How 1997's Best Films Upended Perceptions of Sex and Masculinity
'Boogie Nights and 'Happy Together' broke boundaries as they blew minds.
The fall of 1997 was, simply put, one of the most remarkable moviegoing seasons of our time: Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag the Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic. Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers. This series looks back at those movies, examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
"I have seen the next Quentin Tarantino," Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote in the magazine in September 1997. "His name is Paul Thomas Anderson, and Boogie Nights, his wild, virtuosic, ecstatically outrageous epic about the hardcore-porn world of the late '70s and early '80s, is, in every sense, the most sensational act of moviemaking so far this year."
The "next Quentin Tarantino" tag stuck to Anderson throughout that fall, and it was easy to see why it applied; its outsized running time, dark humor, kinetic violence, and tonal slipperiness clearly recalled Tarantino's arthouse-to-multiplex crossover smash Pulp Fiction from three years earlier—to say nothing of that film's clearest antecedent, Martin Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas.
And Boogie Nights establishes that hierarchy right at the beginning, with a long, unbroken opening dolly shot echoing the beloved "Copa" sequence in the Scorsese picture, as Robert Elswitt's camera glides from a theater marquee (displaying the title of the film itself) down a San Fernando Valley street and into the doors of a disco nightclub, hopping from person to person, introducing most of the picture's major characters.
But this just isn't some act of naked cinematic bravado—we're getting bits and pieces of who everyone is in this world, to themselves and to each other: Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is the ringleader, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) is the den mother, Little Bill (William H. Macy) is the organizer, Maurice (Luis Guzman) is the hanger-on, and so on. And the camera doesn't stop, and the frame doesn't cut, until we land on handsome busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), who catches Jack's eye as well.
There's a decidedly homoerotic vibe in the scene that follows: Jack, as Eddie guesses, is cruising him, but not for that. "I make adult films," he tells the younger man, with a gleam in his eye. "Exotic pictures." A couple of nights later, Eddie gets the chance to "audition" for Jack, who watches him boff rollerskate-clad Rollergirl (Heather Graham), with some minimal direction: "Aim it at her tits, Eddie."
In these early scenes, in the giggly spirit of the enterprise, Anderson kids the conventions of his subject, and revels in its vulgarity with an almost Mel Brooks–ian glee. (One of Brooks's frequent players, Robert Ridgley, appears as porn financier "The Colonel," who matter-of-factly introduces himself to Eddie, "I'm looking forward to seeing you in action, Jack says you've got a great big cock.")
But Anderson also affectionately respects the artistry of pornographic films—or, at least, the artistry their creators were reaching toward. He may be making jerk-off movies, but Jack dreams of enrapturing an audience "with beauty, and with acting," and cinematographer Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay) speaks high-mindedly of "trying to give each picture its own unique look."
To that end, Anderson gets the aesthetics and the texture of 70s porn just right (to say nothing of the wooden acting and clumsy edits). And that matters, because what he's crafting in Boogie Nights is a traditional showbiz-movie rise-and-fall narrative—albeit one where the fall is precipitated as much by the turn of the decade and a change in technology (the film is, if nothing else, a warning of the dangers of pivoting to video) as the vices and shortcomings of its hero.
The Tarantino comparison is ultimately less about technique than a shared joyful electricity of the filmmaking, the sense of an artist clearly high on the sheer act of making a movie. Anderson draws us in, and keeps us off-balance, with the near-constant movement of the camera—and by cutting on those movements, while situating the pieces to complement each other. He crafts several of those look-at-me unbroken tracking shots, and they're dazzling, but he also kids his own indulgences by having an energized Jack announce, on one porn shoot, "Let's try and do this all in one shot!"
As the one-long-shot has become something of a cudgel for showy stylists, what's more striking about Boogie Nights is the precision of its cutting—the everything-falling-apart montage of Amber and Rollergirl doing coke while poor Buck (Don Cheadle) and Jessie (Melora Walters) get turned down for their bank loan, or the brilliant juxtapositions, bound by the bonging dread of Michael Penn's music, of the intercut scenes of Dirk and Rollergirl "on the lookout" and hitting bottom. In those sequences, rather than building on influences, Anderson is honing the kind of sustained, simultaneous storytelling he would perfect in Magnolia two years later.
On the Boogie Nights commentary track, Anderson acknowledges the film's stylistic debt to Scorsese et al., noting there was much more "stealing" from Jonathan Demme. To the ears of film fans in 1997, that might not've tracked—Demme was then best known as the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs—but Anderson was clearly drawing on the kooky warmth and everyday humanism of Demme's earlier ensemble pictures such as Citizen's Band and Melvin and Howard.
And he comes closest to evoking a vintage Demme character with Scotty J, played with enormous sensitivity by Philip Seymour Hoffman as he wears his heart where the sleeve of his too-tight, too-short shirt should be. From the first time Scotty lays eyes on Eddie, with a snazzy iris shot and the accompaniment of Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing," he's clearly smitten; he doesn't make his move until New Year's Eve, 1979, showing up with a replica of the car Eddie (who has by then rechristened himself Dirk Diggler) owns, and ultimately begging him, "Can I kiss you on the mouth? Please let me." The wounded desperation breaks your heart; he had this whole thing worked out in his head, and it did not go like this. Ultimately, he shoulders the movie's turn to darkness—that scene, not the shocking murder-suicide that follows it, is the hinge.
Yet, like The Ice Storm earlier that fall, Boogie Nights is at its best when exploring the limits of male machismo and vulnerability. Its most emotionally wringing scene comes early: a knock-down, drag-out, middle-of-the-night fight between Eddie and his mother (Joanna Gleason, brutal) who chastises him with words of unthinkable cruelty: "You can't do anything! You're a loser! You couldn't even finish high school because you're so stupid!" Anderson lingers on the hurt on Eddie's face, the genuine pain caused by her naked cruelty and withholding of love, and when he bursts into tears and shows her how much she's hurt him, she rejects him further.
Contrast that with the scene late in the film when Eddie, broke, broken, scared, and sleepless, turns up in Jack and Amber's kitchen and plaintively asks, "Jack, please help me." It takes the journey of the movie for Eddie to allow himself to be vulnerable enough to say that again—and this time, to be received with warmth and understanding by his surrogate father and mother. Not long thereafter, we follow Jack through his abode, in an unbroken take that mirrors the movie's opening shot in the nightclub, and again checks in with the film's important characters. But then, they were kids out on the town; now, they're a family, comfortable at home, safe with each other.
Happy Together is something of an ironic title, telling the story of two people who make each other miserable. But there's beauty in that misery, particularly in the hands of director Wong Kar-wai, the cinematic poet of loneliness—and particularly (here and in his divine 2000 follow-up, In the Mood for Love) of the feeling of two people being lonely together. "I always thought I was different than Po-Wing," our narrator Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) notes. "Turns out lonely people are all the same."
The film is a gay romance, a fact that Kar-wai doesn't play coy about; he opens with a gay sex scene, as Yiu-Fai recalls how Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) would insist they "start over" when their relationship went south, "So we left Hong Kong." That's how they find themselves in Argentina, their outsider status underlined by their place as strangers in a strange land; they find themselves in a cycle of breaking up and starting over, sharing a flea-bitten room (because neither of them can afford to go anywhere else), giving the film a sense of claustrophobia closer to a thriller than a relationship drama. Holed up and broke, they drive each other crazy with their abuse, neediness, and desperation, yet when Yiu-Fai insists, "Those were our happiest days," it's not said as a joke, nor is it played as one.
He embarks on a tentative flirtation with a younger co-worker (Chang Chen), one complicated by the younger man's obliviousness—and with that flourish, Kar-wai evocatively captures the moment when one relationship is dissolving, that fact is made clearer by the possibility of another one. Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing's relationship just sort of ends, without big scenes of teary-eyed confrontation. But for all the simplicity of the narrative, Happy Together is anything but slight. It's a moody, contemplative piece of work, and a vividly tactile one as well, lingering on food, smoke, bodies, blood, and water. The knockout photography, by Kar-wai's frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, veers from vivid colors to selective desaturation to straight-up black-and-white, with tiny freeze-frames and step-prints to single out and slow down moments of intimacy, fleeting though they may be. As with Boogie Nights, the technique is dazzling—but the emotional vitality is what sticks.
Next time, we'll examine the future shocks of Andrew Niccol's Gattaca and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.