In the '70s, some critics began complaining about they called the cinema of allusion: specifically, those American movie brats like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader who constructed their contemporary urban dramas as distant remakes of, or homages to, Old Hollywood classics such as Vertigo (1958) and The Searchers (1955).
Not only were these '70s movies (according to their detractors) unimaginative and derivative, they were also weirdly ungrounded, dressed up with nowhere to go – mainly because they were films made by buffs, more consumed by fantasies of a movie world than any troubles in the real world.
Such carping today seems quaint, old-fashioned, moralistic. Since the '70s, postmodernism in the arts has blessed every imaginable practice of allusion, and filmmakers such as Scorsese are deified, beyond critique. But Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights – itself a patchwork of allusions to most of the key American films made since '72 – resurrects these niggling doubts about the originality and substance of current cinema.
There is not a single element in this film which cannot be attributed to some other movie – a fact of which Anderson is probably proud. Like Casino (1996), it is about the rise and fall of a tawdry, amoral American industry – in this case, pornographic filmmaking. As in Goodfellas (1990) or Scarface (1983), we follow this milieu through the brash, glitzy, disco years of the '70s to inglorious burn-out in the '80s. As in Tarantino, there is a flip, ironic pop song to mark every step of the downward journey.
The plot is conjured loosely from the depressing real-life tales of such porn stars as John Holmes and Marilyn Chambers. Young Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) leaves home and – rebaptised as Dirk Diggler – quickly rises to fame in the porn trade. Eddie's almost superhuman sexual prowess proves a godsend to filmmaker Jack (Burt Reynolds) and his entourage of deluded, wannabe actors, shady financiers and hedonistic hangers-on.
Even the stylistic touches and witty one-liners come from other movies. When Anderson sends his camera spinning around the room and leaping from one character to another, he apes Altman. When Eddie gets hooked on the delusion of being a quality filmmaker, his famous last words – "This is the one they'll remember me for" – are taken from Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). And the sad finale is a pure steal from Raging Bull (1980) – with genital exhibitionism added.
Perhaps this tidal wave of allusion would not be such a problem if the film had any real wit, dynamics or seriousness. Its tone is relentlessly glib and superior. Its parade of failures and breakdowns – as each character descends into their own special hell of addiction, violence, perversion or madness – is predictable from the first fifteen minutes. The film's rhythm is tired and its mood generally flat, artificially primed by gratuitous, jejune shocks.
What is this film about, ultimately? If Anderson assumes that the porn industry is a metaphor for American society, then that assumption is facile and yields little. The redemptive theme so beloved of Anderson – the ultimately supportive extended family of porn workers, like the interconnected community members in Magnolia (1999) – is forced and emotionally unconvincing.
Despite its occasional high-spirited humour and some fine performances (particularly from Wahlberg and Julianne Moore), Boogie Nights amounts to the dispiriting spectacle of a bunch of low-life losers partying until they drop – and only a movie brat could rest content with that.
MORE Anderson: positive flip on Punch-Drunk Love
© Adrian Martin February 1998