Friday, June 26, 2015

Birthday Take: Paul Thomas Anderson in "Boogie Nights" (1997)

Heather Graham in Boogie Nights
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Paul Thomas Anderson
Born: June 26, 1970 (45 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay for Boogie Nights (nominated)

The Take

Among the most revered filmmakers of his generation is Paul Thomas Anderson. It seems like over the course of his run, he has produced inimitable classics at best and films worth discussing at worst. While he may not be the most prolific name to ever step behind a camera, he is one of the more ambitious, often turning Southern California into a landscape full of memorable characters with real conflicts set to great soundtracks. It is why for his prolific output that it is strange to see that he hasn't won any Oscars, despite being nominated for six and even making a strong impression on the screenplay categories. While There Will Be Blood is the closest that he came to having a Bet Picture win, he still has continued to impress with challenging films and ethereal style. He shows no signs of stopping and remains one of the most refreshing voices out there.

Yet if one needs to figure out what summarizes everything great about Anderson in one film, it is Boogie Nights. While there will forever be consistent regard to what his actual best film is (The Master is my favorite, as I started this blog over it), there are few films that centralize his ideals as this one about the porn industry. Featuring a cast of characters and a very bizarre take on the Oedipus Complex, this was only the director's second film and he managed to fill it with dark drama and a few very comedic moments. For a film about such a taboo subject, he managed to make it feel accessible. While it likely benefits from his time growing up in Studio City, it also feels very passionate. It is a love letter to film and the changing styles as well as the way that people changed in that industry during the course of the running time.

It is another thing that seems impressive for a director only on his second film. While the director would go on to make a three hour epic with Magnolia, he didn't exactly skimp on length here, or anywhere in the future. Where this could be problematic for some, he embraces it. Even his opening shot is an homage to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas one take scene. For a director who would later go on to challenge the very medium with tricky camera moves and very odd pacing, he really knew his stuff. In a way, this remains his most stylized movie and also his most natural. Everything feels experimental in a way that keeps the subject matter lively and adds to the implicit humor scattered throughout the film.

It also helps that he just has a knack for casting. With dozens of characters, he manages to make everyone shine. Even the reluctant Burt Reynolds was so good that he also got a nomination off of it. One of the particular achievements is that it made the once questionable talents of Mark Wahlberg shine in the lead role. He was cocky enough to be convincing and clueless enough to make the humor work. Along with memorable turns by Heather Graham and Julianne Moore, there was a lot to like. Did I mention the soundtrack? It's the sweetest part of it all, making the performances go down smooth. It may seem like a very retro film by nature, but it feels like a passionate love story to family and film in ways that the words "porn industry" don't necessarily convey. In that regards, it's a miracle that it is as masterful as it is.

Yet what makes Anderson so great is that he still feels challenging all of these years later. While Boogie Nights is his apex in terms of ensembles, it also reflected that he just know hows to pluck characters and make even the least essential memorable. For that and many other reasons, he remains integral to modern film. He may get weirder and less accessible as time goes on, but he still manages to feel like a personal threat to everyone else. His films feel like challenges to his peers to make something as ambitious and bizarre as him. He wants to see film turn into an art form. It may not always work for some, but at least he knows how to keep those who go along hooked. 

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