Friday, November 8, 2013

My Favorite Scene: Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights is one of the fastest movies ever made. The breakneck pace of its story, as scripted by Paul Thomas Anderson, is more than enough to motivate such movement. But its propelled significantly by Robert Elswit’s gorgeous, free-roaming cinematography, a soundtrack of many of the era’s most bitchin’ tunes, and, of course, confident acting from an ensemble who went all in for their specific roles.

In short, the film just moves, ya dig? It’s as if Anderson attempted to cut a film with the same unrestrained, rapid sentiment of many of his cocaine-empowered characters. So, at two hours and 35 minutes long, Boogie Nights makes for one hell of a trip.

I mention the film’s pace for two reasons. One, I am still in awe of the fact that Anderson was able to sustain such heightened energy over the course of the film, and two, I remain perplexed that my favorite scene in the film contains none of the pleasurable energy I’ve mentioned so far. Instead, it’s a scene energized by anger. A scene that captures one adult’s aggression, and one kid’s inability to deal with it. The kind of scene that I fear and anticipate both equally.
On the last day of Eddie Adams’ life (which is to say, the final day before he permanently adopts the alter ego Dirk Digger), he returns home after a night of enjoyable debauchery. Waiting for him is his spiteful mother, who we only know as Mom. Bathed in effective, cold lighting, Mom (Joanna Gleason) is on the offensive from the second Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) walks through the door. 

Mom wants to know the things moms want to know. Where has her son been? What’s he been doing? Who has he been with? But instead of calmly asking questions, Mom uses this moment to berate her son. When the conversation moves from the cold living room to Eddie’s bedroom, we watch two very skilled actors go at it with disturbing authenticity. Everytime Wahlberg sheds a tear or stumbles over his words, Gleason is right there to attack him, calling him a “stupid loser,” while destroying his room. It’s one of the most realistic domestic battles I’ve ever seen captured on film.
And then, directly in the middle of this mother/son war, Anderson does something heartbreakingly poignant. He cuts to the parents’ bedroom, and pans a shot of Eddie’s father, sitting silent on the edge of his bed, listening to his wife scold their only son. There’s a blankness to his expression that I find utterly devastating. A look that says this kind of thing has happened before, and he has no idea how to control it. So he sits. And listens. And does nothing. (Notice how Anderson holds this shot for a few seconds too long. It just kills me.) According to IMDb, the actor playing Eddie’s father is Lawrence Hudd. His role in Boogie Nights is his only screen credit, which raises my appreciation for the scene to an entirely new level.


Back to the fight, I’d like draw attention to something specific as a means of detailing how perfect the actors are. Here are a few context-free phrases said by Wahlberg during the scene: “What is your problem?” “Maybe I’ll run away where you can never find me!” “Please don’t be mean to me!” “I’m gonna be something, I am!”
Not very impressive writing. At least that’s what I thought the first time I watched the film. But looking at it now, that is exactly what a scared shitless kid would say to his mom who is attacking him. Furthermore, the simplicity of those lines makes Wahlberg’s performance that much more gut wrenching. He has no idea why this is happening to him, yet perhaps he’s feared this day for years. And now he’s forced to live out his fears. And I ask, is there anything more terrifying than that?

Joanna Gleason is a revered character actress who has delivered notable work on stage, television and film (she currently plays Kevin Kline’s wife in Last Vegas). As Eddie’s mom, she delivers a two-minute performance of sheer horrific command. She owns every second she’s on screen, staying in our minds long after she’s slammed the door on her son. On his director’s commentary for the film, Anderson says he thinks he slighted the audience during this scene. “Maybe [the scene] was coming from a personal place and I was blinded, and wasn’t doing my best job as a storyteller. I look at it now and I wish it was 10 minutes longer.” I agree with the second part.


10 comments:

  1. That mom was a bitch. The way she berated him and tore down his posters and say "I paid for this" and all of that. It is a scary scene to watch and I felt for Mark Wahlberg as he was in tears. The way she called him stupid hit me pretty hard. It's a very hard scene to watch and I was glad Eddie got to walk and find a real home.

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    1. Very hard to watch. And it is interesting that his new home, while far from conventional, embraced him more than his real home. I love that dynamic.

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  2. A truly powerful scene from one of my favorite films and my intro to the wonderful world of PTA.

    I caught a screening of Boogie Nights at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in September and this scene brought a hush over the thousands of people in the crowd...until Little Bill, Scotty and Reed had everyone howling once again.

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    1. I was at that screening too! I love those shows, always a good crowd.

      Glad you're a fan of the scene. Powerful indeed.

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  3. A great scene, Joanna Gleeson gets everything she can out of her time. I think you have it right about the dialogue. Not my favourite scene but a solid pick.

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    1. Thanks man. It was damn hard to pick a favorite scene from this film. I also love Dirk's tearful plea for forgiveness from Jack.

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  4. I'd have to go with the firecracker scene, but I love the way you pick out the success of this short scene. It may have incredible simplistic dialogue, but it suits the way the film connects with that infantile conflict even adults can feel towards their parents, that sense of insecure incapability. An intelligent, reasoned conversation is exactly what the scene doesn't want. Nice write-up.

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    1. Thanks man. I LOVE the firecracker scene too. I mean hell, I like every scene from this movie. But the one I mentioned really rocks me. Restrained direction, remarkable acting.

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  5. Nice choice man. Mine would be kind of obvious: the drug deal scene. Molina kills it.

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    1. Oh that's a GREAT scene as well. So iconic. And Wahlberg spacing off is just... ah, it's heavenly.

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