Hard Eight may have been Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, but his career really begins with Boogie Nights, the film on which he began pre-production work before Hard Eight was finished being edited. From its bravura opening shot, which begins with a blast of disco on the soundtrack (watching it with a large crowd last week, you could feel the audience jump with shock and pleasure), Boogie Nights is the work of a young filmmaker charging out of the gate at full speed. Anderson is so high on his own talent that the entire film feels like a giddy bliss-out. At the risk of making a bad pun, I’d call it a supremely cocky film: Anderson’s cockiness mirrors that of his main character, the swaggering (and well hung) porn star Dirk Diggler. But where Dirk Diggler’s cockiness doesn’t have any brains behind it, only a basically good-natured but childlike impetuosity (incapable of handling his own fame, he skids toward self-destruction), Anderson’s is grounded by the intelligence and the instinct of a born artist. It’s a dazzling, sure-footed high-wire act.
One of Anderson’s strengths has been his ability to integrate form and content, or rather to resist the urge to subordinate one to the other. He is a natural stylist who has an impeccable command of the camera as well as a romantic who understands and loves people, especially his actors. From the beginning of his career Anderson has identified himself as a writer-director for whom a film comes together on the page as well as visually. The amazing thing about him is that he’s able to handle both aspects of the filmmaking process so confidently. I don’t think there’s a single bad shot in Boogie Nights, nor is there a single bad line of dialogue. Nor a wasted role. Watching it this week at the Somerville Theatre for what had to have been the tenth time since it came out in 1997, I experienced the same rush of excitement that I felt when I first saw it. Its power hasn’t diminished; if anything, it feels more audacious and impressive now because we’ve seen Anderson make good on the cocky promises he made all those years ago.
That isn’t to say that Boogie Nights isn’t a derivative film; in particular it derives from Nashville and GoodFellas with a dash of Spinal Tap, and several absurdly pitched action sequences that show the influence, however unconscious, of Pulp Fiction. It would not be until 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love that Anderson would come fully into his own style—a kind of rhapsodic surrealism. But the seeds of that style are already there in his vision of the adult film community as family circus, with porn auteur Jack Horner (played perfectly by Burt Reynolds) as patriarch and ringmaster. For Anderson, the world of porn is a subtly off-kilter subculture in which folks as diverse as Reynolds’ Jack Horner (a purring cat of a man who plays as hard as he works, and who, even as he believes that porn can be Cinema, is not without a sense of humor), Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves (who transfers her thwarted maternal affection for a lost son onto her younger colleagues, and whose soft smile hides deep sadness), and Ricky Jay’s Kurt Longjohn (DP, camera wonk and man of eminent sanity) come together to party, talk, laugh, fuck, cry, shoot films and make lives with each other. It’s a world that surges with big, ragged emotion—something that Anderson arguably understands better than any of his mentors. Even when he’s borrowing gimmicks from Altman and Scorsese, the film is suffused with an emotional power that’s fully his own, and it burns through the screen.