines is, once again, not unlike the monologues that pretty much comprised Tarantino’s filmography at this point in time. Unlike Tarantino, though, Anderson has a clear sense that these monologues are essentially gestures of impotence, failures to traverse or recover from a connective tissue between 70s and 90s that haunts Boogie Nights from start to end.