Boogie Nights is truly the last film of the 1970s. Not just because it takes place in that decade, but because it actually looks and feels like a film that was shot and released in that decade. It is the perfect time capsule that demonstrates not every single film director has forgotten how to truly make a film.
The film is, essentially, about the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) a high school drop out who is coaxed into the porn industry, and finds great success. Yet this all goes down after he gets into an argument with his boss Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and develops an addiction to cocaine. Of course, this is but a small part of the film. It also deals with people trying to leave the business, such as Buck (Don Cheadle) who wants nothing more than to open a stereo store. Roller girl (Heather Graham) has to deal with friends at her school mocking her profession. Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) wants nothing more than to see her son again. Jack wants to be thought of as a filmmaker.
First, does the film romanticize the porn industry? No. Can the industry be romanticized in anyway? Every character in the film looks and acts…well sleazy is the only word to describe it. The first sexual act we see in the film is an act of infidelity. The characters always talk about “fucking” rather than “making love” taking any sort of passion out of the act. They all speak about sex like they are merely blocking out a scene. Granted, blocking out a scene is what they are doing, but no one stops to think about the implications of what they are truly doing. And when their world comes crashing down, they cannot understand what is going on. They try and make use of other “talents” that they do not possess. The characters can do one thing and one thing only: make pornography.
In that sense, Boogie Nights is a morality piece. It does not outrightly condemn porn, but it does condemn people who believe they are truly artists when they possess no skills. “Everyone has one special talent” Dirk rationalizes. I came away from the film not entirely convinced. I would hardly say that Dirk had a talent. In fact, no character does. Dirk attempts a music career, but can only belt out “The Touch.” Everyone seems to suffer the same problems, and no one is fulfilled. Only when these people function as a family unit do they find any peace.
One of the most notable aspects of the film is its absolute embrace of cinema veratie. The camera may as well have been strapped to one of the characters. It is that fluid. One of the best shots of the movie involves a character being followed into a pool. It is some of the best camera work since the 1970s. The same for the long shot that introduces the characters is among the best. These items make the movie feel far more authentic, which is of course the whole point of cinema veratie (and I know that I am missing some accent marks there), but no one seems to realize that today. Only Alfonso Cuaron comes this close.
This is a movie about the 1970s that feels like it may have come from the 1970s. I guess that is all part of the joke. But that is strength…this is a film that is not a fascimile.
Some may be turned off by the graphic content (no pun intended, I promise). But it is not that graphic. During sex, it always cuts away to stoic faces. There is only one part that borders on graphic: the final shot. Diggler’s phallus is not shown until the end, and its reveal is, well…..actually rather anti climatic. The name was introduced in a neon sign, the thing that made him famous is introduced as part of a pep talk in a poorly lit bathroom. But it is meant to be an affirmation, Diggler trying to recapture his “one special thing.” Too little, too late at that point. That is the impression that the audience is left with. But the one thing that the final shot is not is gratuitous. It is shocking, yes, but not gratutious. It is merely all Diggler has left in the world.
I will just go ahead and say it. Boogie Nights is one of the greatest films of all time. Why? It is just as daring no matter how many times anyone watches it. It is just as much film school material as media for the masses. Forget the content. It is not controversial (or at least not nearly as controversial as anyone would tell you). There is a reason DiCaprio regrets picking Titanic over this.