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Friday, November 16, 2007

We need a montage

It's driving me bugshit trying to figure out exactly why I enjoy BOOGIE NIGHTS so much, and yet, can't stand Paul Thomas' Anderson's next movie, MAGNOLIA.

I know what you're thinking, but it's not true. It's not just the sex.


It isn't.

See, I want to say that BOOGIE NIGHTS has likeable characters in it, where MAGNOLIA really doesn't. That notion kinda gets a quarter of the way up the flagpole for me, but, then, the pulley-wheel starts to squeak like a motherfucker and the pull rope starts to bind up on me and then the whole thing jams solid and just looking at it I know I'm going to need a chainsaw or a blowtorch to fix that mess, because... BOOGIE NIGHTS? Likeable characters? Point to them for me, please. Amber? Jack? Rollergirl? Reed Rothchild? Good ol' Dirk Diggler? Okay, maybe Little Bill, a little... and Buck and Jessie are cool, yes they are. Yet every character in this movie is such a goddam dimbulb, and I myself am such an elitist prick about the innate value of intelligence as a human attribute, that I still find it hard to admit to actually liking any of the slope browed, slack jawed dimbulbs in BOOGIE NIGHTS. I mean, you know, if by 'like' we mean, 'could even remotely tolerate hanging out with for longer than five minutes', then... noooooo. Nobody in BOOGIE NIGHTS remotely makes that list for me.

Still, maybe there's something to that. BOOGIE NIGHTS is populated wall to wall, floor to ceiling with amiable, affable fucktards. MAGNOLIA, on the other hand, seems to generally concern itself with characters who are at least somewhat mentally sharper than those in BOOGIE NIGHTS... yet nearly the entire cast of MAGNOLIA's characters (most of whom are played by the same talented actors as appear in BOOGIE NIGHTS) are unpleasant to the point of being repellent (at least, to me).

Maybe it's just that the overall tone of BOOGIE NIGHTS so successfully avoids moral judgment, while MAGNOLIA somehow seems stiff with it. BOOGIE NIGHTS seems to say, yeah, all these people are brainless oversexed bimbos with huge streaks of self destructiveness, but what the hell, they're pretty much harmless to everyone except themselves and they're fun to watch. These guys in MAGNOLIA, well, I don't know... somehow, where director Anderson seems to be gently chuckling over the antic misadventures of Dirk and Reed in BN, he seems to be rather more sharply disapproving of the narcissistic, cruel, or just degenerately desperate behavior on display in MAGNOLIA.

Or maybe I'm imagining all that.

I'd really like to say it's because BOOGIE NIGHTS has a central character who holds the narrative together through the force of his own often vacuous personality, while MAGNOLIA just walks the Earth like Caine in KUNG FU, often aimlessly and pointlessly. And that one got very nearly to the top of my personal flagpole until I realized that... whups... no, CRASH doesn't have any kind of central viewpoint character, either, and often seems to meander as much if not more than MAGNOLIA does. But I like CRASH and I don't like MAGNOLIA, so... why?

Hmmm. So I like BOOGIE NIGHTS, and I like CRASH, and I don't like MAGNOLIA.... it can't be anything as simple as Don Cheadle, can it?

Well, I like Don Cheadle...

BOOGIE NIGHTS had Luis Guzman in it, too. I really like Luis Guzman.

Maybe it's like that one section of PULP FICTION that ruins the whole movie for me... you know, the one where John Travolta takes Uma Thurman out to that really scary 50s themed restaurant and they end up at his drug dealer buddy's house jamming a hypo full of adrenaline directly into Uma's chest. I would enjoy PULP FICTION a great deal more, and perhaps even own a copy of the fucker, if that entire section of the movie just never existed. I mean, what's the point? Hey, look, that cool Rocky Dennis guy from MASK can play a shitbag if he wants to? Oh, and we've managed to make Roseanna Arquette visually repulsive, too, isn't that awesome? Nooooooo THANK you.

But the real reason I hate that entire subplot in PULP FICTION is that I just can't stand any of those characters, which is to say, I cannot even remotely empathize with a single fictional person portrayed in that entire lengthy section of the film. And you've got to work hard to create a male character who badly wants to ball Uma Thurman that I cannot empathize in any way with, but, well, it's not like John Travolta had to do all the heavy lifting there himself. Given how monstrously odious Uma's character in PULP FICTION is, well, it would have been more difficult for Travolta to make me actually empathize with someone who wanted to sleep with that abrasive cunt than otherwise.

I suspect I feel the same way about MAGNOLIA, especially as opposed to BOOGIE NIGHTS. Compare, for example, William H. Macy's character in each film. In the one, he's Little Bill, a cameraman on porn movies who has the misfortune to have married an x rated actress who constantly cheats on him, often in public with multiple partners. He's a miserably sad sack of a dude, a highly skilled tradesman at a sleazy, disrespectable trade, whose final frenzied act of despair actually makes you like him even more, despite the fact that it's a murder/suicide which signals the end of the movie's 'innocence'... for lack of a better word.

And then there's the character Macy gives us in MAGNOLIA, who is such an addled, incomprehensible emotional muddle I have no idea how to articulately describe him.

Both characters are losers, but the guy in BOOGIE NIGHTS is likeable with it, almost even loveable. You can dig him; you can honestly feel his pain. You can understand why he eventually grabs a gun and uses it; you may not approve, but you get what's going through his heart and his head, just prior to that final bullet.

The guy in MAGNOLIA, that poor crazy motherfucker who is robbing his ex-employer so he can get money for expensive dental appliances he doesn't need because he's in love with a bartender who has braces... I have no sympathy for that dude. Frankly, he freaks me out a little. If he went crazy with a hand gun and wound up blowing his brains out, well, it wouldn't make me like him, but I'd breathe a very deep sigh of relief, nonetheless.

So, in the end, I guess I would have to say that it does come down to the characters. The ones in BOOGIE NIGHTS I like despite their dumbass behavior, while the ones in MAGNOLIA I pretty much find bewildering, obnoxious, boring, or, on occasion, all three at once.

Hey, how about that. It wasn't just the sex, after all.


At 6:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good well thought out post, B-man.
When I first read it and it asked the question, my guess was that given the success of Boogie Nights, director Paul Thomas Anderson was given free rein to be more indulgent with his next effort Magnolia. It seems that way with a lot of directors. Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then the King Kong remake. Self indulgence does not a good movie make.

Tony C.

At 1:07 PM , Anonymous Always_Esteemed_Scott said...

Maybe it's just that the overall tone of BOOGIE NIGHTS so successfully avoids moral judgment

Really? That's interesting, because to me, it seemed like the second half of the movie was a kind of judgement of all the characters. As you mentioned, Bill Macy's character is the first victim (along with his wife; in fact, this is the first sign of the "underside" of the life we've been seeing), but as I recall nearly every character in the film comes to a very dark ending - Dirk ends up giving out blow jobs for money in back alleys, for example, and doesn't Rollergirl get raped or beat up or something?

The overall impression I got was that each character was being punished for their past sins. The characters are all, for the most part, likeable even if, yes they are nearly terminally stupid, which is what makes the movie so watchable.

It's been awhile since I've seen Magnolia, but you're right, none of the characters are particularly memorable or likeable...or even human. One thing I do remember (aside from Tom Cruise's laughable attempt at pathos, and the rain of frogs) was thinking "nobody talks like that" at numerous times during the movie. And the thing that connected all these people (a game show? C'mon) was obviously meant to be real deep and profound and just seemed silly.
Plus, it didn't make a damn bit of sense; I mean, what was *up* with the rain of frogs?

I do love Aimee Mann, though and I really like the soundtrack.

If I understand your overall point, though, it's that movies (and stories in general, regardless of medium) need to have characters that are likeable, and I can get behind that.

That doesn't mean that characters can't be flawed, or imperfect, or even assholes sometimes, but to me they must be at the very least sympathetic, and, yes, likeable. Even Tony Soprano - multiple murderer, violent sociopath, and serial adulterer - was likeable.

And this post is now way to damn long, so I'll shut up now.

Oh wait - Happy Birthday, and Happy Thanksgiving.

At 6:03 PM , Blogger The Bunnyman said...


Well, yeah, self indulgence would be what got all the crappy stuff put in the movie in the first place. I was simply trying to analyze exactly what kind of crappy stuff it was that so turned me away from MAGNOLIA, when I enjoyed other movies very similar to it, including one that was not only by the same creative team, but that also featured nearly identical casts.


No, only Dirk gets any kind of come uppance, and his come uppance is pretty clearly not a judgement on his chosen career in porn, but, rather, on his drug addiction fueled behavior as a major asshole who cared about nothing but his own ego.

In fact, it's pretty much the drug abuse that is the only thing that ends up being judged in the film... well, that and being a child molester, I guess. Early on, that one very young looking girl winds up being dumped in the emergency room by The Colonel after she ODs on coke, and Amber Waves loses all visitation with her kid due to her lifestyle -- not so much the porn as, it's made pretty clear, the massive coke habit.

The Colonel eventually goes to jail, and apparently has a rough time of it there, but, again, that was due to his predilection for younger partners.

However, even Dirk and Amber end up with a happy ending, after they've been through the wringer enough to get off the drugs. And everyone else comes out pretty well -- Buck, Jesse, Rollergirl, the Burt Reynolds guy... they're all there for the weird but happy family gathering scene at Burt Reynolds' mansion at the end of the movie.

Rollergirl doesn't get raped; she and Burt are out cruising in his limo for a random young guy to act in some porn with her right in the back seat, and they encounter that prick who was mocking her back in high school when she was trying to take a test. He ends up saying some bad shit to her and Burt, and gets his ass kicked. It's all intercut with Dirk getting his ass kicked similarly by the band of creepy fagbashers.

But in the end, Rollergirl ends up going back to school to take her equivalency exam.

So, yeah, the film is somewhat judgemental, but not of the sex (or the stupidity), but, rather, of the rampant drug abuse and some pedophilia.

If BOOGIE NIGHTS let me down in any particular, it was in the lack of lesbian sex. I mean, given the state of porn, you just know Amber and Rollergirl must have had at least one hot scene together in every film, and I sure wouldn't have minded seeing some of it, or a little bored, coked up girl/girl making out between them off camera, for that matter. The lack of such scenes seemed almost bizarre... but so, too, is the lack of any mention of the fact that during the 1970s, it was illegal to make porn films, and the real life porn actors & crew that the characters in the movie are based on were constantly dodging the LA vice squad... sometimes with less success than others (the real life John Holmes, at least partially the basis for Dirk Diggler, was actually an informant for vice and stayed out of prison by frequently ratting out his co-workers, in exchange for tip offs on planned raids, so he could make himself scarce beforehand).

But BOOGIE NIGHTS is not anything like a docudrama; it's more a valentine to the 1970s porn industry than anything else.


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