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I think I was slightly talking out my ass about this one, but not in a conscious way; I'm not sure I was really conveying what works about this film.

My favorite character was the cameraman.

I liked his attitude: he’s quiet and subdued, but you can tell how he feels about things, both what he admires and what doesn’t impress him.

About halfway through Boogie Nights — a Goodfellas-like story about a young guy nicknamed Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) who’s become a star in what’s called the “adult” film industry — this cameraman and his director, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), are getting their first look at an action-and-sex movie they have shot, circa late ’70s. Horner is proud; he had wanted to make a sex movie with an actual plot, a movie about more than the physical act, and he feels he’s done it. (What we see of this Dirk-starring film is rather like a lower-budget Starsky & Hutch with implied nudity.)

The cameraman is proud of the movie, too. Here we see him at his most enthusiastic in Boogie Nights: he quietly says, “It’s a real film, Jack.”

That’s high praise from this guy.

A year or two passes: Horner and Dirk have had a falling-out, and Horner has moved on to a new male star. However, the quality (heh heh) of the films has fallen; this new guy just doesn’t have Dirk’s on-screen charisma, and if that weren’t bad enough, the business is changing, to the detriment of Horner’s dreams of what adult films can be.

So he and the cameraman are watching this new flick, shot on lower-quality video with a lower-quality star, and you can tell Horner thinks this represents everything he feels has gone wrong with his business. He turns to the cameraman for his opinion of the movie.

“It is what it is,” he says.

You can tell he’s disappointed — but you also can tell that he doesn’t want to add to Horner’s woes by complaining, because he knows Jack has a clear view of what’s wrong here.

I understand that guy.

Certainly, I’ve never done his exact job — shooting footage for those types of films — but I like how the cameraman represents a piece of reality in the often unreal industry depicted in Boogie Nights. He knows who he is and what he does. He also adapts as much as he can as the business changes. One of the last times we see him, the cameraman is directing a scene of one of those “adult” films. I’d better not describe what he’s directing, because I value my job, but his attitude remains as it was…even as he directs a scene he knows is unreal, contrived, and almost a parody of sex — a scene that’s not really about love.

The entire movie is not really about love.

Boogie Nights, all two hours and 30-or-so minutes of it, is a curiously distancing film. It is full of confident filmmaking technique — director Paul Thomas Anderson knows what he’s doing, which makes me curious about his upcoming film Magnolia — but both its basic design and the subject it describes create that feeling of distance.

The acting is happily well-done. Mark Wahlberg has an almost puppy-dog-like, gentle charisma that carries him through the movie; Heather Graham, as the female star “Roller Girl,” conveys a personality that is an arresting mix of the naïve, the tough and the scared; Julianne Moore does a wonderful job portraying someone who desperately tries to act like a mother, whether to her son or to Roller Girl; William H. Macy, as always, gives the viewer a sense of a lot of surging thoughts going on behind his contradictory wrinkled-baby face…

…but the viewer is unable to truly get a stake in these people.

That’s what happens when the characters in a movie don’t really know who they are.

Watch the last scene of “Boogie Nights” not for the much-discussed moment of nudity in it, but for how Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk — whose understanding of himself is not near the level the cameraman character has — thinks of himself.

It’s the final piece of unreality in an interestingly unreal film.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
slipjig
Jun. 13th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
Ricky Jay is made of awesomeness.
chris_walsh
Jun. 14th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
Which I've since come to learn. I didn't yet know who he was when I wrote that; I considered editing and footnoting the review to say who he was, but I thought "the cameraman" remained identification enough.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )