Paul Thomas Anderson has an announcement to make in the opening moments of 1997’s Boogie Nights, the first time most of us saw his work. (His only previous feature, Hard Eight, is a gem, but few saw it when it came out in 1996.) The announcement is: I’m a filmmaker who can’t be ignored. In a dazzling three-minute club sequence in which a crane shot is revealed to be a Steadicam shot, scored to the disco classic “Best of My Love” by the Emotions, Anderson plunges into the details of a lost civilization from only 20 years earlier, introduces us to a bunch of principal characters, and notifies the audience that we’re in the hands of a swaggeringly confident artist.
For the next two and a half hours, the writer-director lives up to the promise: Nearly a quarter of a century later, Boogie Nights (now streaming on HBO Max) stands as one of the finest and most endlessly rewatchable films of the ’90s. (Spoilers follow.)
Boogie Nights is an ingenious synthesis of two notable cinematic styles. Anderson’s avatar is Robert Altman, who didn’t always work in the same register but won his highest acclaim for long, diffuse, highly populated tableaux vivants such as Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). Altman relied heavily on improvisation and serendipity in nudging ’70s cinema away from contrived three-act structure and well-defined character arcs. There is no main character in either of those Altman movies, and in Nashville, the people we meet are so many bees buzzing around an eccentric populist politician we never even see. At times, watching an Altman movie is like being a baffled outsider at a buzzing cocktail party where everyone seems to be talking at once, inside jokes never get explained, and there is no point to anything. The party just goes on till it stops and everyone goes home.
Borrowing his narrative shape, or rather shapelessness, from Altman, Anderson dressed it up with the razzle-dazzle of Martin Scorsese, who despite his denunciation of comic-book movies as mere theme-park rides, has for 50 years reached deeply into the directorial bag of tricks to astonish and delight his viewers with every kind of showmanship: whip pans, fast-moving tracking shots, swooping crane shots, meticulously choreographed Steadicam journeys, rapid-fire cutting, and an invigorating overlay of jukebox classics.
Anderson uses all of Scorsese’s favorite tricks and more in Boogie Nights, creating so much audiovisual sensation that when he slows down and directs using more conventional long takes, such as in the scene in which porn actor Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is forced into an act of prostitution in a car, the suspense is outsized, even though there aren’t really any stakes to anything: In most movies, everything hinges on the fate of a central character (and the movie would be over if he or she died). But in Boogie Nights, at any given moment anyone could die or be sent off to prison and it wouldn’t really matter. We have no emotional attachment to anyone. Dirk Diggler is not a hero in the sense that he is trying to answer a question or achieve a goal, and he’s not an antihero in the sense that we want to witness his comeuppance. He’s just an idiot who happens to have an unusually sized body part, drifting through one series of events after another. Everyone else in the movie is much the same; no one is trying to accomplish anything and no one learns anything.
Anderson’s is a fairly dark take on humanity, but I can’t deny it’s a compelling one. All around us are people who bob along on life’s current, doing whatever work is necessary, having as much fun as they can afford at any given moment, heedless of whatever consequences might await, unconcerned with where it’s all heading. It’s not even necessary to turn to an industry steeped in hedonism to find examples of people who lack any purpose or structure. They’re all around us. The movie’s jukebox soundtrack underlines the point: This is a culture of singles, meaning both hit songs from the radio and atomized individuals. The titles of the songs provide ironic counterpoint to the action: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” goes one, by Elvin Bishop, but though everyone in this movie is fooling around, no one ever falls in love. “Lonely Boy,” by Andrew Gold, is a savage reference to the son of porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), played over a scene in which an unseen boy calls to the house in which his mom is partying but no one can find her because no one has ever heard of “Maggie,” her real name. The boy’s longing for his mother is palpable even though we know nothing about him; he typifies the ruinous culture of absolute selfishness in the film. Anderson brutally parodies the gap between mother and child by keeping him offscreen; the boy never sees his mom, and so we never see the boy.
No one else in the film really connects either. People bounce off each other to earn money, or to party, but there are no deep relationships. Dirk and his co-star Reed (John C. Reilly) have the tightest bond in the movie, but they’re just brainless bros who do stuff together, joined mainly by their lack of understanding of anything. It’s impossible to imagine them having a meaningful conversation and they never do. A married couple, film-crew member Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his spouse (Nina Hartley), whose name we never learn, seem joined only by contempt. What appears to be a friendship between the director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and his money man the Colonel (Robert Ridgely) ends abruptly after the latter is arrested for a sex crime involving a child; when the Colonel confesses and begs for help, Jack simply puts the phone down and walks away without a word. We know that Jack still has some feelings for Little Bill because after the latter dies in a murder-suicide, we find to our surprise that Jack keeps a portrait of the dead man in his house, but that’s as far as anyone goes toward mourning, or even mentioning, Little Bill. When Todd, the friend Dirk and Reed make for drug-dealing purposes, gets killed, he simply disappears from the story. No one talks about Todd again, no one draws any lesson from his death. It’s on to the next thing.
There is a nihilistic aspect to the Anderson approach that I tend to resist — don’t we demand that art shape life into some sort of order, a lesson, a plot? And in Anderson’s follow-up, Magnolia (1999), that epic of random happenstance, I find the aggressive disorder to be unbearable. What places Boogie Nights on a higher plane than Magnolia — and all subsequent Anderson movies, none of which have matched it — is the deadpan irony of the dialogue he wrote for this gallery of numbskulls. Everything these idiots say and think is so blatantly contradicted by what we observe that Boogie Nights develops into one of the funniest dramas ever written. After we watch the most woeful and inept middle-school imitation of a spy flick being thrown together before our eyes, a cameraman marvels, “It’s a real movie, Jack.” The director is so dedicated to the principle of quality that he brags, “Before you turn around, you’ve spent maybe 20, 25, 30 thousand dollars on a movie.” The porn actor who yearns to be a legit stereo salesman, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), knows nothing about his vocation: “See this system here? This is Hi-Fi . . . high fidelity. What that means is that it’s the highest quality fidelity.” When a young stud moans that two girls have overdosed in his presence in two days, the Colonel upbraids him, “Do you think this means that maybe ya oughta think about getting some new s**t? Whaddya think?” Ah, so it’s the brand of cocaine that’s the problem.
Life in the porn business in the Seventies — and maybe far beyond that realm — is like so many hit singles on the soundtrack. It all happens in three-minute bursts of pleasure. One song ends, and the next begins. People bob along from one hedonic act to the next, never even questioning the sustainability of their life choices, much less grasping that their lives are morally and spiritually empty. Rarely, if ever, has any filmmaker depicted the void with so much sparkle and wit.