Conspicuous Consumption

Into the Mix: Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights.

Boogie Nights
Uptown Theatre

"WHAT'S NOT TO like?" my friend turned to me and said, just after Rollergirl (Heather Graham) had peeled off her clothes, wheeled her way over to the soon-to-be porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), and, her skates still laced, wriggled atop his "one special thing." Indeed, what's not to like about Boogie Nights? Where the equally ingratiating Pulp Fiction offered for consumption a Big Kahuna burger, a smack-filled needle, and all other manner of urge overkills, this kid-tested/critic-approved "Next Big Thing" is a bona fide hip-hugger, flaunting such late-'70s-isms as rainbow-colored haltertops, lime-green furniture, heart-shaped shades, dandelion wallpaper, tons of coke, a pinch each of T&A and blood, the Travolta-esque resuscitation of Burt Reynolds, and a wall-to-wall mix tape of period pop songs--all of it strapped to a Steadicam, cut to perfection, and hung around that one special thing measuring 13 inches: Dirk's dick, the ultimate product placement, the punch line missing from The Full Monty.

Speaking of complete packages, Boogie Nights seems the acme of "what's-not-to-like?" cinematic samplers. Call it the consummate example of director-as-DJ--or at least for now. Leaving nothing to chance with this, his hugely immodest second feature, the 27-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson hereby joins the ranks of young film geeks like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, the Hughes Brothers, and Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, whose love of movies and other cultural detritus supercedes their lived experience.

Say this for Anderson: He's got a talented "music supervisor" who cleared the rights to all those songs. He's also blessed with the fact that there's no copyright as yet on sound- and image-bytes from Scorsese's back catalog: particularly the final dressing-room scene from Raging Bull (to which Anderson adds only that one special thing), but also a slew of subtler shot-by-shot Scorsese-isms intended mainly to impress fellow film geeks. Basically, if Hard Eight was Anderson's Casino, then Boogie Nights is his GoodFellas--cutting and pasting the structure, scope, theme, mood, and visual grammar from the mob milieu onto the porn world.

Ah yes, porn. And what might this subject have to do with the vast number of middle-aged male critics who've creamed over this picture to no end? Um, probably nothing whatsoever. Most of these reviewers have identified Anderson's special thing as his gift for storytelling, which here stretches a full two-and-a-half hours and spans the years 1977 to 1984. Indeed, Boogie Nights is a grabber, lecherously yearning to fulfill the dictum of Reynolds's porn-director character: "When they [the audience] spurt out that joy juice, they just gotta sit in it until the story ends."

Me, I felt stuck to my seat for about half the length--or, in film-time, until late in 1982, when the drug-addled Dirk can no longer get it up, and Anderson strains to prove that not only does he know how to party, but he's also a hard-core auteur when his own juice runs out. Among other things, this requires him to recast Sam Jackson's captive-audience schtick from Pulp Fiction as a showstopper for Alfred Molina, playing a basehead of Biblical proportions ("Sister Christian" taking the place of Ezekiel). Anderson also relocates Pulp's diner holdup to a donut shop.

Lest this turn into a rant (as if it hasn't already), I suppose I should acknowledge Anderson's sharp eye for kitschy '70s bric-a-brac, his ear for period vernacular, his impressive organization of actors and extras across the wide screen, and the truly charming way in which his palpable love of the ensemble cast mirrors Dirk's desire for a surrogate family--or perhaps I might refer you to any of two dozen other publications. Suffice to say this kid is a comer, but his highly touted family values seem a bit conspicuous, privileging male mentorship and the abundant sensitivity of porn-makers while typing the female characters as either Madonna (Julianne Moore's "mother to all those who need one") or whore (Graham's Rollergirl, the protagonist's ludicrously bitchy birth-mother). Small wonder that a woman's promiscuity--along with drugs and videotape--signals the dread '80s, when porn suddenly turned from a family affair into a sleazy business.

Boogie Nights has been widely read as an allegory of the cultural shift between the '70s and '80s, with Dirk's unlimited growth potential leading to his limp morality and inflated ego. Or is the film merely an autobiographical take on the above? With this epic tale of an ambitious young man's rise and fall, Anderson has undoubtedly written his own ticket in Hollywood--and maybe he's also penned the downward trajectory of his own special thing.

 
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