Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Misfits in Paradise

It has been said that, if you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there.

There is truth in that, I suppose, but perhaps it is really more applicable to the '70s.

When said in regard to the '60s, it's a joke based on the quantities of recreational drugs that were consumed.

But when it is applied to the '70s, the context changes. Novelist Tom Wolfe labeled it "the me decade," largely because Americans turned away from the emphasis on the group that was at the heart of the counter–culture communal lifestyle so many embraced in the 1960s and instead lived their lives in a kind of single–minded pursuit of individual satisfaction.

Whereas "free love" had been a concept primarily associated with the 1960s, there was really nothing free about sex in the 1970s. Many more unmarried couples were living together than ever before, but there were high prices to be paid for the more open sexuality.

The emphasis on self contributed to things like the Roe v. Wade judicial decision, giving women new authority over their bodies. It may have encouraged the gay movement as it gained momentum while the clouds of the AIDS crisis loomed in the horizon.

There was clearly a sexual revolution under way.

"Boogie Nights," which premiered 15 years ago today, tried to tell the story of that time.

Set against the backdrop of the porn industry of the 1970s, Mark Wahlberg played Eddie Adams, a young and extraordinarily well–endowed porn star who went by the name Dirk Diggler. Julianne Moore was Amber Waves, another porn star who lost a custody battle to her ex–husband when the court concluded she was an unfit mother in part because of her line of work.

Denied the opportunity to be the custodial parent of her own child, Amber proceeded to mother her colleagues in the adult film industry.

That was the story of the cast of "Boogie Nights." All those characters toiled in an industry devoted to sex, happiness and pleasure, but they found themselves desperately unhappy, their fondest dreams strangled.

They reminded me, in a perverse sort of way, of the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys in the Christmas TV special "Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer." They were broken, defective in some way and searching for something that was always just beyond their reach.

In fact, that is the thought that kept coming to my mind as I watched this movie. Sex had become routine for all the characters, the folks who ran the cameras, the ones who performed in front of the cameras.

Their product was intended to arouse and titillate the audience, but the cast of "Boogie Nights" seemed almost bored with it — except for the character of Little Bill (William H. Macy), who finally, after being humiliated one too many times by his porn star wife's public and private sexual antics with other partners, shot her and her lover and then turned the gun on himself.

Neither, for that matter, did Rollergirl (Heather Graham) seem to be terribly happy. Rollergirl was defective in many ways — apparently unsuccessful in school and craving a mother figure (once, she asked Amber Waves to "be my mom" — the very thing that would appeal to Moore's frustrated maternal instincts — when the two were getting high on cocaine).

She had her idiosyncrasies, like always wearing roller skates. When director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) auditioned Dirk, he watched him have sex with Rollergirl, who not only wore her skates throughout but also made sure that "Brand New Key" (aka "The Rollerskate Song") was playing in the background.

Nearly everyone in the ensemble had some sort of personal quirk. Buck (Don Cheadle) had a thing for cowboy stuff and wanted to run a stereo shop. Philip Seymour Hoffman (about a decade before he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote) played a gay soundman who was infatuated with Dirk.

They were all caught up in the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of porn films, which was rather nicely summed up in the final scene.

After drugs and videotape had taken their toll on the adult film industry, Dirk, while preparing for a scene, pulled down his pants, exposing his enormous sexual organ, and repeated, mantra–like, the line, "I'm a star ..."

Once a misfit ...