Before Videotape Killed the Artistry of the Porno Flick

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was the hottest ticket at this year’s recently concluded 35th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The buzz was a mixture of critical approbation for Mr. Anderson as a new and original director-storyteller, leering anticipation of the sizzlingly salacious subject of pornographic filmmaking from the late 70’s to the mid-80’s, and the promised exposure of a monstrously long male phallus. The appendage in question turned out to be not so much naturally long as prosthetically elongated, and this subterfuge was also widely known in advance by the early “hip” audience. The unveiling at the final fadeout was thus less a gasp-giggle kind of turn-on than an ideological demystification of the self-righteous pretentiousness of a hard-core pornographer like Larry Flynt who was romanticized and sentimentalized in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).

There are no First Amendment heroics with the Supreme Court in Boogie Nights . Nor are there any left-handed or left-wing rationalizations about American puritanism being more alarmed by sex than by violence and, presumably, more by love than by war, in the parlance of the flower children’s dialectic of the 60’s. Still, it is too early to tell whether there will be any rumbles from the women’s movement over the explicit treatment of staged sexual scenes in Boogie Nights . Ironically, The People vs. Larry Flynt was comparatively decorous in its depiction of Mr. Flynt’s enterprises so that much of the uproar generated by Gloria Steinem and others was less about what was in the movie than what was left out to make Mr. Flynt seem less sleazy. Thus the movie lost out commercially with both the snobs and the slobs for not being outrageous enough to “break new frontiers.” The critics liked it for the warm feelings generated by Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love in the leads, and the sterling support by Edward Norton and Donna Hanover in roles drenched with incongruous devotion to one spiritual value or another. But hey, who wanted to see a surprisingly good movie about such a disreputable, lower-class-market-appeal magnate as Larry Flynt?

Boogie Nights is much colder than The People vs. Larry Flynt , and yet much more inside its subject looking out at an intransigently hostile world of hypocritical respectability. Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, the half-baked directorial visionary of his cinematic subculture, gives the performance of his life as he gravitates from satiric self-parody as an erotomaniacal Ed Wood to a forgivingly patriarchal posture as the guru of a tightly knit community of pathetically deluded celebrity-seekers. Right up there with Mr. Reynolds is Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, a generous, warmhearted porn star who acts her cocaine-crazed heart out in every contrived carnal encounter in camera range. Her on-screen and off-screen scenes with Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler take on added pathos inasmuch as Amber’s misplaced maternal feelings for Dirk serve as surrogate rehearsals for her intermittent and hopeless efforts to regain even partial custody of her own child from a husband with all the law on his side.

Mr. Wahlberg has much the largest part in the movie, and, in Aristotelian terms, the most problematic in that Dirk Diggler rises and falls in his shady profession without ever achieving an iota of self-knowledge with which to combat the absurd narcissism that eventually consumes him. In the end he acknowledges his penis alone as the source of his “genius.” What is sad and distinctively Andersonian about his character is that he has never been smart enough to find his soul to lose.

Boogie Nights provides, among many other things, the least moralistic and yet the most scathing description of California’s trail-blazing cocaine culture ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood feature. The wild white powder engulfs various characters without destroying them. There is no dramatic or melodramatic closure to give the audience a warm glow of moral instruction. There are accidents, of course, a few shootings, a few murders, a gory suicide, but the beat goes on for most of the members of the pornographic collective. Boogie Nights is dark, but not noir. The sweeping but yet subtle camera movements Mr. Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit have devised for Boogie Nights represent a stylistic expansion of Mr. Anderson’s workshop-like first feature film, Hard Eight , released in comparative obscurity earlier this year. Richard Jameson, editor of Film Comment , spotted before the rest of us the distinctive Anderson themes and flourishes in the curiously unprogrammed characterizations of John Reilly as a young, inarticulate drifter and Gwyneth Paltrow as a remarkably slow-on-the-uptake Reno waitress-hooker. These two social basket cases are befriended and redeemed by a mysterious older man played by Philip Baker Hall, a seldom seen character actor who reminded me of John Marley as I first saw him in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968). Both Mr. Hall and Mr. Marley project worn faces one never forgets in the gravity and naturalness of their talents.

Mr. Hall has a small but crucial role in Boogie Nights as the messenger of the news that the pseudo-artistry of pornographic film is to be supplanted by the cynical artlessness of videotape. Mr. Reilly has a much larger role as Reed Rothchild, the amiable sidekick of Dirk Diggler, which is enough to suggest the beginning of an Anderson stock company. Boogie Nights ultimately takes us on a swirling disco-driven ride with more than two dozen colorful denizens of the lurid depths in Los Angeles. Mr. Anderson never looks down on any of his creations, but he never gets so close to any of them as to make the others drift away to oblivion. Just hanging around has seldom before been elevated so efficiently into an existential statement.

One is tempted to say that Boogie Nights represents the triumph of form over content, style over substance, except that Boogie Nights is not a game, nor indeed The Game , but rather a high-stakes life-and-death crap shoot with honest dice, and a delight in the muddled dreams of an assortment of mediocrities. Not since the mysteriously reclusive Terrence Malick ( Badlands , 1973) has there been such an explosion of sheer talent on the American movie scene. I could have done with more emotional excitement and a classical climax. But Boogie Nights will suffice for the moment as first-rate filmmaking.

Hereafter,

a Cinematically Altered Banks

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter , from a novel by Russell Banks, is a good movie adapted from a better book, but there is no question here of Mr. Egoyan’s having performed unauthorized cinematic surgery on Mr. Banks’ compelling narrative. Mr. Banks has officially endorsed Mr. Egoyan’s conversion of a small-town catastrophe from one medium to another. I have followed Mr. Egoyan’s somber career for several years, and I felt that he had reached his peak in 1994 with Exotica , one of the most haunting cinematic achievements of the 90’s. He had nothing left to prove to me with The Sweet Hereafter , supposedly his “breakthrough” to wider audience accessibility.

Perhaps, but there is mostly gloom in this Egoyan-Banks saga of what happens in a small, remote, downscale community when a school bus full of its children crashes into a partially frozen lake, leaving only two survivors, the driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) and one adolescent, Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley). Life was no picnic for the characters before the accident, but afterward there is only numbing grief and a loss of family continuity. The book was told from several points of view, the most crucial of which was that of the warm, observant bus driver Dolores Driscoll, who introduces all the children as they clamber on the bus, and gives us valuable information on their parents along with tidbits of community gossip about hanky-panky with failed marriages and brink-of-bankruptcy financial deals. Mr. Egoyan has reduced this major character in the book to a minor witness to the accident. His central point-of-view character becomes Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm)-a cynical contingency lawyer from New York in the book, a tormented father and husband who has lost his daughter to drugs and AIDS in both the book and the movie, and now a mystical commentator on the phenomenon of parents losing their children in the movie.

Meanwhile, the palpable presence of a community in the upstate New York-based novel is transformed by Mr. Egoyan into a mountainous abstraction in the snowy landscapes of British Columbia. The burden of recapturing the emotional power of the book for the movie thus falls on Ms. Polley’s character, Nicole Burnell, the wheelchair-bound crash survivor whose awesome resilience lifts The Sweet Hereafter to a moral level that is nothing short of sublime. As in Exotica , Mr. Egoyan rises in a very few moments from the mundane and the turgid to spiritual heights for which the Canadian mountains are apt metaphors.

Before Videotape Killed the Artistry of the Porno Flick