Halfway through its considerable run time, the real villain of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights emerges-- video. A cheap and cheapening format, videotape pulled pornography out of the “adult” movie houses and into the basement, where you could always fast forward and no one could see you get off.
To Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall), rival porn producer to Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, this means profit, especially if they forgo professional porn stars in favor of “the next stars...the real people in the world,” like the gang of unkempt teenagers he’s brought with him to Jack’s party on New Year’s Eve 1979.
But Jack isn’t hearing it. His performers don’t just fuck, they fuck well, and they get people into theaters, “where films should be seen.” Jack considers himself a legitimate filmmaker who believes in the discriminating tastes of his audience. Even if video is infinitely available, “True film fans won't watch that shit. It doesn't look good, and more importantly, it doesn't make sex look sexy.”
It’s here that Anderson reveals the obsession at the heart of his first hit film, and the childlike joy that powered his career over the twenty years since. Boogie Nights isn’t about sex, or Hollywood, or even the American Dream so much as the film format, and the delicate power of the analog moving image to evoke a feeling and a time.
Twenty years later, after the advent of streaming services and the decline of home video in general, it’s the technical feats that tend to characterize Boogie Nights’ place in film history. The long tracking shot that opens the film, in particular, places it alongside classics like Goodfellas or A Touch of Evil -- at least, according to the many listicles that proliferated the movie internet in 2014, after Cary Joji Fukunaga’s long shootout scene aired on HBO in True Detective. In the current cinema, the long take has become an act of auteurist athleticism, an opportunity for the director to assert his (usually his) own achievement, instead of letting the sliding succession of images speak for themselves.
But in Anderson’s hands, this technique becomes a come-on, a joyful initiation into the world of Boogie Nights and its beautiful nature boy, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). The opening shot works as a captivating introduction to the contradictory pleasures of the film, in all its gritty effervescence, stubborn naivete, and uncritical delight at its own “Behind the Music” decline-and-redemption plot.
It’s not the only scene in which Anderson intertwines format and narrative, technique and emotion. The film has deep roots in Anderson’s own childhood memories, which, to hear him tell it, are almost synonymous with his nostalgia for a pre-home video world. Boogie Nights wasn’t his first feature-length film, but it had its inception in his teenage years as The Dirk Diggler Story, a short he made in 1988 while still in high school and, presumably, watching a lot of porn.
“I felt [the film] should maybe resemble my personal experience of watching a porno film: incredibly funny one second, turns me on the next, then incredibly depressing and so on, up and down,” Anderson told Sight & Sound in 1998.
And, of course, it should be shot on film. According to Todd Williams, a production assistant on set, even the shooting script specified the technical look of the finished movie. As he told Grantland for their oral history of Boogie Nights, “Paul knew how to write to an audience who reads scripts. You have the title page, then you open up to the second page and it’s like, ‘This movie will be shot with anamorphic lenses.’”
Pre-production included copious research by many members of the cast and crew, and Anderson insisted on excavating the real thing-- period-correct adult films in their original prints, everything from Deep Throat to the Johnny Wadd movies, starring the infamous John C. Holmes. As Robert Elswit, the director of photography who orchestrated that famous opening shot, recalled, “We watched every existing porno that was ever shot on film. We went to see guys who had vast libraries, and some of it was shot on 35-millimeter film, like period gangster films. It was astonishing. They cost like $100,000...The films that some people made were actually little stories. Everyone forgets that.”
It’s that last point that Anderson emphasized to Roger Ebert in a 1999 Q&A about Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano. “He was the best of the hardcore directors, and he went through a period of believing he could make art films about sex. Home video came along in 1979 and destroyed that illusion.”
Boogie Nights is nothing if not a story of destroyed illusions, but there’s too much pleasure in the rise and fall for its extravagant length to feel like a punishment. Jack Horner’s stable of performers remain strangely childlike, even through drug addiction or violent crime. Though it all seems to work out in the end, we are left wondering if anyone has really learned anything, rejected as they are by the prudish world that reduces them to the beauty and corruption of their bodies.
More than anything, Boogie Nights is a movie about movies, and the technical details that color feeling and memory of a life lived in film. In no scene is this clearer than Dirk’s first day on set, in which he plays the part of an adult film actor “auditioning” for Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). The scene hinges on his ability to perform and “make it look sexy,” but his athleticism is only outdone by his concern for Amber and her comfort.
As they go at it, we see them as they appear on film, frame upon frame, their bodies suddenly outside themselves, transformed into flickering, undulating images. Anderson’s camera cuts to Jack’s camera, and the film reel runs out. They need to change mags. Jack can’t get the money shot in time before Amber asks Dirk, her “baby boy,” to come inside her.
Jack could use stock footage, but it won’t match. He didn’t discover teenage Eddie Adams because his cock was interchangeable. Dirk Diggler is Dirk Diggler, and this is his gift, his “one special thing.” It’s up to Jack, and Anderson, to bring it into the world.
The camera swings from Jack to Dirk.
“I can do it again if you need a close-up.”