‘Boogie Nights’: Paul Thomas Anderson and the 1990s

Ah, the 1990s. The decade of the stylish urban epic, the bona fide ensemble cast, and the splintered narrative. We’d seen all these before, and we’ve seen them since. But their true proliferation was best witnessed during the last millennium’s last decade.

Scorsese ushered it in in 1990 with GoodFellas; that really was ‘bravura’ filmmaking. Robert Altman took a slightly different stance: 1993’s Short Cuts was far longer even than GoodFellas, the characters more recognisably human, and the leaps spatial rather than temporal. But – a standard for Altman – an enormous ensemble cast was assembled, to apparently great effect. And it was ‘bravura’. Pulp Fiction (1994) speaks for itself. We have Todd Solondz with 1998’s Happiness; again, ‘bravura’. But if we take Tarantino and Spielberg out of the equation, perhaps the 1990s really belonged to Paul Thomas Anderson. Few other directors have been called ‘bravura’ quite as often as Anderson has.

Now that's bravura. Could you do that, Anderson? Could you?
Now THIS is bravura. Can you do this, Mr. Anderson? Can you?

I call attention to the ‘b’ word because it’s a strong word, and it tends to be overused. By now, it does apply to Anderson, who has, since the late ‘90s, developed an original aesthetic and an oeuvre whose maturity is astounding for one as young as he (he was born in 1970). But as regards Boogie Nights (1997), the subject matter – the porn industry of the 1970s – is the most original thing about it.

We start with an opening tracking shot into a nightclub that is shamelessly pilfered from GoodFellas. When an epic film begins by practically visually quoting a film that was released only seven years previously, it doesn’t quite instil in us a startled sense of blinding originality. But no matter! I mean, Scorsese himself didn’t invent the tracking shot. And perhaps over the course of the film, Anderson will find a more original voice, one that doesn’t owe quite such a… Oh dear. ‘70s song after ‘70s song distracts us from what’s actually being shown on screen – also one of GoodFellas’ few flaws. And… the final scene of Boogie Nights almost exactly replicates the final scene of Raging Bull. Were it not for the (genuinely bravura) appearance of the protagonist’s enormous penis, the last scene would have left a very sour taste indeed.

"That is MY willy in the final shot, right?"
“That is MY willy in the final shot, right?”

In Boogie Nights, we see in full flower the hallmarks of a P.T.A. film. There’s a large ensemble cast, including Mark WahlbergPhilip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, John C. Reilly, and Burt Reynolds; apart from Wahlberg and Reynolds, all are Anderson regulars. Now-familiar Andersonian themes such as dysfunctionality, family, sex, greed and decadence burst unrestrained onto the scene. Swooping, ostentatious but nonetheless skilful camerawork mark the true burgeoning of the master’s career. And – another Anderson trait – the acting and script are consistently superb. I won’t bore you with a synopsis; it’s not a new film, and synopses are available elsewhere.

Watch this film because it’s entertaining, professional, solidly composed, and subtly exhibitive of the future greatness Anderson would bring to the screen in There Will Be Blood, his only incontrovertible masterpiece to date. Boogie Nights is skilful, sure. Thematically important, yes. But don’t let claims of ‘bravura’ fool you into thinking that Anderson was the 1990s’ most original wunderkind.

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