Cocked and Loaded
By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: Until the 1970s, the decade commemorated as the ne plus ultra of hedonistic excess, the law made no distinction between serious, sexually frank films and out-and-out grindhouse fodder. The exhibitors of movies as aesthetically disparate as Carnal Knowledge and Deep Throat faced the same obscenity charges in landmark court cases; as far as civic bluenoses were concerned, there was little difference between Rita Moreno disappearing discreetly below Jack Nicholson's waist and Linda Lovelace declaring a war of attrition on her gag reflex. But when the dust settled, a bold new era in screen sexuality shone ahead. No more cornball lies. No more smarmy "coded" behavior. The possibilities were as endless as Harry Reems.
So how are filmmakers benefiting from those freedoms today? We now have the year's second movie about pornography that's safe enough to attract an R rating. Boogie Nights, like The People vs. Larry Flynt before it, is filled with vicarious nostalgia for the anything-went spirit of the 1970s, a spirit it replicates in costumes, lighting, a wall-to-wall soundtrack of toothsome oldies--everything but firsthand experience. For all its zip, its marvelous performances, and its many dazzling moments, Boogie Nights promises an epic sweep and a depth of insight into the sex trade that it doesn't deliver. To enjoy Boogie Nights for what it is--a splashy, facile, undeniably entertaining sideshow of extraordinary energy and lingering melancholy--you have to tune out all the hype about what it isn't. The movie's virtues are solid enough that it doesn't need to be trumped up into a masterpiece; that kind of puffery only sets viewers up for a fall.
In his first feature, the smashing character study Hard Eight, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson showed remarkable self-control, paring away any gimmickry that might distract from his performers and his story. For his prior restraint, Anderson has rewarded himself with Boogie Nights, a celluloid Fibber McGee's closet packed to bursting with five-minute tracking shots, speeded-up dollies, rapid-fire montages, movie parodies, dance numbers, and gut-wrenching mayhem. All of it is lively; much of it is impressive and affecting. Shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who employs the overexposed look of washed-out sex loops and the lurid hues of Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights paints a surprisingly genial portrait of the '70s skinflick biz, focusing on the career path of a 17-year-old dreamboat, Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), who washes dishes by night in a disco.
Eddie's prospects are few until adult-film auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers his hidden talents--namely, a 13-inch dick and a stallion's stamina. Before long, Eddie has rechristened himself Dirk Diggler, has taken the sex-movie world by storm, and has joined Horner's makeshift family. The porn goddess Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who drowns the heartbreak of a bitter custody battle in sex and coke, becomes his new mom; his brethren include the black cowboy Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), the boisterous Reed (John C. Reilly), and the lost Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who takes off her skates for no man.
The camaraderie of these misfits gives Boogie Nights a disarming sweetness; to watch the movie, you'd think the adult-film industry was a home for lost orphans. Anderson, a phenomenal and promising talent, treats his shallow, self-deluded characters with the compassion of a ringmaster for his fellow carnies, even as he records the pathetic ironies and poker-faced absurdities around them. In the foreground, a woebegone cameraman (William H. Macy) carries on a technical conversation. In the background, his wife (Nina Hartley) cuckolds him before a crowd of onlookers.
But Anderson's script lacks the specifics about the industry and its relation to the time that would give his story the epic quality he seeks. Apart from some Ed Wood-style high jinks on the set, he's disappointingly vague about the filmmaking process, the hierarchy of actors and actresses, the money the actors are getting, the fans who support the trade, or even how the performers deal with sex in private. (See Susan Faludi's bristling article in The New Yorker last year for everything Anderson missed.)
When the movie arrives in the 1980s, as video corrupts the industry and Dirk discovers coke, it takes a sharp turn into violence that has been interpreted as Anderson's farewell to the innocent hedonism of the 1970s. To me, it just looked like Anderson's big chance to restage the last 45 minutes of GoodFellas, a movie whose brazen techniques look like so much fun that every talented new filmmaker has to get them out of his system. His set pieces are undeniably inventive, especially an intricate bit of crosscutting that begins in mutual pick-ups and ends in mutual bloodshed. But after the sharp character-driven truths of Hard Eight, the hocus-pocus of the second half starts to seem repetitive and unsatisfying, like a four-course meal of cotton candy.
Boogie Nights isn't as gallingly timid as The People vs. Larry Flynt, a movie that blared its defense of First Amendment freedoms even as it hid its naked actors behind bedposts. But the realistic violence and stylized sex aren't exactly a leap forward. In its original form, Boogie Nights was three hours long and carried an NC-17 rating. Frankly, a movie about the '70s porn industry shouldn't be rated anything less, not if it has an ounce of conviction. But an NC-17 is the kiss of death with exhibitors, and as a consequence, Boogie Nights is now a half-hour shorter. In all but a few brief moments, the intercourse is coyly obscured with demure camera angles and the kind of prop placement Austin Powers used as a joke--the sort of silliness audiences in the 1970s hoped would be replaced by a new ease and candor.
In a film where characters make their living and express themselves through sex, cutaways and strategically placed blankets seem not only inadequate but dishonest. At least Anderson got to keep his justly famous last shot of Dirk's unfurled manhood; it's a hauntingly absurd image, and it ends the movie with morose finality, a mood only enhanced by Michael Penn's eerie incidental carnival music. Boogie Nights is an incendiary display of talent, and at its best it achieves the pop grandeur of the disco faves on its overloaded soundtrack. Still, after all its funky sound and polyester fury, I prefer Anderson's Hard Eight to his soft 13.--Jim Ridley
Personal CrusadesBack in 1989, my college "Intro to Cinema" class had a guest speaker--Georgia filmmaker Tucker Johnston, who had just completed his debut feature Blood Salvage. He related the long history of the project, which he had begun four years earlier, when the horror genre was still booming. The plan at first was to crank out a quick, cheap feature as a way of getting his name out in Hollywood. As the years dragged on, however, Johnston found more and more doors slamming shut, and eventually the completion of his movie become a matter of habit and determination more than a matter of ingenuity. It would be nice to say that his story was inspirational, but as we sat and watched scenes from Blood Salvage--which starred Ray Walston and Evander Holyfield--the tale seemed mostly pathetic.
Switchback has similar origins. It began in 1984 as a script called Going West in America, the first effort by 28-year-old film student Jeb Stuart. The screenplay didn't get made right away, but it got Stuart more work--within a decade he had put his name on Die Hard and The Fugitive and worked behind the scenes on a pile of other action movies. He never lost sight of his first baby, though, and when the project came out of turnaround for the umpteenth time in 1995, Stuart struck a deal to direct. Upon viewing the final product, however, one wonders why Stuart bothered.
Not that Switchback is a bad movie. In fact, it has some interesting ideas. Dennis Quaid stars as an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer who has abducted his son. Meanwhile, an ex-doctor (Jared Leto) and a journeyman laborer (Danny Glover) travel West past the scattered crime scenes. Both have mysterious pasts, and either could be the killer, but Quaid's investigation of the duo is stuck in a small Texas town embroiled in a bitter sheriff's election.
The small touches--the election, and the interplay between Leto and Glover--are obviously what caught Hollywood's attention over a decade ago. The weaker spots--like the hackneyed and soft-headed serial killer thread, and a plot full of amazing coincidences and impossible holes--are why the script has gone unfilmed for 13 years. One wonders why Stuart didn't take a few minutes here and there to fix some of the problems. (Like maybe he could've come up with a reason why no one had been able to identify Quaid's son in the months since he'd been missing.)
Of course, that's the problem with pet projects--their masters live with them so long that they have no perspective. The dirty secret of artistic creation is that it's not really a finite process: It ends when the deadline arrives or when the creator gets tired of sweating. With unlimited time and unlimited patience, a writer could go on and on, putting in whatever happens to be on his mind on any given day.
It's obvious that Switchback is exactly what it was when Stuart finished it in 1984--the same gimmicky combination of road movie and thriller, with even the same overwritten train-chase finale. That he still wanted the movie produced is only natural; that he didn't feel up to improving it is no surprise. Some call that perseverance. Others call it vanity.--Noel Murray
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