For Want of a Nail: I Watch “Boogie Nights”

For Want of a Nail: I Watch “Boogie Nights” September 15, 2014

Over the counter with a shotgun–

Pretty soon, everybody’s got one.

I’m in a fever when I’m beside her, desire


Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want!

And I would ask, “What do you want?”

But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!

–Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

Boogie Nights, the story of the rise and fall of a ’70s porn star, is a simple and frankly moralistic tale. On the surface it’s about people who don’t understand themselves very well, grabbing at anything that glitters: sex, drugs, music, violence, anything that gets you out of your own head, anything awesome and fun.

I obviously relate pretty strongly to this desire for the awesome and fun. I liked that Boogie Nights does in fact make a lot of that Cities of the Plain stuff look fun: not joyful, but fast and thrilling. I liked how music worked like a drug, and how violence slowly began to enter the narrative as, for some people in some ways, another form of fun. (Everybody says it and they’re right: The “Jesse’s Girl” scene is amazing, a brute-force classic of on-screen crazy.)

Under that surface, though, the desires of the main characters are much more bourgeois. The women want family, mother-and-child bonding, and they settle for a simulacrum of family just like they’re settling for a simulacrum of sex. (That isn’t me being Catholic–that’s pretty solidly what the movie is doing, the parallel it’s drawing.) One woman neglects her actual child, and loses custody because of her porn career, drug use, irresponsibility and unreliability; and she tries to solace herself with some coked-up mothering of another porn star. The women want family and respectability, while the men want success and fame. That’s a slightly reductive summary but not super-reductive since, again, this is a pretty simple (and powerful) story to begin with.

The main character, who goes by the nom de porn “Dirk Diggler” (Mark Wahlberg), is a fairly dumb dude who just wants to be successful in his chosen line of work. He is not smart or self-reflective or self-destructive really, so you’d think I would find him boring or off-putting, but it’s part of the movie’s strength that he comes across as winsome, an unprotected innocent who has never been taught that ambition will destroy you. All of the characters, really, have this untaught air about them, this naivete which their world is going to use to take them apart piece by piece.

The acting is great, I mean you just have to list the players–Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, all hitting hard–and the candy-coated colors are my favorite thing in the world, the Bubble Yum aesthetic of it all. I did not love this movie the way Victor Morton does. I felt like it was really only doing one thing, and not a thing quite big enough for it to become a favorite or touchstone movie for me. But the thing it does, it does successfully, 100%–I don’t think it leaves any aspect of its project unfulfilled.

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