Tipsters want to be hipsters, it's God's honest truth. A slick new movie comes screaming across the sky, everybody wants to be its best friend. "Boogie Nights" played the New York Film Festival last weekend and now Paul Thomas Anderson, the 27-year-old Studio City, California, born-and-bred writer and director is atop the heap of hype. The Sunday papers were filled with long columns of spicy prose about Anderson's epic-length portrait of a surrogate family -- damaged souls seeking a little dignity while churning out porno movies in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s. On its surface, "Boogie Nights" is nonjudgmental, but there's a keen intelligence at work in shaping the gaudy set pieces and potentially trashy drama. Offhandedly witty and sleekly paced, it's a terrific, energetic commercial picture.
Owen Gleiberman's heat-seeking missiles of hype in Entertainment Weekly aimed to be the first in the hemisphere to crown "Boogie Nights" and Anderson the hottest commodities since "Pulp Fiction" and Quentin Tarantino. Or was that "Mean Streets" and Martin Scorsese? Or was that Pauline Kael and her notorious 1975 rave for Robert Altman's "Nashville"? "Boogie Nights" doesn't need the push -- it's confident and clear-headed enough on its own, drawing lessons about camera and performance style from both Scorsese and Altman without seeming slavish or unduly derivative. Anderson doesn't need the push, either, with this and the stringent, little-seen "Hard Eight" under his belt. While the compulsive cinephile cites "Nashville" as one of his favorite movies, interviewers and reviewers alike seem keen to instead match Kael's classic gush about that cruel canvas -- "Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers -- but an orgy without excess?... I sat there smiling at the screen in complete happiness."
At the same terminal stage of her career, Kael wrote an introduction to the published script of "Citizen Kane," and dubbed that film a "shallow masterpiece." There's the sweet conundrum about "Boogie Nights," one that infuriated me the first time I saw it. "Boogie Nights" is about shallow people with shallow dreams. They wouldn't know what to do with their fantasies if they came true, because they do, and everything goes crazy anyway. What does Anderson think? It takes some time to figure it out -- and probably a lot of heated discussions, a sure side effect to an almost-certain hit.
"Boogie Nights" takes place between the late 1970s when porn was shot on film, and the early 1980s when cheap, fast video took over. Burt Reynolds, grave yet wry, is Jack Horner, a maker of smut who somehow thinks he can elevate the form. Julianne Moore is his troubled wife, using the nom de porn Amber Waves. Their coterie of cast-and-crew misfits grows by one when Horner encounters nightclub busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). Horner sizes Eddie up as a prime prospect for exotic stardom, a confused young man with a particular gift to whom Horner says, more businessman than hedonist, "I bet you have something wonderful in your pants wanting to get out."
When I caught up with Anderson at the Toronto Film Festival, he seemed beat, still in the midst of completing the sound mix on the two-hour, forty-minute movie. Still, he was hyper and chain-smoking, bright-eyed behind round, wire-rimmed glasses. Looking at this skinny guy, he could have been 15, but he talks an older man's game.
Anderson says the movie comes out of growing up in the Valley. "When this story begins, I was 7 years old," he says, cigarette at hand, "and 14 when it ends. I wanted to show the place where I grew up, and also show how it really looks. In movies, L.A. is usually a Venice Beach montage of roller-skating girls and guys bench-lifting. I've been to Venice Beach once. It always feels phony to me. I wanted to be as specific as I could." But Anderson was aware of another fact about the area. "Growing up in the Valley, it wasn't smack in front of me, but I knew it's where ninety percent of the pornos are made, that was the seed of the story. It was around. I saw pornos from the age of 9 or 10." Anderson got the germ of the story when he was 17 and saw a "Current Affair" profile of the porn-suicide Shauna Grant, as well as an in-depth Rolling Stone article about John Holmes, whose infamous gift is shared by Wahlberg's character. "I started getting really familiar with porno and I got an understanding beyond the camp, the funny stuff that's obvious about it."
"Boogie Nights" shows the rapid fall of several of its characters, leading some viewers to find Anderson's film moralistic. He winces. "I think that much porno and that much drug use is going to lead to violence. It just is. Y'know? It's just the equation in that world. Someone's going to fucking get hurt sooner or later. These stories have happened in the world of pornography again and again."
The greatest strength of Anderson's work is perhaps the earnestness of his characters, their clueless desire to somehow better themselves. They dream, they scheme, they fail. "Yeah, the desire is there and the intention is there and that's cool and important to me. They're just trying to make some kind of dignity out of it, or to rationalize it. All the people I know in the porno business are completely aware but they're trying as hard as they can to legitimize what they do. Go on one of those sets. They know what they're in, but when you're in the middle of it, and the camera is running? You care. You're not just fluffing it off. They're even more self-conscious with me there, a legitimate filmmaker. But the time comes and they're going for the cum shot, you're going for cumming on a girls' face, this weird, derogatory thing -- but let's make sure it's in focus. They're just fucking trying to scrape something up from this life."