After 2007’s soul-shattering THERE WILL BE BLOOD, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have been accepted into the pantheon of ‘great American directors.’ And deservingly so.
He’s undoubtedly one of our country’s most ambitious filmmakers, crafting stories that work as both incredibly specific evocations of time and place and as universally relatable fables. I imagine that Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (a film about finding human connections) and the previously mentioned BLOOD (a film about avoiding them) will forever remain the films that cemented him as one of our great voices. But BOOGIE NIGHTS, his sophomore effort, is still his best work. This is the film where he brings everything together. It’s hilarious but tragic, visually audacious but dense in both character and narrative, surreal in its constant sense of escalation but entirely honest in its pathos.
BOOGIE NIGHTS begins -and at first is seemingly nothing more than- a tribute to the sounds and looks of the disco era it takes place during. Anderson starts off with a showy, indebted-to-Scorsese Steadicam shot that follows all our characters – a collection of adult film stars, producers, and hangers-on, for the uninitiated – around a dance hall before finally emerging on Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg,) who is a “seventeen year old piece of gold” to these purveyors of porn. The music is loud, the clothes are louder, and at this point most viewers are probably anticipating a nostalgic, lighthearted throwback to the kinder moments of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (itself paid tribute to in the appearance of Wahlberg’s bedroom – a poster-by-poster recreation of Tony Manero’s pad.) How wrong they would be.
Instead, BOOGIE NIGHTS becomes something far more: it’s a fable about the need to find a family, even if it isn’t your own. It’s about the unmatched collaborative possibilities that come with making movies, and also about the dark personal hells that have been found while making them too. It’s the result of a filmmaker’s life-long love affair with the cinematic form; with P.T. not only using every camera movement in the book, but also everything from 35 and 16mm to VHS footage in a CITIZEN KANE-like attempt to chronicle cinema’s many forms and styles. One could even say that the film retells the story of American cinema from the birth of the New Hollywood to the explosion of the 90s independent scene: the youthful exuberance, creative fulfillment, and artistic freedom of the character’s 70’s work gives way to coke-fueled, cheap, indulgent, and overly commercial films in the 80’s, before everyone finally finds their niche with smaller audiences in the 90’s.
If HARD EIGHT promised us a great filmmaker, then BOOGIE NIGHTS delivered one. P.T. creates a texture over the film, using his camera to create a symmetry that helps bring it to feverish and allegorical levels. He opens and closes with long tracking shots, indulges in long montages of character intros/outros following and prior to the aforementioned bravura sequences, and crafts a paralleling rise-and-fall narrative to fit in between – the film doubles back on itself; emerging as more of a fairy tale than a snapshot of a moment in time. It also shows a visual confidence that HARD EIGHT hardly even hinted at. Moment after moment of this film is burned into my head permanently.
And this is hardly scratching the surface. There’s the unbearable tension of the film’s most thrilling moments, the finer subtleties of its most iconic performances (John C. Reilly is a national treasure, but he’s never been better than here,) and it’s many transcendent musical scenes – one, where all the positive emotions swell over into an impromptu dance number, remains one of the more magical moments I’ve ever witnessed. I’m unexplainably excited to see BOOGIE NIGHTS tonight on the Coolidge’s main screen, where Anderson’s Cinemascope photography will open up to truly overwhelming sizes.
Most films, you watch. BOOGIE NIGHTS, you experience. – Jake Mulligan
BOOGIE NIGHTS shows tonight, 6/11, 7:00PM, as part of the Coolidge’s Big Screen Classics series. Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St, Brookline MA, 02446.