Thoughts On: Boogie Nights
A story chronicling the roller-coaster career of Dirk Diggler.
Boogie Nights is one of the most bizarrely beautiful films ever made. Through astounding character work, we’re forced into an absurd narrative and made to see the intricate and personal details of an otherwise lurid and vulgar world. This, coupled with the great rhythm of the editing and the soundtrack, truly sweeps you along the almost 160 minute long narrative with pure ease. This seems to be the case with many of Anderson’s films – most notably There Will Be Blood, Punk-Drunk Love and Magnolia. It’s character that lies at the core of these movies which breathes energy into the somewhat flat plots in a mesmerising manner. Though I see the depth and purpose belying Anderson’s other recent films, The Master and Inherent Vice, I never felt the emotional weight of these films like I have Boogie Nights or Magnolia. This seems to be because of the internalisation of all character work in figures such as Freddy Quell and Doc Sportello, an approach that demands more work from the audience than that used to project characters like Daniel Plainview, Barry Egan or, of course, Dirk Diggler. It’s because of this externalising approach to character that Boogie Nights is such an effortlessly expressive movie with characters you can’t help by empathise with or be fascinated by.
Beyond this, Boogie Nights is of course an expansion on an earlier short of Anderson’s called, The Dirk Diggler Story. This was a mockumentary that established some of the bases for Dirk’s character as seen in Boogie Nights, but also deviated quite a bit from the later feature. In The Dirk Diggler Story, Reed is not only a jacked, hulk of a man, someone who doesn’t look much like John C. Reilly, but is also Dirk’s gay lover. This exposes a part of his career where he made many homosexual and bisexual movies. This part of Dirk’s character in the original short was motivated by his original inspiration, John Holmes, who is amongst the most famous and prolific of porn stars from the ‘Golden Age of Porn’. This was a 15 year period after the 60s (pretty much portrayed by Boogie Nights) where pornographic films gained huge momentum, critically and financially. It all started with our old friend, Andy Warhol, with his film Blue Movie in 1969 – this was the first film depicting pornographic sequences that was given a wide theatrical release in America. This gave the industry huge momentum and ended up changing laws as well as perspectives on pornographic film, but, was all ended with the advent of video. As is depicted in Boogie Nights, video let porn be viewed privately at home, which tore it away from the public eye, out of the theatres, and hugely devalued it due to a massive downgrade in quality and a surge of amateur movies. If it weren’t for video, we could possibly be living in a hugely different world where blockbuster pornos and pornographic cinematic universes rule the box office. Nonetheless, with this period around the 70s came John Holmes, who, like Dirk, had a huge hog. Holmes also made homosexual porn movies, which explains Dirk’s and Reed’s relationship in Anderson’s mockumentary that preceded Boogie Nights by just over 10 years. Whilst we don’t see this aspect of Holmes in the Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights we do, however, see aspects of him that weren’t in the mockumentary. This comes near the end and the with the drug deal gone wrong. This is a reference to an infamous unsolved murder case, The Wonderland Murders, which involved John Holmes and, though he was never imprisoned, had him arrested many times.
Other differences between the mockumentary and Boogie Nights pertain to Diggler’s death, the tone of the narrative (which was overtly tragic in The Dirk Diggler Story) and general quality. Whilst the short is an interesting watch after seeing Boogie Nights, it is, comparatively, a poor film due to acting, editing, direction and general plotting. What the 30 minute short thus fails to do is really pull us into Diggler’s world like Boogie Nights does and so accentuates all that really works about it. The crux of this, for me, is certainly thematic. It’s through themes of inadequacy, failure and shame in Boogie Nights that characters are really allowed to project the emotive beats of the plot. Moreover, through theme, Anderson creates a masterful atmosphere and tone. Never is there a moment where the film becomes vulgar, tacky or superficial. The only sequences that possibly point towards this are the porn shoots. They aren’t glamorised or exploited for shock value however. They’re used to show the internal highs and lows of characters. To understand this, you only need to consider how these scenes are shot. Whilst we see breasts, ass cheeks and nipples, there are never any explicit shots of genitalia – not until the end. This visually says to the audience that the attraction of this story is not the pornographic elements or the fact that you might see some dick go into pussy. Instead, the purpose and attraction of the narrative is the people and characters beneath the skin. We then only get to see Diggler’s huge piece in the last shot of the movie as this is Anderson’s way of showing us what we maybe came for, but once we’ve understood who Dirk is by sitting through the previous 2 hours and a half. What this does is spin the tables on the John Holmes elements of his character. The first inclination when hearing someone, such as John Holmes, has a huge penis is to Google it – as you may have already done, or at least thought to. What this implies is that people are easily drawn to novelty, and Boogie Nights expands upon this by suggesting that we are also quickly dismissive or protective of it. This is done with a cinematic exploration of curiosity and vulnerability.
With curiosity often comes a great deal of other emotions. That is to say, when we’re feeling adventurous, we can also feel paranoid, on-edge, excited, scared, thrilled, brave, boisterous… it goes on. This is because we’re committing to confront the unknown when we’re curious. This emotional network of curiosity is true of many inquisitive ventures whether they be sexual, violent, intellectual, personal, impersonal, introspective, observatory or anything else. The reason for this should be transparent; we must be emotionally lumbered-up and agile when anything is possible, which means when we’re curious we also need other emotions of positive and negative extremes at hand as to protect ourselves. Anderson exploits this perfectly with Boogie Nights. We go into the film expecting a calamitous explosion of bodily fluids, but are instead eased into what is essentially a teen drama turned into a somewhat historical drama, all inside the world of porn. As we stumble into the narrative, intellectually and emotionally open to the world we’re about to be thrust in, we express a curious vulnerability. I find this to be true even when I re-watch the film. Whilst I know what is going to happen, I’m still jumping into a thematically rare film. To get into the mind set of watching the movie, you then need to sink into a curious and warm part of your mind – one that makes you recoil at the idea of watching the film with someone like your grandmother. And in such, we see the vulnerability we expose when stepping into films that aren’t PG and delve into lurid or mature subjects. Understanding this, Anderson takes advantage of our emotional vulnerability and hits it with a whole bunch of character work and themes we are used to seeing in other everyday, safer narratives. To do this, Anderson establishes the idea of home, responsibility, parenthood and failure in the opening of Boogie Nights. With Dirk being kicked out of his home, we’re truly made to feel his weakness and fear. Even though you could stand back and laugh at this sequence, if you tune into the tone of the movie, you’ll see Dirk’s ridiculous face as he fights back tears and shouts at his mum, and you see something genuine that really hits you in the chest. It’s this sequence that is probably my favourite of the movie because it is so melodramatic and absurd, but in an almost realist manner, one that is undeniably poignant. Second to this sequence, however, Dirk’s first porn shoot is certainly an effective one. All his anxieties are exposed as well as the essence of Amber as an estranged mother with a serious emotional hole in her personage. Moreover, the ingenious portrayal of the shooting cameras as characters who observe in this sequence is awe-inspiring.
All of this comes together to discuss emotional attachments, both between people in general and an audience watching a film. There is a great weakness exposed in us all when we pursue the unknown. For Dirk, it’s stepping onto the porn set and trying to use the only gift that was ever given to him – his schlong. It’s here where he confronts his mother’s insults that say he’s a loser who will never amount to anything. Also throughout the film, Amber’s worth is questioned as a mother. Through pornography she may provide some kind of pleasure to people in a way that comes natural to her. We also see this yearning in Scotty who is enamoured by anyone and just wants to impress them – simply look to the car sequence where he tries to kiss Dirk to get what I mean. Moreover, we see this emotional need to be wanted in Rollergirl and even Jack. All of these people are just trying to find a place in the world where they can develop emotional bonds with people, bonds that are genuine, that allow them to be themselves, project their worth, bonds that support their ludicrous, sometimes vapid, sometimes stupid, nature. I believe this is what we, as an audience, recognise when we watch this film. Though there is so much to be questioned, morally, about the drugs, the sex, the violence and the insipid lifestyles, we can always see the uncovering of people’s true dispositions when these thematic elements are brought up scene-to-scene. When you combine this idea with our curious vulnerability going into the film, you see the true emotional depth of the last sequence where (almost) everyone gets what they want and find their place in the world. There is a happy ending because, despite the world around them and all that may come in their futures, our major characters have established some weird family. And weakness is an acceptable feature of a person with a group, a family, around them as they have people at hand who will support them and help if and when they fuck up. Such is the crux of the narrative; we are put into a cinematic milieu whereby we can latch onto characters and understand their plights. This allows for true empathy and heralds Boogie Nights as one of the most significant films in this technical sense, because of its capacity to draw such empathy from the audience in an unconventional manner.
All in all, Boogie Nights is a film that demonstrates the preciousness of vulnerability in life and in the cinema. Without vulnerability, weakness, fear and anxiety, a myriad of other emotions are watered down and made insignificant. Moreover, our need for emotional ties becomes all the more lax, leaving relationships bland. It’s with vulnerability, exposed and recognised, that people truly connect and establish such strong bonds. And such is the strange beauty portrayed by Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
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