Set in the 1970s, the Golden Age of porn, Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) follows the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). When spotted by a porn director, Eddie’s life is turned upside down. Being in adult films allows him to escape the violent claustrophobia of his parents’ house, finally being able to live and work independently, not to mention all the sex, alcohol and drugs along the way. The shimmering highs however lead, inevitably, to crashing lows. The dawn of the Eighties brings more excess and greed which coupled with Eddie’s—now known as ‘Dirk Diggler’—increasingly difficulty to ‘perform’ on cue draws him towards other more dangerous ways to fund the lifestyle he has become accustomed to.
Anderson directs a large ensemble cast ranging from those directly involved in the porn industry such as performers, directors and financiers, to families, friends and hangers on. While the main focus of Boogie Nights is Eddie, Anderson offers the viewer snapshots of life in the business. This fast pace switching between characters, usually at parties, stresses the importance of reputation and fame within the industry. The next batch of rising stars is always just over the next horizon, and don’t the current stars know it.
The adult content of Boogie Nights was always going to make it controversial. However, in presenting pornography as a business rather than an amusing pastime, Anderson offers what feels like a very real, and at times very dark glimpse into the vulnerability of performers and the harmful effect the industry has on them. The juxtaposition of Melanie Safka’s jaunty “Brand New Key” intercut with a medium close-up of Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) impassive face watching Eddie and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) fuck on the sofa is incredibly uncomfortable, questioning the voyeuristic nature of pornography, not just for the consumer, but also those involved and exploited within the industry itself.
Indeed, Anderson doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the business. A young woman overdoses, blood caked over her nose and chin, she is carried away while the party continues. For all the cocaine and caviar, these people are disposable, easily replaceable and can all too easily fall through the cracks.
But Boogie Nights is also a film about film-making. It is through his discovery of Dirk that Horner is inspired to make his films better, truer and more dramatic. For the shooting of Dirk’s first film Anderson pans across the crew watching Dirk and Amber, again highlighting the voyeuristic nature of the industry. As the camera passes over the entire crew in sequence it ends zooming onto Horner’s camera lens itself; the two cameras come lens to lens, almost kissing, in a meta-filmic comment on not only the power of the camera to draw attention to certain things but also the ever present, silent watching viewer.
Having only seen Mark Wahlberg in his more recent action roles, I found his performance in Boogie Nights to be a bit of a revelation. While he plays the innocent and fresh Eddie well, he really comes into his own during Dirk’s downward spiral. The scenes speaking to himself in the mirror are particularly moving: “I’m a star, I’m a big bright shining star”. Wahlberg really captures the Dirk’s essence of both sadness and desperation, mourning the elliptical nature of stardom and his own fall.
Over its 2 hours Boogie Nights courses through a huge range of emotions and circumstances, inviting us in to the heady world of the seventies, before spitting us out onto the hard concrete of the eighties come down. A seduction, a break-up and heartbreak all in one, it’s both an absorbing and draining watch.