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Porn Yesterday

The hugely ambitious Boogie Nights revisits the sex-film world of the 1970s

Anderson captures the pretensions of the porno world -- the way, especially in the '70s, the business catered to respectability. I covered the annual Adult Film Association awards bash at the Palladium on Sunset Boulevard for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the early 1980s, and I was always amazed at what an alternate-universe Oscars show it was -- complete with musical selections performed by porno stars from the five nominated songs, and clips, none of them X-rated, from the best "performances." Performers no longer active in hard-core, such as Georgina Spelvin, were feted with lifetime achievement awards as if they were Helen Hayes.

But Anderson doesn't just capture the pretensions of this world, he also falls for them. And that's where the film loses its edge. Only 27, Anderson may barely have been out of short pants for the '77'84 time period covered by Boogie Nights, but he's still buzzed by that era's touchy-feely mantra. He buys into the cult of "creativity" that makes a person such as Jack or Eddie a species of artist simply because he desires personal "fulfillment." When we see the trailer for a movie partnering Eddie and his buddy Reed (John C. Reilly) as Starsky and Hutch-style erotic action heroes, the results are laughably bad. And yet Jack thinks this is his finest work, and we're not meant to giggle at him. He may not be a real artist, but he has the artistic impulse, and in true '70s style, that's enough to lift him into the pantheon.

Anderson makes a big deal about the shift that came to porn in the '70s: It went from being shot on film -- where one could be an "artist" -- to being shot on video. It's a shift Jack at first rejects, in a scene with the underworldly overlord Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall) that seems modeled on the Mafia powwow in The Godfather where Don Corleone rejects dealing drugs. Jack also rejects the use of amateur sex players instead of professionals. When he finally relents, it's as if a moment had passed into history -- the moment when artists hoping to do something momentous in hard-core were beaten back into hackdom.

This is more than misplaced nostalgia. It is, alas, the crux of the movie. This sentimentalizing is a disservice to porn -- it tries to "legitimize" what by its nature is illegitimate. It also misses the commercial opportunism and legal maneuvering that were at the heart of the porno world's courting of the mainstream audience and press. The dream of artists in the '70s to make truly heightened erotic movies was carried forward by Last Tango in Paris, not The Devil in Miss Jones. It's a dream that has for the most part been jettisoned in an era when most studios and theater chains contractually ban NC-17 rated movies. Even Boogie Nights is rated R.

But even if we existed in an era more hospitable to sexual exploration on film, I don't think Anderson would approve. He may be moony about the swinging '70s, but he also thinks it's payback time for all that swinging. Boogie Nights is wiggy and heated about this payback: You have to be punished for all that fooling around.

Anderson sets up his portrait of the porno world so that, when the drugs and violence kick in, we register the downfall of innocence. But the innocence is rigged. Anderson is very careful, for example, not to show Jack having sex with anyone; no casting couch sessions for him. Amber and Rollergirl are like mother and daughter, though in the actual porno world they would no doubt be called upon to have sex together -- which would have made for a blacker and truer picture. Anderson also doesn't raise the specter of AIDS or, except ever-so-lightly, Mob involvement. If he did allow for these things, his one-happy-family scenario would collapse.

After his spectacular rise to glory, Eddie the innocent crashes and burns with a vengeance. And so does the film. The trajectory is a familiar one from the cycle of '70s druggie movies. This is a kind of nostalgia we don't need -- who wants to be put through that deadhead Panic in Needle Park dreariness again? Eddie begins to resemble a porno version of the dissolute Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, complete with the speech-in-the-dressing-room-mirror scene. Like Jake, he needs to come clean and roust his manhood. But when Eddie is finally reborn, it's as an innocent once again. He has his family waiting for him.

In most of the many recent -- and mostly bad -- movies about families, ranging from A Thousand Acres to The Myth of Fingerprints and The House of Yes, dysfunction is the norm. These films attempt to break apart the myths of familial togetherness that we never truly believed anyway.

Anderson, however, still sees the family as a source of salvation. He recognizes that, for all our cynicism, we still want to see it that way too, and so in place of the old sugarcoated Ozzie and Harriet myths, he offers up a new one -- a family of porno helpmates who form an ideal of togetherness. What could be farther from Ozzie and Harriet and yet so close? The family that makes sex films together stays together. Boogie Nights, in fact, is one of the most traditional movies around.

Boogie Nights.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
With Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and Don Cheadle.

Rated R.
152 minutes.

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