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

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