Style and Substance

Looking at a scene from ‘Boogie Nights’

Mark Wahlberg in 'Boogie Nights'
Mark Wahlberg in 'Boogie Nights'
Mark Wahlberg in ‘Boogie Nights’

Staccato edits. Extreme camera movements. Bombastic audio assaults. All are trademarks of contemporary American cinema. P.T. Anderson’s second feature-length film, Boogie Nights, employs many of the techniques favored by a generation of filmmakers weaned on Scorsese and MTV. The filmgoer is quickly overwhelmed by Anderson’s giddy pyrotechnics and visual bravura.

Then, for one moment near the film’s end, the camera lingers, the volume lessens and a golden ray of sunlight illuminates a gaudily appointed lair in the San Fernando Valley circa 1983…

Firecrackers. Coke-crazed Molinas. Gun-toting behemoths. These three parts, mixed together with a healthy portion of early-80’s kitsch, combine seamlessly to set the stage for the turning point of the film.

Anderson ushers his characters into the “cave” occupied by the trickster character played flawlessly by Alfred Molina. It is here, scheming to make a quick buck, that Mark Wahlberg’s character, Dirk Diggler, will experience a moment of true transcendence, set to the strains of the popular music of the day.

Anderson utilizes all aforementioned elements to create a heightened sense of tension within the scene. This tension is further underscored by the use of period music to highlight specific moments of note. One such instance occurs as the tape containing the music runs out and a silence fills the room, broken only by the disconcerting “snap” of the firecracker.

Heather Graham in 'Boogie Nights'
Heather Graham in ‘Boogie Nights’

The filmgoer is made to feel that without the driving force of the music, all activity in the room will cease (as it does) and each character, save for Molina’s bodyguard, will experience their own personal meltdown when deprived of their collective heartbeat. It is this break in the action that allows Diggler his one sane moment in the entire film and sets the stage for his cathartic shift of priorities leading up to his final redemption.

Immediately following the Russian roulette sequence, Diggler’s gaze becomes transfixed on something out of scene. Instead of cutting away to the object of his attention, Anderson holds the shot, allowing the audience to absorb the import of this moment. Standing in stark contrast to the intricate tracking shots and violent editing techniques seen earlier in the film, this shot presents a detailed study of Diggler’s apotheosis. As the camera waits patiently, Diggler reconciles his past with his imminent future, and comes to a decision, on-screen, as to the direction he must move.

It is precisely the moment that Diggler recognizes the destructive nature of his current path that Anderson snaps his film back into character. We are once again in the decadent Valley as the hard rock fantasy world of Diggler’s past (embodied by “Jessie’s Girl”) gives way to the bittersweet melody (“99 Luftballoons”) accompanying his final descent to the bottom.

This descent, however, is cut short as Diggler miraculously exits Molina’s “cave” unharmed, experiencing a symbolic rebirth into the world and eventual atonement with the father-figure represented by Jack Horner.

It is this atonement that brings Anderson’s film full circle. Diggler has crossed the threshold and slain the terrible monster; namely, his own ego. In a rare moment seldom seen in contemporary film, a character has undergone an on-screen internal transformation, without the aid of distracting visual effects, with only the camera to convey this powerful moment to the audience.

J. Brad Wilke

J. Brad Wilke completed his first 16mm short, “Downsizing” which screened at the One Reel Film Festival in Seattle in August and the Wilmington Independent Film Fest on in September.

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