Video killed the porno star

by Matt Frucci | 11/3/97 6:00am

Move over Quentin Tarentino, there is a new Golden Boy in town. Paul Thomas Anderson, the 27-year-old writer/director of "Boogie Nights," launches himself onto the scene with his cool, skillful and caring take on the porn industry of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The movie opens with a spectacularly long tracking shot, like those of Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman, starting on the streets of the San Fernando Valley in 1977 and taking us inside a crowded night club. It is an impressive, skillfully staged shot, and there are many like it in the film, in which we are introduced to all the characters.

At the end of the lengthy shot the camera stops on Eddie Adams, a teenage busboy played by Mark Wahlberg (yes, Marky Mark). Confused, misunderstood and unloved by his family, Eddie takes the bus an hour to work everyday hoping something will turn up to give him some direction in life.

It turns out Eddie has a gift. "Everyone is blessed with one special thing," he says. Eddie's blessing turns out to be 13 inches long and he is not afraid to flaunt it.

Enter Jack Horner, a successful porn director played by Burt Reynolds as a manipulative yet caring father figure who tries to turn his coworkers into one giant family. He sees the talent in Eddie and takes him under his wing.

It is when Eddie gets introduced to the porn world that Anderson's direction shines. He moves his camera through the parties, the cocaine sniffing and random sex with such bravura and attention to detail that it seems disgusting, yet glamorous at the same time. No wonder Eddie gets sucked in; we do too.

It is at these parties that we meet Jack's dysfunctional makeshift family. There is Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a porn actress who tries to be everyone's mother even if she cannot be one to her own son. She seems to adopt Eddie, but her relationship with him is both maternal and incestuous.

Then there is Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a teenager who will remove everything on call except for her roller-skates, which never leave her feet. We meet Buck (Don Cheedle), whose catch is that he is a black cowboy, but he secretly holds dreams of owning his own stereo equipment store. And there are others, each funny and sad at the same time.

Eddie quickly falls in love with his new surroundings and agrees to act in films under the name Dirk Diggler. Dirk/Eddie quickly rises to stardom in a series of hilariously bad movies. Anderson shows us the making of these movies, from camera set-ups to the unloving sex, with painstaking detail.

Wahlberg does a fine job as Dirk, portraying him simply as pure naivete. Of course he is going to spend all his money on a new house, a sporty car and big parties. And of course he is going to lose it all.

Soon it is the 1980s, bringing with it an abundance of cocaine and the advent of videotapes, which will forever change the adult film industry. Now anyone with a video camera can make a movie and people no longer go to the theaters.

Despite his continued original direction, the movie loses most of its momentum as soon as Dirk's life begins to crumble. Having spent the first half of the movie creating a seedy, criminal and exciting world, in the second half Anderson leaves us alone with his characters. Unfortunately, he cares for his characters far more than we do.

He shows us his many characters out on their own trying to make it, whether it be by selling drugs or turning tricks, and turns the last part of his film into a wildly inconsistent mess. There are shoot-outs which are funny and there are shoot-outs which are deadly. Some of Dirk's new career choices are pathetic, some, as the record he tries to cut, are hilarious. All their lives go down the tube, but then there is a quick happy ending.

Despite the flawed movie, Anderson is still an unbelievable talent. He manages to lovingly make fun of the '70s and '80s while at the same time transporting us back to them. His characters are all fully developed and well-acted, but there are just too many of them and Anderson wants to tell us too much about them.

"Boogie Nights" is a hard movie to pin down. It is both funny and touching, glamorous and disgusting. The first half will amaze you, the second half will bore you.