Saturday, March 19, 2011

Boogie Nights: It’s almost like a ‘real’ film


Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights

I am grinning ear to ear as I pen my thoughts down, reminiscing the night when I revisited Boogie Nights after a span of almost six or maybe seven years. As is the case with me during most of my screenings at home, I seldom go directly to the ‘play movie’ option on the DVD menu. Instead, I choose to linger languorously around the bonus features, hoping to find something new every time I pop in the disc.

True to my expectations, the throbbing-with-life soundtrack of the film drew me in even before I started watching the feature. And boy – was I delighted. As the razzmatazz opening chords to that 70s hit Best of Love, kicks into action, you are stunned into submission by a bright purple-pink neon sign – proclaiming the title of the film. But that’s not all. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the film, is as self-indulgent a filmmaker as you’d ever encounter. And I just love that about him.

His camera can barely contain itself from showing you just the title of his movie – a swansong of sorts to the flamboyant porn industry that thrived in the San Fernando Valley during the late 70s. Tracking an adjacently perpendicular neon sign that reads ‘Reseda’, his camera sets off into documenting the entry of one of the film’s most endearing, almost fatherly characters – Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), the director of X-rated zip-busters like Inside Amber and Amber’s Ride.

His arrival to a nightclub, in his posh convertible, accompanied by Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who triples up (no pun intended, seriously), as his biggest discovery, his muse and the starlet who rings in the greens, invites comparisons to that epic dolly scene from Martin Scorsese’s gangster flick Goodfellas. The duo is ushered into the jam-packed pub by its hyperbolic Hispanic owner Maurice, played by Luiz Guzman, who refers to Amber as the sexiest bitch to walk in through those doors.

Of course, Maurice nurtures his own dreams of being a star someday and sending back to his kith and kin back home in El Salvador, a few pictures of him posing next to barely draped, drop-dead gorgeous American women. Something that just about everybody wants to do so, don’t they? As the trio hustle and bustle through the crowd, Maurice informs the couple that he has already saved the best tables in the house for them, who stop short of royalty in this celebrity-obsessed town.

What takes your breath away is not just the scope of that one single, unbroken take and the precision with which it’s been executed. The flurry of 70s cultural insignia that populates the subsequent shots in the night club are staggering in detail – costumes, music, set design, hairstyles, dialogue, sensibilities – the sense of time and place is so real, it’s almost unreal. Gaudy in its giddy contempt for anything resembling sobriety, the film just takes off on its own sexy trip down Nostalgia Boulevard.

And who am I to complain. As someone who personally remembers growing up on a steady diet of Boney M, I was more than tempted to get down and boogie. But, if you’re wondering, where I am headed to, with a buildup of such generous proportions, make no mistake – staying true to the spirit of Paul Thomas Anderson and his style of filmmaking, I might take my own sweet time in dissecting the film. But as I realise that it’s an experience you must all enjoy even more than I did, I shall not play spoilsport.

Cut straight to the chase and we find Jack Horner in the process of spotting a boyishly handsome muscular, young man Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) doing odd jobs at the aforementioned nightclub. One look is all it takes for Jack to zero in on the man whose goods will ensure packed houses for his upcoming ‘block’ buster. Sure enough, the filmmaker gets himself formally introduced to Eddie, who is surprisingly clued in on the auteur’s oeuvre. And Eddie’s mild-mannered demeanour endears him to the filmmaker ever more.

Having struck up a conversation with the future stud, Jack gives his potential protégé a longing glance and tells him something on the lines of, “I’m sure there’s something inside those jeans, that’s just waiting to get out.” Corny, yes, but the no-nonsense look on Jack Horner’s face as he tells this to Eddie, conveys anything but a sense of humour. Adult entertainment is serious business and Jack knows it when he’s found a star. But this star is a veritable lotus blooming in a pile of filth as the audiences are introduced to Eddie’s home front.

The walls of his dojo i.e. bedroom are smattered with pictures of bombshells and macho men from the 70s – Farah Fawcett, Bruce Lee, Ursula Andress and that girl from Planet of the Apes or maybe One Million Years B.C. ­­– Raquel Welch as I recently found out. The meandering seconds taken to glide from one poster to the next are a cumulative representation of the adoration with which Eddie has welcomed these elements of escapism into his life. The images and paraphernalia comprise his escape hatch and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel – all rolled into one.

As fate would have it, Eddie falls out with his domineering prude of a mother and submissive father, leaves home and lands up on the doorsteps of Jack Horner, who welcomes him into the ‘family’ with open arms. His extended family is replete with a cast of colourful characters – pornstars and on-set assistants – embodied by a stellar ensemble of actors – John C Reilly (Reed Rothchild), Don Cheadle (Buck Swope), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heather Graham (Rollergirl), William H Macy and more.

Every one of these actors brings to the table, a high degree of plausibility to their respective parts. It’s all so convincingly done – you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary, every now and then. The actors play finely etched, fully-rounded, well-realised characters who defy stereotyping and caricaturisation. They might be flawed, but they’re human. And they have dreams and hopes and dignity, just like every one of us.

Like Amber Waves, who might be a starlet, but is also mother to an estranged child at the centre of an ugly battle for custody. Or consider Reed Rothchild, an aspiring magician who’d be more than happy to showcase a trick that doesn’t involve his privates. Or how about Buck Swope, a simpleton who invokes empathy by virtue of his intent – he’s a country music buff, who just wants to open his own stereo shop. Or even Rollergirl, who only needs one shot at finishing high school to make something more out of her life.

There are several other characters that walk in and out of the narrative. Take a look for yourself to understand why there isn’t any such thing called a ‘minor’ role in this film. The realism that emanates from this heady brew is in part because of the manner in which the camera follows each character – at times like a stalker, and on other occasions, like a besotted lover.

Among the several quote worthy lines in the film, one which found itself engraved on my psyche involved the director Jack Horner and his DOP (director of photography, for the freshmen) assessing the readiness of a sequence. The shot in question happens to be the very first love scene that transpires between Amber and Eddie, who has now taken on the screen name of Dirk Diggler. The shot seems to be taking a little too long to set up and the filmmaker, visibly concerned, asks the DOP, “What’s causing the delay?” To which, the DOP responds, “There are a few ugly shadows I’d like to remove.” And the director retorts in good humor, “There are shadows in real life.”

What that small bit of dialogue managed to invoke at that point of time, was an understanding of the discipline of the technicians working in the porn industry in its golden era. There’s no doubt about it – you could be shooting a smutty picture. But that’s no excuse to not make your frames appear immaculate to the audiences. People pay for this stuff and they ought to get a ‘bang’ for their buck. It’s a philosophy that anyone involved in a creative business ought to go by.

But before you can even say, come again, you bear witness to Dirk’s phenomenal rise as an actor worth his jockeys. Starting off as a slightly nervous debutant, he becomes an almost instant favourite with the film crew – thanks to his earnest efforts in making things look sexy and unique, and of course, his well-endowed package that becomes his strongest selling point.

The all-round stud consecutively sweeps up every possible ‘male’ honour at the ensuing annual adult entertainment awards. His stories become the stuff tabloid legends are made of, and critics anoint him the new poster boy of porno. And his suck-cess only keeps growing and growing and growing. Dirk eventually becomes Jack’s biggest discovery, inspiring the director to move onto films that dole out a healthy mix of salacious sex, kick-ass action, heartwarming drama, fleeting romance and nail-biting intrigue, all the while operating within the realm of a conventional adult film narrative. 

Teaming up with Reed Rothchild, Dirk asks Jack Horner to helm a James Bond-like porno flick about two super agents, with Dirk and Reed playing the lead roles of Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell respectively. It's hard not to get caught up in Dirk's enthusiasm and we giggle along like schoolgirls upon hearing those names, which by the way, Jack Horner absolutely loves. The movies they make are routine B-grade fare, but their energy is undeniable and it lets them get as close to the idea of making a real film, as they ever could.

But the passage of time carries with it baggage, both from the past and those to look forward to. While we are privy to Dirk’s rise in fame and fortune – a new pad, a personalized wardrobe, a sports car and everything a man could possibly dream of, we are slowly presented with the downside of life in the fast lane. The stars can’t always remain stars. The gay abandon of the 70’s makes way for the paranoia of the 80s. Along came the pull of hard drugs and the need to live a life of denial.

And of course, the 80s also heralds the threat of video that allows amateurs to shoot skin flicks within the comfort of their own homes – to hell with ambient lighting and exotic sets. Soon enough, our heroes and heroines traverse the superhighway of desperation. But they are not alone on their journeys. Director Paul Thomas Anderson ensures that every character runs his or her course, finding closure, redemption or the lack of it, as decided by the hands of time. But he does so with respect and never at once, is he disdainful of what his characters have gotten their selves into.

Like an all-seeing, all-hearing, all-powerful omniscient, the filmmaker watches his characters closely, as they navigate their existential terrains. Every once in a while, he helps them get back on their feet, learn from their follies and move on, just in time to make some new mistakes. And that is why I feel, Paul Thomas Anderson, above everything else, is a humanist in the guise of a filmmaker.

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chasing Amy: It was just some sex…



Actually no! I’d be lying if I said that. There’s lots of sex in Chasing Amy, the second effort in the sophomoric series of features directed by smack-talk Baron and motor-mouth unparalleled – Kevin Smith. I haven’t yet had the privilege of watching his first flick Clerks, which supposedly signaled the arrival of a major new talent. But having sat through Chasing Amy, with much glee for a majority of its running time of 90 minutes, I must say there’s something strangely provocative and alluring about Kevin’s filthy tirade of a film.

A one line description of the film’s plot could be two best friends, Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee), being driven apart by Holden’s infatuation with a charming lesbian named Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). Those who rent out the DVD and expect to be titillated are bound to be disappointed. The aforementioned reference to sex is purely concerning the dialogues of the film, which is soaked in the nectar of anatomical realism.

The characters in this film talk about sex with a sense of liberation that would ideally be reserved for activities bordering on the likes of dropping your child to school or hopping over to the supermarket to replenish your stock of veggies (no pun intended there, don’t look for one, just because I mentioned it). F-words are thrown around with such merciless frequency you’d find it hard to walk away unmarred. We’re talking every frickin sentence.

The two male protagonists Holden and Banky are comic book artists, the former a romantic, level-headed bloke and the latter, a highly-wired energizer bunny with a short fuse. Alyssa too happens to illustrate comic books for a living. The duo runs into her one day at a comic con and Holden feels like sparks have flown. He is instantly smitten by the street smart Alyssa and is delighted when a common friend (a black and gay comic book artist moonlighting as a bartender) invites Holden to a party being attended by Alyssa.

All roads seem to be leading to romance as Holden and Alyssa hit the right notes in their symphony of seduction. That is until Holden’s dreams of a mutually beneficial heterosexual relationship with Alyssa are shattered – all thanks to a particularly funny scene involving Alyssa playing tongue tonsils with her Butch of a girlfriend.

It’s one of those scenes that might have prompted Affleck to reflect on the human condition and say, ‘gone baby, gone’ (which happens to be a brilliant film directed by him, later on in his career). Speaking of which, here’s where I need to draw your attention to Kevin Smith’s homage to Tarantino. A case in point happens to be the numerous pop cultural references he draws in this film.

Like the one where the gay comic artist claims Archie Andrews to be gay (yes, the same blond-haired, all-American boy-next-door). And that Archie’s secret lover happens to be Jughead Jones. His justification is that Archie could never make up his mind – with respect to Betty or Veronica. The character goes so far as to say that Principal Weatherbee had a thing going on with Archie as well.

It might seem like coincidence, but we did have characters in Reservoir Dogs badmouth Madonna with their take on what they thought she meant when she sang Like a Virgin. But those are just superficial concerns. What allows the film to stand up and hold its ground is across the board fine performances. Joey Lauren Adams is a revelation and it's delight to watch her oscillating between characters.

She starts off as a carefree Bohemian girl who at first, helps Holden dispel his doubts concerning how lesbians ‘do it’ and a million other girl-on-girl queries. But she soon progresses to falls in love with him while falling out with her best friends who happen to be lesbians. Holden’s best friend Banky, is in no way, helping the situation as he sets off on a quest to dig up every ounce of dirt that he can lay his hands on, with respect to Alyssa’s colorful history.

And that’s because of a sense of misplaced responsibility that Banky feels for Holden. And the fact that Banky is homophobic. This brings us to Alyssa, who by now has realised that her past has no intentions of abandoning its perpetual pursuit of her. As skeletons tumble out of the closet, Holden’s suspicion gets the better of him and he begins questioning the nature of his relationship with Alyssa and her escapades. She, of course, is one stop short of becoming a thoroughly embittered lover.

Two scenes in this film deserve special mention. One of them involves Holden’s proposal to Alyssa in his SUV on a rainy night. In the hands of a lesser actor, the lines would have come across as cheesy, corny and sandwiched between two thick loaves of cliché. But, Ben just nails it.

The second scene involves Alyssa’s breakdown, which is a deeply affecting sequence, not just for the viewers, but even for Alyssa. She embarks on a high-pitched, tearful monologue that goes on for an uncomfortably long time. But she completely invests herself in her tragic exposition of regrets and the audience feels richer for having sat through the experience. This is the official money shot of the film, one that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

Go on, spoil yourself naughty… you’re gonna come back and thank me for initiating you into the cult of Kevin Smith… speaking of which, the word ‘cult’ has a nice ring to it. I know… it’s sick. And why wouldn’t it be? Kevin Smith would go on to make the randy romp Zack and Mirri make a Porno and we’d still be laughing our asses off.

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com