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'Boogie Nights': Unhappy Days

It's sometimes said that "the sexual revolution is over - and sex won." What began as a nihilistic anti-establishment experiment in sexual liberation has devolved into what surrounds us today, as barrier after barrier has come crashing down with the glorification of immediate physical satisfaction and the rejection of the natural order (and therefore, of love itself). The nihilists aren't done, though. Yet another wall has come down this month. "Boogie Nights," a film about the porno industry in the '70s and '80s, is out and playing at your favorite mall.

Let me dispense with the plot, as quickly as possible. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a nice looking 17-year-old boy recruited by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a porno movie director looking for fresh talent. Horner learns the lad has a special feature: a massive penis. Under the nom de porn Dirk Diggler, the boy quickly achieves fame and fortune while surrounding himself with a new, loving family.

This "family" is something else, even by Hollywood's standards. Horner's the paternal figure, while his live-in girlfriend, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) provides the maternal role, having abandoned that role with her own child. She also provides cocaine since she's an addict; and to Dirk she provides her body for his first movie, since she's a porn artist herself. (But what are families for?) There's "Rollergirl" (Heather Graham) who will have sex with anyone, anywhere, but under No Circumstances will she take off her rollerblades for anything. (And if you think that's stupid, consider that she's introduced into the movie at its start in 1977; the movie ends in 1983 and she's still wearing them.) There are others, including the producer who longs to confirm the size of Dirk's "torpedo"; an Hispanic assistant who longs to be a porn actor; an assistant who longs for a gay relationship with Dirk; an assistant director who longs not to see his wife having sex with strangers in public, including on Horner's driveway in broad daylight with a crowd watching. This is Hillary's Village on Acid.

For the next hour there is scene after scene of porno shoots: the grunting, the writhing, the nudity - the works. All goes swimmingly well until the '70s end and the greedy '80s come and the dream world evaporates. They become drug addicts, or get themselves killed, or go to prison. Eventually, though, there is redemption as one by one they find fulfillment. Dirk, for example, gets hooked on cocaine, turns against Horner, loses everything, is reduced to masturbating in front of those willing to pay $10 to watch him do so, and almost gets himself killed. He comes back, Prodigal Son-style, to Horner; Papa embraces and forgives him. In the final scene our young lad's back in action, in his dressing room, preparing for another porn shoot and this time we are given the real treat: we get to see his giant member, too!

Silly, unsophisticated, unenlightened me. I missed the art.

The Boston Globe's Jay Carr swoons over this movie because it "refuses to go where convention dictates and consign [the characters] to misery...It sees them all as damaged goods [who] come together to form the year's most unexpected extended dysfunctional family. And it embraces them...It's ultimately about family."

Writing in the Los Angeles Daily News, Bob Strauss tells us that "you can either look at 'Boogie Nights' as another insulting film [about] amoral, drug-addled fools, or you can look at it as the best movie of the past three years." To answer that, he glibly states that "if you detach all the sex stuff" and look at the art you'll understand that it's "not the kind of film that everyone in these parts will be proud of. But I don't think we could have asked for anything better."

One person who doesn't want the audience to detach itself from the rank pornography in the movie is its writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson. "I think, at the very least, my movie is honest," he told one reviewer. "All I can say is that pornography's a complicated topic. And hopefully the way I feel about it, which is pretty messy, is on the screen: I love it, I think it's very harmful, I think it's very sexy, very funny and very sad."

Perhaps this explains why the movie's director character is crushed when told that the artistic porno films of the '70s are going to give way to the mechanical porn videos of the '80s. What "Boogie Nights" tells us, ultimately, is that in the '90s those videos have become films once again. This time, however, they're running in our local movie theaters. And this time it's the movie critics who are calling it "art."