Though it’s not Paul Thomas Anderson’s true debut (Hard Eight), Boogie Nights marks the inauguration of a nearly unrivaled cinematic talent
In my 1997 review I called it a “sonic boom”— there’s such electricity and energy in the filmmaking. PT Anderson is clearly excited to make this film and is in love with his camera, film history (the work of Scorsese, Altman, Ophuls), these characters, this era, and this story(or stories)
A high-wire act of virtuoso camera movement
He humanizes these characters (the actors, obviously, should get a ton of credit for it)—in nearly every role of the 12+ ensemble it’s hard to picture another actor playing these parts—we have the romanticism of the first half of the film and the fall from grace and struggles in the second half (filled with ego, drug abuse (instead of use)) before the pleasing uplifting but tempered coda (to beach boys “god only knows”)
The film and PT have the camera romanticism and bordwell cinematography of Scorsese—but it’s also an ensemble piece like Altman (and yes—Goodfellas)
Sarris- “Not since the mysteriously reclusive Terrence Malick has there been such an explosion of sheer talent on the American movie “
I think it’s aged so well because we’re not in 1997 anymore where many critics attacked the film for being a copy of goodfellas or pulp fiction. I’d never put the film ahead of goodfellas but it benefits from not coming out in that films wake (much like Casino now) I’ve marked the Goodfellas comparison but the pulp fiction one doesn’t really make as much sense. I guess both have a unique blend of comedy and violence (or adult themes), both set in 70’s, and both are the sophomore effort (and clear huge masterpiece) from a wunderkind talent with clear cinematic roots
The opening shot (a tour of the dance club) borrows from the Copacabana shot from goodfellas, we also have shots (at least 3 scenes) of Dirk talking to himself in the mirror (from raging bull), and we have the I Am Cuba scene of the camera jumping into the pool in a long take (more so than the graduate)
3 ½ minute opening shot is a wonder. It combines some slight touch of evil (opens with shot of car driving down street and characters getting out, to goodfellas (entering and touring club) and then has a 360 shot introducing 3 more characters (there’s 8 in total in scene), and then ends with a slow-motion finish introducing the main character—it’s sheer and utter brilliance
I didn’t notice this before but we have the exaggerated sound and mini-montage editing of the drinks, drug use, clinking of the class, coffee— much like Aronofsky’s requiem (this is 3 years earlier)
The soundtrack/music is dazzling (also led to Scorsese and Tarantino comparisons). I’ve loved the songs and their meaning but this is the first time I’ve really paused on Michael Penn’s mournful pipe organ (“the big top”) intro. There’s melancholy there and it comes back at the end. I think it shows the highs and lows of the characters. It also would come back with punch drunk and that organ music Barry plays
After the brilliant opening we see many characters not fitting in in their “normal” life—we have Amber (Julianne Moore) on the phone arguing about custody of her son with her Ex, we have Roller Girl (Graham) struggling with a test in school and a guy mocking her, we have Dirk in a fight with his mom, we have Cheadle not getting a stereo sale and fighting with boss—these characters need their world
The casting of Wahlberg isn’t that far off from reality—21 years old he was picked up for the Calvin Klein underwear model stuff
This ensemble piece is a surrogate family (like goodfellas again)—Jack’s (Burt Reynolds) house is the center, he’s the surrogate father, and Moore is the surrogate mother
Early in the film we have Wahlberg getting thrown out of his house by his mother and then we juxtaposed this scene with Reynolds welcoming him with open arms in the next
Another Scorseseism is the triple take edit montage intro of the Colonel—Same again later with the Phillip Baker Hall character
So we have 4 huge formally important tracking shots—one is the intro to the film and tour of the club, the second is the intro of the party at Jack’s, the start of the high 70’s period (this makes a great bookend with #4 tracking shot I’ll get to in a second, the third is the tragic death of Little Bill (I’ll get to that scenes importance in a second) and then the final tour of Jack’s house again with the family restored
That second key tracking shot has the pool I am Cuba tracking shot in the pool- another starry-eyed intro into an inviting world/family
Scottie—Philp Seymour Hoffman character- a great character- probably the 11th great character at this point, isn’t introduced until 40 minutes in
It is a hilarious screenplay. Jack says “The Colonel puts up all the money for the films. It’s an important part of the process”
PT isn’t just laying the visual formal work with stupefying tracking shots (he is)—he’s busy even outside of that- we have long sedentary takes to hold and emphasize (PSH breaking down in the car after going after kissing Dirk—a long hold during Jessie’s Girl on a Dirk zoning out- a shot I love) but there’s other magnificent busyness and cinematic affectations of film style- an iris in on Dirk when Scottie first meets him, the name “Dirk Diggler” in lights and the dance sequence in the club with the choreographed dancing like out of a musical
This is a family— Moore calls him “my baby boy” and there’s that “will you be my mom” sequence with her and roller girl. In the last tracking shot, through Jack’s house again, there’s no drugs, booze, loud music (somber Beach Boys) we have Cheadle’s son in the pool and Jack telling Roller Girl to clean her room
Reoccurring shot of people amazed by Dirk’s talent
Great formal rigor in the rise and fall. Half way into the film we have the New Year’s party at Jack’s. This is hugely significant. It’s the turning point to the 1980’s, it’s the first time we see Dirk doing coke with Amber (his addiction starts), we have Macy’s suicide/murder, we have the introduction of the really only evil character in the film, Todd Parker, and we have Jack meeting Baker Hall who talks about how film is ending and video and amateurs is the way to go in the 1980’s. It’s a major turn.
There’s real depth here with identity—“Brock Landers is a character I’m playing. I’m Dirk Diggler” (which, of course, he isn’t)
Another brilliant 360 shot as they plan the Molina drug robbery
Décor has great detail of the fashion of the era- the faux rock walls
PT’s choice to have the firecrackers in the Molna scene ratchets it up
Tremendous scene of connection when Dirk comes back to the family and apologizes to Jack and Amber- very touching
Do you have a link to your 1997 review of Boogie Nights?
@Randy— Sorry- I see how it reads. I meant it to mean “In my review of the year 1997” — here’s what I saw on the 1997 page http://thecinemaarchives.com/2017/11/28/1997/
best film: PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights is that sonic boom giant masterpiece from a filmmaker under 30 (Chazelle in la la land missing the cut by a year) like citizen kane, the 400 blows, jaws, breathless, battleship potemkin that blows us all away. I think in 1997 there were those who cried “Scorsese Jr.” with how many similarities there are between the film and goodfellas but now, with the benefit of hindsight of 20 years, it’s impossible to deny this accomplishment. The opening dance club set piece shot is beyond description in its beauty and the film has countless other segments (the awkwardly long long take on Walhberg that just pauses there for like 45 seconds, the entire sequence where Macy kills himself) of cinematic genius including indelibly rich characterizations. It’s one of the greatest films of the 1990’s.
drake you talk about in your 1997 review. how long have you written reviews.i don’t want this to come off offensively because i love this site but i wonder if you have any longform criticism somewhere that you wrote, essays and analyses of movies. have you ever written dvd reiews or anything for any publication, or did you study criticism / film history or anything.
@D.W. Griffith– Well I started the blog in 2017. I have not really done much longform criticism. It isn’t a strength of mine — nor is it of particular interest. These long pages here on some of the better films (like the recent one for Brazil for example) is about as long as I want to go. I wrote a few reviews in college for the school newspaper — not many— where I studied film/cinema for four years. I’ve been watching anywhere from 500-1100 or so movies a year since and keeping my own “archives” in Excel before bringing it to the website form in 2017.
What a blast to re-visit! So much artistic ambition, this is a 2 1/2 hour film that never lets up. No wonder the Goodfellas comparisons both in story, filming techniques, energy, music, and ambition. Even the way we are granted access into a type of sub-culture, only instead of the Mafia its the porn business. I’ve always enjoyed Wahlberg even if his range is limited, but he actually is a complete character here and is able to portray a certain vulnerability that is a little different from the Henry Hill character who you never feel too sorry for. I can’t believe PT was only 27 that’s the same age as Truffaut when he directed The 400 Blows. Speaking of which if you counted this as PTs debut is it top 5 all time?
The only better ones off the top of my head:
The 400 Blows
If you counted this as PT Andersons debut (I know it isn’t but
@James Trapp- Yep, if it was his debut it would be right there at #4 for me.
@James Trapp – Drake isn’t here yet on it and neither is TSPDT (and I don’t think it ever will be) but Knife in the Water from Polanski is extremely strong and maybe only a cut below any of these.
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