not in our stars, but in ourselves
Last night, at His Lordship’s suggestion, I watched Boogie Nights for the first time. (I know, I know: I’m a sham. This isn’t news. Fortunately, my fella is taking a very patient, piece-by-piece approach to filling in the gaps in my familiarity with slightly more current cinema.) Perhaps because my first Paul Thomas Anderson film was The Master – which I thought was beautifully shot and marvelously acted, but ultimately hollow in a way I don’t think it intended to be – I haven’t been all that curious to seek him out elsewhere. Between Inherent Vice, Magnolia, and now Boogie Nights, I can see that I’ve been wrong and dumb for years. Mea culpa.
Anyway, while we were watching, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “If no one has written about how this movie is like an updated Singin’ in the Rain, I’m going to!” He gently informed me that P.T.A. himself had said something similar on some podcast or other. D’oh. So much for my brilliant, one-of-a-kind thesis. However, I haven’t been able to find much else about the comparison out on the interwebz, so – with your kind indulgence, as always – I’m going to natter on for a bit.
In case you, like me, have yet to experience Boogie Nights, a brief summary: it’s 1977, and Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a seventeen-year-old working as a dishwasher in a club frequented by all kinds of movers and shakers in the pornography business. Veteran adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) notices Eddie – particularly the enormous bulge in his jeans – and offers to make him a star. That’s all Eddie has ever wanted, really, and he agrees. After changing his name to Dirk Diggler, he becomes a porn sensation, beloved by audiences and industry insiders alike. His star continues to rise, but the hedonistic ’70s give way to the cold ’80s, and Dirk – overestimating his own importance, hooked on coke and meth and whatever else – storms off the set into oblivion. Everyone hits rock bottom, somehow or other, but (almost) everyone manages to rise back up again (somewhat).
Now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that this is about the porn business. However, perhaps because I’m not nearly as scandalized by porn as some others (especially certain white feminists), I tended to see it all as a parable about the “legitimate” film industry itself – especially in its early, crazy, catch-as-catch-can days back in the 1910s – when film as an industry was just beginning to become a concept. Then, as in Boogie Nights in the late ’70s, a group of scrappy go-getters were trying to make it big in a new gold rush – making it up as they went and hoping for the best. Discussions between the cameraman and assistant director in Boogie Nights could just as easily have been between Mack Sennett and some now-forgotten member of the Keystone Cops crew, if it weren’t for all the talk of cum shots. Horner’s porno flicks are all made quickly and inexpensively, but with the intention of making sure they’re as entertaining (and so on) as possible. Early filmmakers – especially of comedies – were similarly prolific. They had to be.
And in the early days of film, it really was possible for a remarkable star to be discovered and created almost overnight – and even accidentally. Charlie Chaplin, who’d been touring with a vaudeville company for several years by the time he came to California, cobbled together his Little Tramp costume from materials in a dressing room he shared with Fatty Arbuckle and other Sennett comedians. Instantaneously, he was a star – and now an icon. Chaplin: the Dirk Diggler of his time.
I am being facetious, of course, but only slightly. I don’t really know much about how the porn industry finds new actors, least of all in the late ’70s, but I doubt it’s quite as mythically Hollywood as the discovery of Eddie and his apotheosis into Dirk. All that was missing from Horner staring at Eddie across the room was Eddie in a tight pink sweater, slurping a Coke (in the style of Julia Jean Turner). Do these coups de foudre really happen? Only in, or in relation to, the movies, one suspects. I think Anderson deliberately employs these former conventions of days gone by, because he’s not just making a movie about making porn. He’s making a movie about making movies.
And that brings me back to Singin’ in the Rain, one of two great early ’50s reflections on the cinematic past. It is, of course, an impossibly idealized view of movie-making. No studio head was ever so kindly and indulgent (and WASPy) as Monumental Pictures’ R.F. Simpson. No “empty” soundstage ever transformed so magically into a lavender dreamscape for a love song-and-dance.
No early musical film was as smooth and polished as The Dancing Cavalier. No matter. It’s still enormous fun. And the montage sequence of other musical numbers – just before “Beautiful Girl” – is a pretty good idea of what early musical films were really like (try to sit through The Broadway Melody of 1929 or King of Jazz if you don’t believe me):
It captures about as much of the chaos of the advent of sound as a self-hagiographizing studio like MGM would ever allow. Students of film history, however, know that sound was – at the time – hugely disruptive both to the industry and to many stars. For one thing, it kneecapped the visual plenitude of late-era silent films. Granted, there were plenty of directors (many of whom had come over from Berlin and its formerly magnificent film industry) who soon figured out how to utilize sound as another tool in their arsenal, but it took a while. The early years of the sound era are teeming with tinny, awkward, visually uninteresting experiments: all talking, all singing, all dancing, or the 300% picture. And of course, the cost of sound for many stars of the silent era was immense. Where audiences had been accustomed to supplying John Gilbert’s voice according to whatever their imagination found most thrilling, here was the disappointing truth: high-pitched and not nearly sexy enough. Where Pola Negri’s thick accent had never gotten in the way of her vamping through silents, here it kept anyone from understanding a word she said. Goodbye John, goodbye Pola.
Cinema has always adapted, by choice or by necessity, to new technology; and sometimes, that technology ends up leading to bigger and better movies. But it usually leaves a few people behind, and it usually involves a pretty ugly teething period. And, I mean, sometimes it doesn’t lead to anything better – just bigger. In Boogie Nights, the ’80s bring cheap video to replace costly film. Accompanying the change is a shift from the “let’s put on a show, gang!” spirit of the ’70s to a much more cold, materialistic mindset. No more movies with plots. No more intricacy. Just strip off, do it, and be done with it. Less cash outlay, more profit. Horner is forced to abandon his series of Brock Landers action-pornos (!!!) and ride around Los Angeles with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who will fuck any man who gets into the limo with them while Horner tapes it. Video may well have led to some important new innovations in porn (maybe? no idea, actually) – but by its very nature, it leads to a less carefully considered and planned product. If it’s so cheap to shoot with it, as opposed to with film, why not just shoot whatever and hope it works and let that be the end of it.
Video and sound aren’t perfect comparisons, I know. Sound was a hugely expensive new technology for Hollywood studios, and badly timed at that; but once they went in, they went all in, and there was no turning back. It took years to recover the visual subtlety of silent film – if you believe they ever did recover it. (I will keep my boring old fuddy-duddy opinions to myself for now.) My real point is that both Singin’ in the Rain and Boogie Nights show how the collision of cultural and technological changes can change not merely the content of a film, but every individual player and crew member and financier in the industry. The results aren’t always pretty. It’s true of any business, I know, but we don’t necessarily get to see the effects on other industries screening in multiplexes across the country.
Anyway. Anderson has said he has no intention to make a sequel, and that’s his prerogative, of course. Just think of it, though. He could reinterpret that other great early ’50s reflection on the cinematic past, Sunset Boulevard. Imagine! “Say, you’re Dirk Diggler! You used to be big.” “I am big. It’s the screens that got small.” Missed opportunity, P.T.A.