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Knows It When He Sees It

Paul Thomas Anderson got Hollywood's attention with a look at the '70s porno-film world.

October 12, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Before you rush out to see "Boogie Nights," Paul Thomas Anderson's epic about the pornography industry, there's something you should know: This is not a pornographic film, nor is it a film about pornography. It's a film about the people in the pornography industry, and, as such, it's more apt to move you than to turn you on.

It's also apt to make you laugh.

Conceived by Anderson when he was 17 and under the sway of "This Is Spinal Tap," the scathing parody of the rock 'n' roll world released in 1984, "Boogie Nights" is set in the San Fernando Valley in the late '70s when, unbeknown to most of us, the porn industry experienced something akin to a golden period. Director-writer Anderson has a keen eye for both the surreality of making a living by having sex on film and the bad taste that pervaded the disco scene, and his film is as hilarious as it is distressing.

"Boogie Nights," made for $15 million and due out Friday from New Line, features an ensemble cast that includes Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle and John C. Reilly. Also starring are Burt Reynolds, whose performance is being touted as his most accomplished in years; Alfred Molina, who does a memorable turn as a crazed drug dealer; and Mark Wahlberg, whose work should bring an end to any snickering about Marky Mark, the rapper and underwear model.

Something of a boy wonder, the 27-year-old Anderson is a self-taught filmmaker who flunked a year of high school before graduating in 1989, then hit the ground running. His debut feature, "Hard Eight," starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson and was released early this year; this, his second film, has a running time of 2 1/2 hours, which makes it an act of bravado worthy of Orson Welles (who was 25 when he completed his magnum opus, "Citizen Kane"). An unabashed fan with an impressive knowledge of film, Anderson exudes an unbridled enthusiasm, and it's easy to see why gifted people want to work with him.

"One of the most widely held misconceptions about the porn industry is that it's pure evil and the people who work in it aren't human beings," Anderson says over dinner at a hotel in West Hollywood, in reflecting on the characters he created for "Boogie Nights." "It's said that nobody in show business had a happy childhood, and absolutely nobody in the porn business had a happy childhood.

"The cliche of the wide-eyed kid who arrives in Hollywood by bus looking for stardom only to have their dream destroyed is something you see repeatedly in the porn business. The breakdown of the family is one of the themes of 'Boogie Nights,' and on one level it's a story about a group of damaged people who come together to form a kind of surrogate family."

"Boogie Nights" also functions as a historical film in that it documents a period following the sexual revolution of the '60s when porn almost went legit. The early '70s saw America's middle class dabbling in recreational drugs, wife swapping, key parties (see "The Ice Storm" for more on that) and the mainstreaming of films like "I Am Curious, Yellow," "Deep Throat," "Behind the Green Door" and "The Devil in Miss Jones." By the late '70s, however, the liberal wave of the '60s had crested and the culture began swinging to the right. Something that had a greater effect on the porn industry, though, was the arrival of video.

"Sex films that also had plot and character could've been developed into a great film genre, but we only saw the beginnings of that and the glory days never happened," Anderson explains. "When video arrived in the late '70s, amateurs flooded the field, and because video is so cheap, you didn't have to think things through. With film, you had to pay attention because it was so expensive; with video, the attitude became 'Let's just shoot a bunch of footage and we'll cut it into something later.' "

Contrary to what one might assume, the AIDS epidemic had little to do with bringing the glory days of porn to an end.

"Condoms are used in gay porn, but you rarely see them in straight porn--the performers assume they're safe because they have sex mostly with each other," Anderson says. "It is a cloistered community, but it isn't so incestuous that they're not moving outside the pack and having sex with other people--I know for a fact that they are. Their sense that they're not in danger is misguided."

Anderson was born and raised in Studio City, where he currently lives with his girlfriend.

"My dad was this sort of avant-garde guy who did all kinds of weird things. He was a true original and anybody who met him never forgot him," Anderson says of his father, Ernie, a well-known voice-over announcer who died in February.

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