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Boogie Nights (1997)

Perhaps the first point to make is how remarkable that it took the "respectable" motion picture business so long to try the shadow world of pornography as a subject. Then recollect that in Paul Thomas

Anderson's brilliant and very poised film there is hardly any "real" sex—I mean the kind of happy, relieved, self-discovering sex that couples tend to have in most of our movies. In other words, the manufacturing of industrial sex has eclipsed the authentic thing. That is a truth with one exception, and it's crucial: in the midst of the porn production, Little Bill's wife seems utterly unimpressed by the hard-core celluloid job. She just wants a small closet where she can rut away with anyone and everyone. And when Little Bill glimpses that, he is devastated by the horror and kills everyone involved—himself included.

What are we to make of that, especially those of us who have unmistakably used movie sex as a vital part of our sentimental education? It sometimes seems to me that one of the most fascinating things about sex in the movies—and no one can deny the creepy affinity that exists—has been to educate a large public in how to regard and exercise sex in an age when its widespread use became not just possible but a source of enjoyment (and indeed, in some cases the epitome of all pleasures). And so, for the period up until the ruin of censorship, sexuality was, like horror, a thing all the more potent for being so reticently shown. And then moviemaking (the respectable pursuit) had to ask itself what it was doing when

Amber Waves and Dirk Diggler (or figures like them) could do it in the long shot and the close-up in the same half hour, with little more feeling than that of vague family fondness (and that rather distant warmth is maybe the most shocking and disturbing thing in Anderson's film).

So this was an amazing choice of material, long before one faced the actual depiction of life at the Jack Horner studio. And while

All of which omits to say how very funny so much of Boogie Nights is—the sexual smoothness of Rollergirl (Heather Graham), for instance, is entirely human yet lodged in the annals of satire. And Mark Wahlberg is so undeveloped in most other respects that his humungous proportions in one part amount to a cartoon triumph of comedy. Burt Reynolds is sublime as Horner—it is a very telling sign of the passing of one cultural era to another that Warren Beatty declined that role! For the rest, the Anderson stock company was taking shape: Julianne Moore (more stunned than stunning as Amber), John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Does the guy only hire triple-decker names?) No, there's Don Cheadle, Alfred Molina (terrifying), Robert Ridgely, and several others.

Some films are just for seeing, and some are for talking about. You could run a seminar on the nature of film after Boogie Nights.

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