The San Fernando Valley has not fared well in the national imagination nor in my own. A native Manhattanite and longtime San Franciscan, I’ve always thought of the place the way chauvinist New Yorkers do New Jersey — – nice place to make fun of, wouldn’t want to live there.

Even an indigenous San Fernandan like director Paul Thomas Anderson has internalized this Valley view. On the director’s commentary for the DVD of Boogie Nights, for instance, Anderson laments that directors are supposed to carry their life experiences into their films, but he’s “from the f***ing Valley.”

So what’s a young director about to come into his own as a major cinematic voice to do? Anderson turns his experiential lemons into lemonade by presiding over a great American film. Boogie Nights delves into the world of 1970s-80s pornography, when “San Pornando Valley” became a center of erotic film production, as much known for smut as smog. Using a surfeit of screenwriting and directorial gifts, Anderson’s humanistic sensbility eschews judgment of characters as flawed as you might expect, imbuing them with a vacuity paradoxically complex and a self-delusion touchingly admirable. Two of Anderson’s subsequent works, There Will Be Blood and The Master, may have more ambitious themes, but I’m not sure they’re better films.

An ensemble piece, the movie follows about a dozen people toiling in the porn industry of L.A., on display here in all its sun-dappled, coke-soaked, line-dancing, pool-partying, pre-AIDS glory. That’s the first half, before the 1980s come along to present the bill for all the post-Watergate fun.

The main character, played by Mark Wahlberg, is Eddie Adams, or “Dirk Diggler” on screen. He’s a teenager whose psychic destruction at home is redeemed by an anatomical gift big enough to attract the attention of even — or especially — the porn pros. (The character is based on the real-life John Holmes.) The film has a familiar celebrity-gone-wrong, rags-to-riches-and-back-again structure, but with the added twist of the entire trajectory unfolding within a highly developed porno subculture.

In this golden age of X-rated entertainment, breathless reviews, awards ceremonies, documentary appearances, and box office success confer status and boost egos among the performers. Such trappings also foster a craving for legitimacy and a pretense to craft. When Dirk sweeps the adult film awards to the adulation of his peers, he is earnest in his resolution to “keep rocking and rolling and making better films.” The notion that cinematic quality can flourish alongside big tits and money shots is most faithfully carried by director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), whose soul of an artist must coexist with the aesthetics of a pornographer. Jack is in search of what sounds like the holy grail of thoughtful erotic visual stylists everywhere: making a film in which “after [the audience climaxes], they can’t leave until they find out how the story ends.” Later, when Horner and his cinematographer/editor (Ricky Jay) are looking at the rough cut of a patently ridiculous scene from the lurid action-adventure boy’s fantasy they’ve put to film, Jack says in all sincerity, “This is the best work we’ve ever done…This is the film I want them to remember me by.”

This notion of porno-integrity is also expressed in the film’s central, symbolic conflict: A cinematic purist, Jack is reluctant to make the transition to shooting on video, even in the face of the obvious economic advantages. “I will never make a movie on videotape,” says Jack to a rival porn maven (Philip Baker Hall) pushing for the changeover. “If it looks like shit and it sounds like shit, it’s shit.”

And that is exactly what is so poignantly terrific about Boogie Nights. The attempt to sustain a compelling narrative, an artful look, in the midst of the base visual gratification that is really on offer is emblematic of the ethos of Anderson’s entire suite of characters. Broken individuals, born of shattered homes, drug addiction, ditsy thinking and a distinct lack of talent and taste, they nevertheless aspire to writing poetry, making music, opening businesses, painting pictures… with virtually no facility for any of it. There’s a reason these people have wound up in porn, one thinks, but the seeds of dignity survive in the striving.

These are complex portraits, achieved by avoiding depictions of obvious victimhood and by granting the characters moments of comic grace. More important, Anderson has downplayed the kind of cynicism you’d think would be an occupational hazard in the industry. One of the film’s most forlorn shots is of Jack, having finally succumbed to marketplace realities, walking through a warehouse full of thousands of videotapes, whatever magic-of-cinema that had previously trickled down to his level now completely used up.

That shift to a mass-produced medium is intercut and paralleled with the downward trajectory of the characters’ lives. As the community that Jack’s troupe members have found and the illusion of normalcy they have indulged in falls apart, Philip Baker Hall’s character offers this maxim for the future: “Video tells the truth.”

And an unflattering truth it is. In that sequence, Jack and his porn starlet “Roller Girl” (“I never take off my skates”), played by Heather Graham, make a video in which they pick up a college student in order to capture on tape the fulfillment of an average Joe’s fantasy. But he turns out to be the same kid who made a disturbingly lewd gesture to Roller Girl in high school. As her pre-porn identity comes rushing back with a vengeance, the kid mauls her while Jack admonishes him to “show some respect.”

“This is Roller Girl,” he says, incredulously. “Make it sexy.”

But it’s not. At that point, the limo they are riding in, the tux Jack is wearing, and the mirage of Roller Girl all dolled up like Marilyn Monroe cannot ward off the true nature of the carnal transactions they have been engaging in. And when the veneer of glamour and high-minded artistry falls away, what are you left with but the same sex-crazed jerk who harassed you in high school? The sequence concludes with a brutal act of violence.

Boogie Nights, its filmmaking both flamboyant and nuanced, seamlessly sustains several such tonal shifts. Right from the dazzling start, Anderson coalesces just the right elements to make his points. The opening Scorsese-esque long take cranes and dollies and pans as it moves from the street into a disco, weaving through the dance floor while introducing us to a small platoon of characters in remarkably economical hits of dialogue. The effect is one of community and group intimacy; only when the camera finally comes to rest on outsider Mark Wahlberg’s sourpuss mug is this feeling of fluidity jarred.That’s just one virtuoso sequence of several, the sum of which may have been considered a triumph of style over story if Anderson weren’t so unerring in his deployment of technique in the service of the latter. He introduces the plot-changing Philip Baker Hall’s character, for instance, by shooting him entering a room from four different angles, each one dissolving into the next. He zooms in on a coke-snorting Julianne Moore (playing porn star “Amber Waves”) as the heartbreaking and purely visual solution to one scene’s mini-mystery: whether a boy telephone caller’s mother is in the house. And he knows to linger on Don Cheadle ordering different varieties of donuts for a full minute, exploiting to the fullest the individual childlike facial expressions the actor marries to each choice.

Many of the standout sequences comprise scenes unified by a soundtrack that consists at various times of period pop songs, original music, and punctuating noises like the metronomic tolling of a bell. This blend of sound and visuals reaches an apex in the penultimate scene, one of the best-directed you or I will ever see on this earth. Riffing off of the real-life Wonderland murders, it features a hopped-up Alfred Molina in a silver robe and underwear talking crazy to three nearly-as-stoned would-be ripoff artists, while an armed bodyguard scrutinizes the fake drugs they have brought to sell. Throw in an impromptu round of Russian Roulette and a shootout, set it all to the ’80s pop hits “Sister Christian,” “Jessie’s Girl,” and “99 Luftballons,” then complete the filmic concoction by tossing in a young Chinese male intermittently setting off firecrackers, and you’ve got a scene so filled to the brim with tension it’s practically preternatural.

Finally, the acting: Wahlberg has never been better, and Anderson coaxes a fine, modulated performance from Burt Reynolds. But it’s the remarkable Julianne Moore who you can barely take your eyes off of. Sometimes coked out, but mostly numbed by a restraint that conceals a deep despair, she’s as remote as if separated from the world by some sort of cellophane membrane. Meanwhile, John C. Riley as Dirk Diggler’s dim-bulb sidekick, a multifaceted hack, paints every move a burlesque of self-importance. Trust me, you haven’t really lived until you’ve seen a hopelessly off-key Wahlberg laying down godawful vocals to an original rock opus, followed by a reverse shot of Riley grooving to the sound. Take note of unforgettable turns in smaller roles by Robert Ridgely, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Thomas Jane (later of Hung fame).

The film concludes bittersweetly, before the inevitable destructive end that many in the porn business have suffered. The troupe has recoalesced as a makeshift family at Jack Horner’s home, and as what Anderson calls “broken circus music” plays, we get a visual echo of the opening shot in the disco. As the camera comes to rest on Jack standing behind Amber, readying herself in the mirror before a scene, she asks him, “What are you looking at?”

“The foxiest bitch in the world,” he says, oblivious that this is anything but a compliment. Amber stares sadly on, and we cut to Dirk psyching himself up to perform. It’s only then that we finally get a look at his member (a prosthesis, per Anderson and common sense), which has up till then done admirable service as the film’s MacGuffin. It’s flaccid, and Dirk tries to work himself into fighting shape by invoking his porn personas, the Valley kid he once was forever lost.

Nineteen seventies porn in the Valley — in lesser hands, Boogie Nights would have been a joke on a joke … on a joke. But instead it’s a work of art.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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