Something True and Right and Dramatic: Boogie Nights as Religious Experience

 

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There are so many memorable exchanges in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights about movies: Movies as art versus movies as product, what it means to shoot on film versus videotape, the problems of violence and sex in cinema. But the exchange that always stands out to me isn’t ostensibly about movies at all. In a tiny moment of comic character building, John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild, porn star and aspiring magician, performs a card trick for Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, porn star and aspiring small business owner. The trick blows Buck’s mind. He can’t believe it. He’s even a little frightened by it. “Doesn’t it make you nervous when you’re dealing with all those evil forces?” he asks Reed. “Horses? What?” Reed says.

“No, the evil forces,” Buck says again, as Reed realizes Buck is serious.

“Evil? No, man, it’s not evil. It’s an illusion.”

“Yeah? It’s confusing,” Buck says.

Reed breaks out in a big dumb grin, which is always welcome, because John C. Reilly’s got the most endearing big dumb grin in the entire world.

“Thank you,” he says. He pumps his fist. End scene.

*

Movies are illusions, a good one no less a magic trick than Reed producing Buck’s card. The movies we see being made in Boogie Nights might be pornographic, but they’re made of the same stuff all movies are: “You got your lights, your camera, your sound,” director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) explains to prospective actor Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). You’ve got the money to get, the money people to please, a script to write, sets to dress, actors to cast and manage and direct. Somehow, you’ve got to synthesize all that production into a series of images that appear seamless, that look like they’re happening somewhere they really aren’t, that make viewers forget the people in them aren’t who they claim to be.

And the best movies, for my money, are the ones that leave me feeling like Buck in this scene—a little off-kilter at first, full of some mixture of awe and confusion, not quite able to explain to myself what I’ve just experienced. Because that’s the power of a magic trick: its ability to disrupt our understanding of the world, if only for a moment. It’s a mind-body disconnect; our sense of what’s occurring fails to line up with our knowledge of what can occur. Usually, we can figure out enough of the smoke and mirrors and trap doors and sleight of hand to assure ourselves that what we saw was indeed an illusion, not “actual” magic. We need to do this figuring out—and to assume that it can be done—because otherwise we’d be forced to reckon with the notion that what we thought was possible or true about the world was wrong.

Movies can leave us in a similarly disrupted space, forcing us to re-examine what we know about the world and about ourselves. But sometimes there’s no explanation of the disconnect, no way to put the same world—the same truth—back together again afterwards.

*

I grew up in a community that was wary of the potential evil forces to be found in these illusions called movies. The religious leaders of my youth also understood the influence the body can have on truth—that the most effective truths are felt before they’re understood. These leaders wanted to exploit that relationship while guarding against others who might do the same. In youth group settings, my peers and I were subjected to a rhetoric of bodily fear and sensory-induced contamination; we were constantly warned against experiences that might make us feel something that could lead us away from God’s truth. Such experiences could cause “confusion,” which was perceived as a genuinely perilous state: Confusion was a step onto the slippery slope to doubt, and in a world where salvation was determined by moral and theological certainty—by whether or not we believed in our hearts that a specific series of statements was true—doubt was dangerous indeed.

My parents received a monthly mailer outlining all the objectionable content in upcoming popular film and music releases (“The f-word is said 23 times, thrice in a sexual manner”). My Sunday school teachers warned us that ritual stabbings by Satanists were commonplace at “secular” concerts and that if we stumbled into viewing any sexual images, they would be so seared into our minds that we would never be able to have pure, godly sexual experiences with our future spouses. I remember the utter panic I felt the first time I snuck into an R-rated movie—not because I was afraid I’d get caught, but because I was afraid of how it might permanently damage me. I remember the first time I held a girl’s hand and she asked me if I was cold because I was trembling so hard. My eyes, my ears, my hands—my body was full of damaging pathways to my soul.

Despite my parents and teachers’ best efforts to monitor my media intake, when Boogie Nights was released in 1997 (I was 13) I’d already managed to see hardcore pornography—a good 15 seconds of it. I was at a friend of a friend’s house, a guy who was a couple years older than us, and he put on a tape. I watched as a pair of giant breasts filled the screen and it took me a few moments to comprehend that they were squeezing a giant penis that was sliding back and forth between them. My stomach churned. I seriously worried I might get sick and told my friend that we needed to leave. I felt the image searing itself into my brain with a demonic branding iron, just like my Sunday school teachers had warned. A bodily fear. The flames of Hell were surely stoked for me.

My understanding of Boogie Nights was that it was basically hardcore pornography that had somehow managed to get released into theaters. The most concrete thing I knew about it was that they showed Mark Wahlberg’s cock. Frankly, I was frightened by the prospect of the film.

By the time I was in high school, I’d fallen in love with movies, even though I often had to view them in secret—watching a borrowed tape of Goodfellas in portions here and there while my parents were out running errands or showing them the ticket stub to U.S. Marshals that I’d purchased so I could sneak into The Big Lebowski. Movies helped me grow more comfortable with my adolescent desires and sexuality, and I eventually started seeking out cinematic titillations. (As with a lot of guys my age, Wild Things was a formative text, in its way.) After that first experience with pornography, though, it would take longer for more hardcore stuff (and thus Boogie Nights, too, by association) to even seem approachable. And even with these more mainstream thrills, the pleasure I derived from experiencing them was rarely unaccompanied by guilt and shame. I sought pleasure out, but still felt the need to repent afterward. I loved watching movies, but was also guarded enough that they didn’t crack my worldview.

I didn’t see Boogie Nights until I was in college. By that time, watching most R-rated movies had become a slightly less taboo admission for me to make to my parents, and they had even allowed me to go to a summer camp to learn about making movies. Still, at the time, my entire knowledge of Boogie Nights was that it was the “porn movie.” And if I’m being totally honest, that was the reason I finally wanted to watch it—to see just how much it showed, and probably to jerk off to it.

A strange thing, then, when I was only slightly titillated, but completely captivated and, finally, moved.

*

In its first half, there are immediately obvious reasons for a viewer to be drawn into Boogie Nights—it looks great, the soundtrack is cool, the acting is terrific, and it’s pretty damn funny. There was also the behind-the-scenes factor for me—I was itching to learn more about filmmaking, and I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that watching Boogie Nights can be a little like going to film school. In one scene, for instance, Jack’s cinematographer Kurt Longjohn responds to assistant director “Little” Bill Thompson’s (William H. Macy) request for a minimalist visual style by explaining, “Very often ‘minimal’ means a lot more photographically.” Even the first film that Eddie acts in as Dirk Diggler is a film about filmmaking. And despite the fact that there is a definite eroticism to the depiction of Wahlberg and Julianne Moore’s bodies in that scene (particularly in the way that the pleasure and effort seen in Dirk’s face and torso are less “acted” than Amber’s), I was more enthralled with the attention paid to the production around them—the fakeness of the set, the number of people watching, the lighting equipment, the way the image is captured upside down inside the camera, the need to change magazines in the middle of the scene. The first half of the movie was a blast, and I was learning while watching.

The film is starkly bisected by a sequence depicting a New Year’s Eve party ringing in 1980, a sequence full of turning points: It’s the first time Dirk does cocaine. Thomas Jane’s sleazy enabler Todd Parker shows up on the scene. The most horrible moment is a climactic murder-suicide carried out by a mild-mannered crew member. And yet, arguably the most momentous event for the rest of the film is the arrival of movie theater tycoon Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall), and with him the future of porn production: videotape.

Floyd wants Jack to start shooting his movies on video instead of film, in order to make production and exhibition cheaper and more efficient. Jack is offended by the idea. “I’m a filmmaker,” he says. Jack has long had a dream of making movies that are “true and right and dramatic;” porn movies that are more like “real” movies than just jerk-off material. Jack knows that people come to the theater for pleasure. “You got to get the people in the theater, you know, you need the big dicks, the big tits,” he tells Eddie early on. And that’s all Floyd wants, to get people in the theater with a promise of pleasures of the flesh. But Jack wants to make movies that keep people planted in their seats even after they’ve finished themselves off because the story’s so good. He thinks he’s started making such movies with Dirk and he doesn’t want to stop—he’s finally beginning to see himself as a real artist. He believes that shooting on video will take that away.

The second half of the film plunges the characters into deeper and deeper pits of despair—their lives are consumed by drug use, greed, narcissism, jealousy, and the transformation of their art form as Jack finally makes the shift to videotape. On that first viewing it felt downright apocalyptic to me. In this half of the film, for instance, the timestamps keep getting more specific (going from simply “’80s” to “Tuesday morning, September 1983” to “Sunday, December 11th, 1983”), as if closing in on some finality. The soundtrack eventually devolves into nothing but a funereal bell ringing during the film’s most harrowing sequence: a strung-out Dirk, having left Jack and his acting career behind him, struggles to jerk off for a stranger in a truck for 10 bucks (echoing his offer to Jack in the film’s opening minutes). It turns out to be a setup for the guy’s friends to beat the shit out of Dirk. At the same time, the guy whose harassment made Rollergirl (Heather Graham) flee her high school classroom now violates and humiliates her in a reality porn stunt gone horribly wrong—a misadventure made possible by video.

The bodies that were generous and the source of so much pleasure in the first half become haggard, joyless vessels of selfishness in the second. Consider how Eddie/Dirk speaks about his sexuality—his instrument and his special talent with it—in the first half of the film: his focus is outward, on the pleasure he can offer others. During his first filmed scene with Amber, he’s concerned only with others’ experiences: Does it look sexy for the audience? Does it feel good for Amber? Is he doing what everyone else wants him to do? Once he’s ruined himself on drugs and fame, though, his sexuality becomes something that others can only experience according to his demands—scenes are filmed only when he wants (only when he can) and he even (in his mind) directs them. It’s all downhill into deeper darkness until his body’s broken entirely. It’s all downhill for everyone in this half of the film, until Dirk finally returns to Jack’s house to seek consolation and forgiveness: to put their motley family back together again, to shoot their movies on film, and to try for some kind of healing.

In that first viewing, it was this downward spiral and final uplift of the film’s second half that left me reeling—that had, like a good magic trick, disrupted my understanding of the world. I needed to make sense of the confusion caused by the illusion, but at first, I couldn’t even articulate it. I didn’t know why I found it so overwhelming.

*

When I say that the religious leaders of my youth knew how to exploit that relationship between the body and truth, I mean that, while my body was a site for all that rhetorical fear, it was also supposed to be a site of positive religious experience. Nearly all of the Christian services and programs I took part in growing up functioned according to the same rhythms: inviting people in and priming their bodies through music and touch (passing the peace) and meditation (prayer), then instilling the fear of hell into those primed bodies through a frightening sermon, and finally offering relief via the acceptance of Christ. It’s a structure that maps onto the Christian gospel of an Edenic paradise spoiled by human sin and redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. And these programs are designed so that the acceptance of that redemption is accompanied by (or, perhaps, is the result of) a bodily euphoria—it was rare that there were not tears of joy and cheers and giddy laughter throughout the congregation in these moments.

What I’ve realized was so jarring about my initial viewing of Boogie Nights was how familiar the film’s rhetorical structure was to these religious programs. I recognized in Boogie Nights—particularly in Dirk’s arc—my own experience of a church service or youth group meeting or a Christian summer camp: Dirk’s invited into the world of Jack Horner and his glad troupe of actors and crew, it’s glitzy and fun and there’s funky music, they pass the peace of pool parties, and meditate in silence on their film sets as they observe ritualistic offerings to their camera god. And then there’s more music and dancing and laughing before Dirk experiences all the danger—all the death and bodily destruction—that awaits him when he departs from that original haven. Finally, in the last few minutes, he’s offered redemption.

And I experienced my own bodily euphoria at the film’s end, which is to say that, despite the fact that I’d come for “the big dicks, the big tits,” I felt I had indeed experienced something “true and right and dramatic.” Which was a disruptive and somewhat disturbing realization. After all, this was a film about pornography, that depicted graphic nudity and sex, and violence, and sexual violence, and the characters cursed and did drugs and had casual conversations about where to aim their cum. It wasn’t just the experience of that material that gave me pause—there ended up not actually being much in Boogie Nights that I hadn’t seen before. But never before had I felt that there was something…holy in those experiences. Without accompaniment of guilt and shame. How could that be? Shouldn’t I be nervous about dealing with all those evil forces?

As I grappled with the film upon repeat viewings, there was a part of me that wanted to impose a kind of Christian reading on it. Maybe Floyd was Satan, entering the Eden of Jack’s house, feeding the apple of videotape to Adam and Eve, who were maybe Dirk and Jack, or everybody. They’re saved from their sins when they accept God (film) back into their hearts at the end. I was responding to the story of Christian redemption hiding beneath the surface. It’s all there, right? There is an industry of Christian criticism devoted to this move—making “secular” films approachable by explaining how they actually exhibit Biblical principles. I used to do this all the time. I often still do it without even thinking about it, because it’s so difficult to shake off that original critical lens. And, honestly, I think sometimes such readings can be fair and useful.

Other times, as was ultimately the case with Boogie Nights, I find such readings too reductive. After all, Dirk’s narcissism precedes the introduction of videotape. And Jack’s house was never Eden, what with the Colonel bringing underage girls in to overdose on coke and Jack looking on unmoved. Plus, I know more about narrative now—that this narrative structure isn’t exactly uncommon and was present in plenty of films I’d seen before Boogie Nights. More importantly, imposing such an allegorical reading on the film let me off the hook without having to grapple with my own reaction to it.

I did see something true and right here. And I did see a religious quality to it. Among other ideas, I saw in Boogie Nights that selfishness and greed are the perversions, not sex and bodily pleasure; I saw that it’s holy to consider other people, to treat them well, and not subjugate them to the pursuit of pure profit; I saw that you can learn these truths in the confines of a porn set, and in the creation and experience of art. I found the film true and right not in spite of its willingness to deal with what my Sunday school teachers would consider “evil forces,” but because of it. The film disrupted my ideas about where I could find religion and truth, and I couldn’t put that disrupted world back together again. It wasn’t just smoke and mirrors; the world truly was less sturdy than I’d previously thought.

And that wound up being okay.

*

Jack’s right: We start going to the movies for pretty basic bodily pleasures—to laugh, to get aroused, to let our bodies experience a cathartic cry, to feel horror. But the movies that stand out are the ones that ask us to move beyond our own expected pleasure, the ones that make our bodies respond in ways we don’t understand, the magic tricks we can’t figure out at first, or ever; the ones that are “confusing.” Anderson has a habit of making films like this – There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, Phantom Thread. These films all left me shaken on first viewing, and unable to articulate why. But Boogie Nights is the film that taught me it was possible to be grateful that I didn’t receive what I expected from a film, and to keep looking closely at it to figure out what all it might tell me, and how. It’s the film that helped me realize I don’t have to be afraid when I experience things that move my body, but make me question my understanding of the world. And the answer doesn’t have to be to bend those experiences until they fit that previous understanding. Confusion doesn’t have to be the slippery slope away from truth; often it’s a stop on the way to greater truths.

Thank you. Amen.