Mother, Lover, or Coworker?

Paper by Sydney Pahle.

Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA as some refer to him) was born in Studio City, California on June 27, 1970. His father was a well-known voice actor. He dropped out of college, including a film school, before returning home and becoming a self-taught director. Robert Altman is widely known as one of PTA’s film idols that have greatly influenced his work. He has a very distinct style, which can be recognized throughout his films. Boogie Nights (1997) was his first full-length film, a fictional narrative and slight mockumentary, which he both directed and wrote. He later went on to direct other successful films such as Magnolia (1999) and Punch Drunk Love (2002). (“Paul Thomas Anderson”)

Not coincidentally, three out of his first four full-length films all have considerable amounts of shooting and setting locations in California’s San Fernando Valley, the desert suburban area outside of Los Angeles where PTA grew up. Many enjoy how he lovingly portrays the Valley for all its oddities, despite its common reputation as a cultureless consumer wasteland. (Lambert) In Boogie Nights, his focus on the 1970’s and 1980’s porn industry, with many Valley shooting locations, is fitting. The Valley is actually known as the porn capital of the world. PTA knew the in’s and out’s of the film industry from family, and definitely knew of its demoralizing nature. In 1997 PTA told a news journalist that “the general search for family, the urge to latch onto anyone you can find who can give you love and attention and affection, that’s universal… but it’s doubled in the film industry, and it’s tripled in the porn industry.” Many of PTA’s films incorporate the idea of a makeshift family, and the Drama/Comedy Boogie Nights is a prime example of this. (Strauss)

In Boogie Nights, a group of rejects find acceptance in an unconventional place. A specific scene of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) first filming session establishes the peculiar family dynamic present. In this scene, the motherly care of a seasoned adult film artist, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), blurs the lines between romantic, platonic, and familial love while showing the power of human connection. A number of stylistic elements portray a new spin on family relationships and acceptance through the porn industry. The scene marks a shifting point in Eddie’s transformation from busboy to porn star, and launches us into the winding narrative of a porn groups rise and fall.

Eddie is a well endowed 17 year old high school drop out from a small town in the San Fernando Valley. Eddie meets a pornography director, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) at a trending disco club where he busses tables. Jack notices Eddie’s good looks and ambition, so he encourages him to accompany him with his work, specifically with his dream to pursue artistic pornography. Eddie leaves his abusive mother during a particularly bad fight, and enters Jack’s golden world of porn at full speed.

This particular scene brings us Eddie’s first onscreen sex act. The scene prior shows Jack going over the action item list for the day, and specifically requesting Eddie to be switched in to this act with Amber. The proposed film Eddie will be acting in, is of a woman interviewing a man for a lead role in, get this, a porn film. We see Eddie walk through a door and enter the set, which is located in the basement of Jacks mini-mansion home. Other actors and camera crew are lounging in the back of the room, where Eddie enters. Eddie walks over to Jack and listens to his cue instructions with Amber. Eddie speaks privately with Jack, then privately with Amber as they acquaint themselves in the faux office setting. Eddie also speaks with Little Bill regarding cue instructions, and then is brought behind a faux door to use when the filming begins. “Action” is called, and Eddie and Amber start their scripted lines within the office. The scene escalates and Eddie is asked to unzip his pants by Amber, the interviewer. The film crew and bystanding actors are intrigued by Eddie’s size. The camera crew has to pause Eddie and Amber’s performance to change magazines, but eventually it continues on. At the end of the scene, Jack is pleased with the performance, but upset that the crew missed the end “come” shot. Eddie tells Jack that he could easily do it again for a close up amusing everyone.

This succession of shots skillfully uses stylistic elements, such as mise-en-scene, cinematography, acting and more to create emotional and intellectual effects. As the scene unfolds, we begin to see a family dynamic where Jack and Amber, mainly, are parenting Eddie, but where others also take on roles of a family member. We appreciate these new bonds because we have previously gathered evidence to see that Eddie is warm hearted. After his mother’s verbal abuse in a prior scene, we are invested in him and want him to feel loved and succeed.
In regards mise en scene, these shots incorporate setting and costume to allow us viewers to experience the aura of the 1970’s, and the ideas of open mindedness and free love associated with it. Eddie and Amber wear fitted colored suits and neatly done hairstyles. This incorporates the formality of the film they are acting in with the style of the decade. Jack wears an orange colored short sleeve and an ascot, both quintessential of the era. The other off-scene actors wear silky floral robes or go shirtless. This shows their comfort and laid back attitude, as well as their body positivity. The basement of Jacks house has Robins egg blue walls, floral wall paper, marquee lighted mirrors and round, warm hued boho lamps. This radiates the feel of a 70’s home with a warm emotional tone. The fact that the professional business takes place in a home’s basement is quite unconventional for a traditional American, but these people don’t seem to mind. These clothing and setting choices allows us to open our minds to the alternative path Eddie, and others, are taking towards self worth and ultimately acceptance. Many may begin this sex scene with a condescending eye, but the style of the mise-en-scene is natural and effortless; and therefore encourages viewers to set aside personal prejudices. This is certainly necessary to accept and notice alternative family relationship bonds.

This cinematography of this shot succession includes a vast number of elements that portray the theme of rejects finding alternative bonds. First of all, the lighting in this scene is almost always low key. It incorporates many dark and medium shadows with bright spot lights and high contrast. This is mostly noticeable in the shots where Amber and Eddie are filming on set. This lighting induces feelings of empathy and appreciation for Amber, who coddles Eddie with encouragement and warmth. Feelings of empathy are also felt for Eddie, who asks for consent for almost every little detail of the sexual act before proceeding. This allows us to see the two in a mother/son dynamic. In shots where we see the camera crew and off scene actors however, the lighting is slightly less contrasted. This pulls less attention to these characters, and encourages us to focus on the important storyline of the on screen sexual act.

Furthermore in regards to cinematography, the lenses rack focus changes throughout the shots. Long shots with multiple people have complete depth of field. However close up shots of Eddie and Amber on set have a narrow depth of field. Some shots seem to urge us to feel as if we are really in the scene, right there kissing with them. The focusing is so shallow that we can see some parts of Ambers face but not others. It feels messy, but in a stylistic way. In a ‘I’m too hot and passionate to care about focusing’ way. This allows us to really feel the bond between Amber and Eddie forming. In one shot during the “changing mag” break, Little Bill stands in front of the two on scene, with his back facing them, until they are ready to roll again. The camera focus shifts from Amber and Eddie to Little Bill and stays there. His head masks their naked bodies in the frame, and our attention is guided there. Although this human block may just be standard film or pornography set protocol, it feels like a kind and polite gesture. This induces the audience to understand that despite the inherent exposure of the porn stars bodies in their chosen work, they are still offered respect in all possible ways.

In addition, camera movement and shot length play a huge role in the cinematic style of these shots. Essentially, the camera hardly ever stops moving. It drifts from person, tracking in and tracking out, panning left and right. The camera replicates the human experience of being present in the scene, turning our heads and noticing things. The tracking is smooth, but with just enough shakiness to look hand held and call attention to itself. This scene takes advantage of our association between shakiness and documentary realism to bring us into the scene. This is more so apparent when the shots change and incorporate a still camera, during the on set camera POV shots. During those shots, we feel distant from the scene, as if we are watching it on a screen somewhere else. These dolly effects coupled with the use of extremely long takes in this scene creates an intimate relationship between us viewers and the emotions in the film. In much of this scene, the characters must be silent, but we can see and feel what they are thinking due to the long panning shots. Since more time is spent with each character, we see changes in their emotional state without the use of dialog. This is helpful, because in much of this scene, the characters must be “quiet on set”. From our close intimacy with the atmosphere of the room, we sense a warm, encouraging crowd. Many shots show the camera crew and lounging actor characters in admiration for Eddie’s size, for example, by transitioning from their casual faces to their interested and content smirks.

The cinematic use of alternate ratios in these shots draws a great deal of attention to the time period. The use of the 1.75:1 ratio in some shots, rather than the 2.35:1 ratio of the rest of the film, notifies us that we are looking through the lense of the on set camera. The squared ratio is paired with a flickering border and a grainy texture from the type of film used. This gives it a very vintage feel, which was fitting for the film cameras used in the 70’s. The juxtaposition between the on set camera POV and general camera POV furthers our intimacy with the group by pushing us to see the rectangular ratio as real life, as if we were on this set along with the characters.

The acting in this series of shots holds a great deal of meaning to the theme. The acting can be considered naturalistic, except for the on screen lines of Amber and Dirk which felt non-naturalistic. More importantly, the acting paired with the framing and composition of the long takes used allow us viewers to sense a strong relationship between the characters. Long takes encourage ensemble acting, where actors work together continuously in a single shot. This calls attention to the acting rather than the editing and transitions, which in turn intensifies the emotional impact of the plot. We feel an invisible bond between the camera crew and the lounging actors as they often change facial expression in unison. We feel bonds even more so between Amber, Eddie, and Jack, who exchange dialog and physical interactions loaded with meaning. Jack refers to Eddie as “my boy” and often pats him on the back, much like a father figure. His face often looks stiff, but he is proud and excited for Eddie. This feels similar to a traditional paternal role. Amber senses Eddie’s nervousness before their on screen act, and caresses his face while asking if he is okay. She refers to Eddie as “honey” as she constantly reassures any doubts that he displays. Her eyes and facial expression remains doe eyed and understanding, and from it we sense the motherly love she has for Eddie.

This family role that is impressed on the audience – of a mother, father and son, along with other family members – is anything but ordinary. If we accept this as a “family”, a mother is having sex with her son, as his father watches. However, because of the aforementioned stylistic elements, we begin to normalize and appreciate the alternative lifestyle that is displayed. By the end of the scene, Eddie has received praise and encouragement from his new family. He is happy the sex scene was successful, and begins to transform out of his insecure tendencies, as we later see.
The scene was key in the development of the family atmosphere between these characters but also in the function of Eddie as the protagonist. He is the star which will later struggle and fall due to certain ignorces. This film is very long, at 2 and a half hours, so it is easy to get lost in each segment of the three act structure. This however, can be seen as a metaphor for the course the characters follow in the plot line. Although the characters find a family to depend on, they are tempted with drugs, fame, and old habits, among other things. They get separated from each other and hit rock bottom at a certain point. For much of the film, the events turn dark, such as when Amber goes on a cocaine binge, when Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Jack are fist fighting with a random boy, or when Eddie is getting beat up after losing his monetary stability. But in the end, Eddie is reunited with Jack when he asks for his support again. The events feel messy, but that may be the intended effect we should take away from it. Implicitly, we learn that life is messy, hard, and dangerous, as we often understood from the various murders in the film, but there remains hope, in life, if we find connections with the right people.

This scene, after a little closer examining, is not just a random porno sex scene. This is the first scene in the film that gives us blantuant evidence that these characters love each other. Once we recognize the matriarchal role of Amber, we see the vital role she plays in Eddie’s success. The same can be said in relation to the other characters. This pornography industry “family” is not normal, and for most of the film, not healthy. Despite this, we as an audience are happy these characters have found each other, and, if only for a brief period, found a better version of themselves.

Works Cited: MLA
Lambert, Molly. “The Valley Plays Itself.” Grantland, 9 Dec. 2014, grantland.com/features/paul-thomas-anderson-los-angeles-movies-the-valley/.
“Paul Thomas Anderson.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 23 Jan. 2018, www.biography.com/people/paul-thomas-anderson-267540.
Strauss, Bob. “Yes, It Was 20 Years Ago ‘Boogie Nights’ Bared San Fernando Valley’s Druggy Porn World.” Daily News, Daily News, 6 Oct. 2017, www.dailynews.com/2017/10/06/yes-it-was-20-years-ago-boogie-nights-bared-san-fernando-valleys-druggy-porn-world/.

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