Boogie Nights is one of my "anytime films," a perennial favorite with appeal no matter my mood.
As a film I would place it among the greats of the 1990s, and as the breakthrough moment for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson I would rank it with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.
And so I turned back to Boogie Nights, a refreshingly nonjudgmental look at the booming pornographic film industry in the 1970s and 1980s in San Fernando Valley, after a screening of Anderson's latest work, The Master, which opens in Toledo today. Because of deadlines, I wasn't able to write a review for The Master, a technically brilliant film (a pretentious way of saying it's artsy) with high aspirations and even higher anticipation. Even with only six feature films to his credit, the 42-year-old moviemaker has deservedly earned a glowing reputation among serious film enthusiasts. For comparison's sake, Steven Spielberg has made nearly twice that amount in his first 16 years of making feature films.
I also found The Master, like some of Anderson's work, to be populated with fascinating characters who never really go anywhere in their two-hour-plus film journey. The film is about an intellectual named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic founder and leader of a new religious movement (read: cult), and Freddie Quell (a sure-to-be Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix) as the drunken and violent ne'er-do-well who stumbles into Lancaster's life and becomes a surrogate son. Theirs is a complicated relationship of envy and respect, anger and love. And that's where the relationship remains -- frozen in place, as with most of the other characters in the film.
On a scale of one to 10 on the character-arc scale, Freddie as the anti-hero protagonist evolves to perhaps a 2 by film's end. And that represents the biggest emotional growth in the film. And by film's end, I wasn't really certain of its point, other than a character study of interesting characters who never change. This is a beautiful painting with no implicit meaning or connection; abstraction for abstraction's sake. But the power of filmmaking is so persuasive and consuming that it often overcomes its own crippling flaws.
That brings me back to Boogie Nights, which I conveniently had waiting for me on my DVR after watching The Master. I decided to revisit the film as a strictly movie-nerd exercise in the evolution of Anderson as a filmmaker. Remarkably, in a strictly technical sense, Anderson hasn't changed much as a director; his skills even 15 years ago were so pronounced that he had full command of cinematic techniques employed by masters of the movies he cites as influences, including Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, and the aforementioned Scorsese and Altman.
Anderson's masterful three-minute opening tracking shot to Boogie Nights is so ambitious and flawless in its execution, I could put it on a loop and watch it repeatedly. His use of contemporary music, a la Scorsese, in Boogie Nights is as important to us as any dialogue to understanding character motivations and influencing moods.
The moving cameras are still omnipresent in Anderson's latest work as well, but his use of music as part of his mosaic of the symbolic has continued to change along the paths of 2007's There Will Be Blood. Not surprisingly, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, is back, delivering another primal score that echoes more of what's on the screen than developing it. This is Anderson's biggest shift as a filmmaker, to allow the power of the moment through his dialogue and gripping performances and the eerie silence of music-less scenes to inform our emotions, connections, and opinions.
As a filmmaker, The Master represents a clear push forward for the director, even as the characters he created stand mostly in place.