Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. (New Line Cinema/HBO Max/Trailer image via YouTube) The cheerfully moronic escapades of Dirk Diggler et al. shine a light on a dark void in the American landscape.
Paul Thomas Anderson has an announcement to make in the opening moments of 1997’s Boogie Nights, the first time most of us saw his work. (His only previous feature, Hard Eight, is a gem, but few saw it when it came out in 1996.) The announcement is: I’m a filmmaker who can’t be ignored. In a dazzling three-minute club sequence in which a crane shot is revealed to be a Steadicam shot, scored to the disco classic “Best of My Love” by the Emotions, Anderson plunges into the details of a lost civilization from only 20 years earlier, introduces us to a bunch of principal characters, and notifies the audience that we’re in the hands of a swaggeringly confident artist.
For the next two and a half hours, the writer-director lives up to the promise: Nearly a quarter of a century later, Boogie Nights (now streaming on HBO Max) stands as one of the finest and most endlessly rewatchable films of the ’90s. (Spoilers follow.)
Boogie Nights is an ingenious synthesis of two notable cinematic styles. Anderson’s avatar is Robert Altman, who didn’t always work in the same register but won his highest acclaim for long, diffuse, highly populated tableaux vivants such as Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). Altman relied heavily on improvisation and serendipity in nudging ’70s cinema away from contrived three-act structure and well-defined character arcs. There is no main character in either of those Altman movies, and in Nashville, the people we meet are so many bees buzzing around an eccentric populist politician we never even see. At times, watching an Altman movie is like being a baffled outsider at a buzzing cocktail party where everyone seems to be talking at once, inside jokes never get explained, and there is no point to anything. The party just goes on till it stops and everyone goes home.
Borrowing his narrative shape,
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