Boogie Nights was produced as the result of a missed opportunity. New Line Cinema had passed on the production of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s Kids (1995) and they were looking for something new to cut their teeth on. Enter: Paul Thomas Anderson, with what Michael Lynne, co-founder of New Line Cinema, described as “the largest script ever saw in his life.”
That quote sticks out as one of the many reasons why I love Boogie Nights so much. Anderson had such a clear vision of what the film was going to be from the very beginning, with an innate desire to tell something that would be more than 90 minutes of laughter and sex. He was looking to create a story that offered a look at both sides of the porn industry — something that people had rarely considered in a time before pornstars made national news — and was determined to achieve a specific feeling in what he produced.
According to Anderson, he “felt it should maybe resemble personal experience of watching a porno film: incredibly funny one second, turns on the next, then incredibly depressing and so on, up and down.”
Those who have seen the film know exactly what Anderson is talking about. Those who have not should keep reading.
Boogie Nights is one part comedy, one part tragedy. It’s a narrative that connects moments by their absurd nature, resulting in scenes that might be hilarious upon a first watch but tragic in follow-ups. It’s complicated, layered, and, most important of all, compelling.
Anderson presents us with characters like Dirk Diggler (played by a young Mark Wahlberg) who are known for their hilarious talents in front of the camera (in Diggler’s case, it’s his very special gift) but are grounded by their moments off-set. I verge into the territory of giving spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, but I’d like to be upfront: there are moments in this film when you’ll cry for someone whose primary character trait is having a massive penis.
That’s partially because of Wahlberg’s almost-too-authentically-rowdy performance, but mostly because of Anderson’s writing and execution. I shudder when I imagine a world where this scene isn’t included alongside the tragic backstory behind Diggler’s beginnings. We see a full picture of this person thanks to an incredible commitment to storytelling and an unbelievable ability to balance plot points.
Because that’s one thing Boogie Nights deserves all of its acclaim for: it somehow tells more than Diggler’s story in a way that feels genuine and validated. Performances from Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, and John C. Reilly are fully realized in a form of plot threading that rivals operatic works such as Les Miserables. Every character has an arc and every moment is semi-iconic. (I honestly have trouble thinking about any particular scene, as each one brings some certain mood or feeling that’s unique in and of itself.)
Boogie Nights is a masterclass in storytelling for that reason. Where else would you find a scene like the following:
This scene illustrates the exact nature of Anderson’s storytelling: Ground the viewer in the scene and make the moment feel like it’s being lived in. Thread the moment with distinctive plot points that tell us things about each character. But also… have some fun. The pool party scene is a moment that perfectly blends Boogie Nights’ dedication to having a good time while showing us the complexities within.
(Plus it’s a great connection to the film’s motif of low-budget filmmaking, as Anderson takes a major risk with going almost tangentially handheld while attempting a transition underwater. It’s a perfect call-out to voyeuristic and guerilla filmmaking.)
So it should be pretty clear: You need to see Boogie Nights if you appreciate storytelling. This is a film that cannot be missed by true cinephiles, as it’s perhaps the earliest indication (perhaps more so than Hard Eight) that PTA was going rock our world and become one of the most prolific filmmakers of our time.
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Screens Saturday, 6/16, midnight @ Somerville Theatre