By Rob Wolejsza
"Everyone's born with one special thing." - Eddie Adams, aka Dirk Diggler
And for Paul Thomas Anderson, that special thing is an innate filmmaking sense. After bursting (well, "bursting" is a little too strong) into the film world with the little-seen and vastly underrated "Hard Eight", Anderson trained his sights on the fascinating and, some would say, misunderstood "golden age" (i.e. the late 1970's) of American pornography. The result was the unique, complex, and thoroughly engrossing epic, "Boogie Nights".
At the center of this sprawling tale is one Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a dishwasher at an L.A. nightclub who, as the film opens, has no real prospects beyond his current occupation. One night he is approached by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in a relevatory performance), an idealistic maker of "exotic pictures", who takes one look at Eddie and proclaims that "There's something wonderful in those jeans, just waiting to come out." It turns out Horner is right: Eddie possesses a thirteen-inch long penis, and it's said appendage that eventually turns "Eddie from Torrance" into Dirk Diggler, the biggest (no pun intended) porno star to ever come out of the San Fernando Valley.
With Eddie/Dirk at the center, Anderson sets a maelstrom of activity whirling around him. We meet Amber Waves (Julianne Moore, robbed of an Oscar by Kim Basinger), Horner's live-in love and number one actress, whose destructive coke habit is fueled by the heartbreak of having lost her son in a custody battle; Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a nymphet who gets her name from always performing in roller skates; Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), another actor who becomes a sort of surrogate big brother to Dirk; Buck (Don Cheadle), an insecure black actor forever searching for the right "look" to cover his lack of self-esteem; and Little Bill (William H. Macy), Horner's assistant director whose wife (played by real-life porn star Nina Hartley) is sleeping with everyone in sight -- except Bill.
All of these characters exist in a world that is in serious danger of collapsing before their eyes. For the briefest of moments in the last part of the '70's, pornography actually flirted with mainstream acceptance. Theaters existed not only in big cities, but they also made their way to suburbia, as young couples lined up to check out what ten years earlier would have been projected onto someone's basement wall during so-called "stag" parties. Within a few short years, however, with home video coming into its own, the purveyors of porn realized that the real money was to be made in the privacy of the viewers' homes.
"Boogie Nights" captures this predicament so clearly it feels, at times, like we're watching a documentary. As Horner fights to save his "art" from being co-opted for a quick buck, and as the people around him lose their sense of legitimacy, we watch, fascinated, as lives fall apart, dreams are crushed, and hope is almost completely lost in a whirlwind of booze, drugs, and utter desperation. And when Anderson still manages to spring a hopeful ending, his true brilliance as a filmmaker shines through.
The beauty of Anderson's film is twofold. On the one hand, he has an unerring eye and ear for detail. From the period songs that beautifully underline each scene to the clothes the charactes wear; from the note-perfect dialogue (especially the "bad" dialogue recited during the porn shoots) to the ideal casting of each part, Anderson's film gives the impression of having been made by someone who knows the industry inside and out (which is virtually impossible, since he was about eight years old when most of the film's action takes place). We FEEL like we're in L.A. circa 1977. It's hard enough for a director to accurately present another time and place, let alone make his audience feel they're living inside it, but that's exactly what Anderson does here.
Secondly, Anderson has made an epic film that doesn't skimp on character development. The easy way out would have been to paint with a broad brush, to focus solely on Dirk and give short shrift to the other people around him. Instead, Anderson cared enough to flesh out all the people in this tight-knit world. His characters are living and breathing people. Anderson also wisely never casts an ironic eye on the participants in his story. The world of porn is seen not as a sleazy black-and-white world where those involved are eventually punished for their lack of morals. Instead, Anderson sees this world as a business (almost) like any other, and the players as regular people caught up in something most just sort of drifted into and, once tarnished, couldn't easily escape.
Unlike Anderson's recent, pretentious foray into Altman territory, "Magnolia", "Boogie Nights" teems with life. It takes a subject that has could have stymied even the most experienced director and treats it with curiosity, not contempt. On my list of the best films of the 1990's, "Boogie Nights" ranks way up there.
"Boogie Nights" has recently been reissued in a two-disc set from New Line Home Video. While the original disc (let's call it Version 1.0) looked beautiful this new transfer (2.0), personally supervised by Anderson, supposedly improves upon the first attempt. (It looked virtually the same to me, but I'll take his word for it.) But the main reason I chose to forsake my original copy for this new re-issue had mainly to do with the Criterion laserdisc of "Boogie Nights".
This "definitive" "Boogie" DVD carries over the extras from the Criterion laserdisc, extras that New Line either never had the rights or the inclination to put on the first release. Included here are the original P.T. Anderson solo commentary (also found on 1.0), along with the second commentary Anderson recorded for the Criterion disc. On this track, Anderson spliced together interviews with Mark Wahlberg (who gets progressively drunk as the track goes on), Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Melora Walters (her child in tow, talking and giggling in the background), Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, and Luis Guzman (whom Anderson maintains was stoned the entire length of the shoot). I had wanted to hear this commentary, but I wasn't willing to fork over $100 or more for the Criterion. Honestly, I'm glad I didn't. While the commentary does contain a few insights, it's mostly a major-league suckfest, as Anderson kisses just about everyone's ass (he calls it "waxing their car", a phrase that I'll be very happy to never hear used again), including his own. Don't get me wrong, I think everyone in the film is great, but enough is enough. Anderson's solo commentary is vastly more enlightening and entertaining.
The disc also contains the fabulous Criterion cover art, featuring 1970's-style illustrations of the actors in the film. In addition, there's a fascinating deleted scene that was (strangely) left off Version 1.0, involving Dirk's totalling of his beloved Corvette as he races to save a friend from her abusive husband. While the scene is a visceral masterpiece, it's easy to understand why Anderson cut it out (he explains it all in his commentary). And finally, New Line has added "The John C. Reilly Files", an offbeat look at Reilly on and off the set of the film.
The bottom line, I guess, is if you own the original New Line DVD, and you're happy with the extras you've got, then you really don't need this re-issue. Better to simply rent it and listen to Anderson's brown-nosing with your fast forward button at the ready.