It’s funny to think that something as inconsequential as one’s middle name could impact the probability of one’s genius, but it seems that that is exactly the case when it comes to the art of movie direction.
Take, for instance, George T. Miller, the Australian behind The Man from Snowy River (1982) and The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter (1990). It would not be going out on a limb to say that this gentleman is a minor talent, his filmography littered with dreck.
But an interesting thing happens when you remove that “T” from between his Christian- and surnames. Suddenly you’re left with plain old George Miller, who happens to be the man behind Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick, Babe (and its sequel) and the visionary Mad Max quadrilogy.
And then there’s the case of Paul Anderson. Squeeze the initials “W.S.” between the two names and up pops the British director who specializes in technically proficient, yet undeniably schlocky, B-movies such as Mortal Kombat, Soldier, Event Horizon and the Resident Evil franchise.
Swap the initials “W.S.” with the middle name “Thomas,” however, and–voila!–say hello to probably one of the five most important writer-directors practicing the craft today, the man behind Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice.
[Conflicted Film Snob aside: Let’s not feel too bad for Paul W.S. Anderson, though; besides being quite financially successful, he’s enviably married to the lovely Milla Jovovich—
–who, it should be noted, has been a good enough sport to star in every installment of her hubby’s Resident Evil series. As for George T. Miller, you’re welcome to gnash your teeth over his lowly, barely-visible-on-the-horizon placement within the firmament of moviemaking talents.]
Anyway, let’s focus on the “good” Paul Anderson, specifically on a scene from his Boogie Nights, which, if you haven’t yet seen, is a pretty safe choice for that post-dinner movie you have planned for this weekend’s first date. A similar strategy worked well for Travis Bickle:
Released back in October 1997, Boogie Nights was greeted with quite a bit of critical fanfare, due in no small part to its scope and length (almost a decade, 155 mins), writer-director Anderson’s youth (27) and, of course, its subject matter (the San Fernando Valley porn industry).
It’s not for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to put aside those deeply ingrained puritanical American sensibilities for two hours and 35 minutes, you won’t be disappointed. Or maybe you will. But at least you’ll have a working knowledge of how Anderson has evolved as a director over the last 18 years. Because back in the late 90s, although undeniably talented, he was somewhat derivative, his penchant for frantic camera movement, shocking, explosive violence and long, complicated Steadicam tracking shots all right out of the Goodfellas playbook. With maturity, however, not to mention five more films under his belt, Anderson has mellowed the showy technique, even given up his beloved ‘scope framing, opting instead to focus on developing a voice and style that are all his own, to the extent that, when re-watching Boogie Nights, it’s hard to imagine that it was written and directed by the same person who made There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice.
Not that Anderson being a Scorsese acolyte back in the day was a bad thing. After all, it gave us the scene we’re about to talk about, the drug deal at the crib of drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina).
Before we start deconstructing the scene, let’s first have a quick synopsis of the movie, which, as you may well have suspected, is nothing more than a simple retelling of that most pedestrian of tropes, the one involving the naive, well-endowed teenager (Mark Wahlberg playing Dirk Diggler) crossing paths with the paternal adult film director (Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner), the two of them forming a Scorcese/DeNiro-like alliance, albeit in porn, that makes both rich and famous, only to see their success implode when the teen becomes addicted to cocaine, which leads to estrangement, prostitution, a hilariously feeble attempt at rock stardom and, finally, a violent incident in which the teen has a life-changing epiphany, one that leads him back to the paternal adult film director, with whom he again begins making movies, but not before revealing to us–the film’s audience–what had until then been a bit of a McGuffin: his flaccid yet still extraordinarily large penis.
Maybe you’re wondering to yourself: with such a linear, simplistic storyline, why even bother? Well, despite the main plot lacking any perceptible thrust (oof!), rest assured the film is chockfull of supporting threads, each featuring incredibly talented actors, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, the lovely Heather Graham, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Jane, Melora Walters, the aforementioned Alfred Molina and prestidigitator extraordinaire Ricky Jay, to name but a few:
So then, on to the scene…
Nearing the end of the film, our protagonist, Dirk, is approaching rock bottom. In need of drug money, he and fellow porn actor/singing partner/addict Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) get pulled into a scam suggested by bad-news friend Todd Parker (Thomas Jane). Todd knows a guy, Rahad Jackson, who, zapped on drugs himself, just might fall for the old baking-soda-in-the-baggie-gag, netting the trio a serious return on investment. Dirk and Reed agree, though tentatively, and the three make for Rahad’s crib jammed into Dirk sweet “competition orange” 1976 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
Just before alighting the car, Todd has a surprise for the other two–he’s got a gun. Dirk and Reed are not cool with this–they’re porn actors, not gangsters–but, strung out and desperate, they agree to follow Todd’s lead. At the front door they’re greeted by a friendly but enormously imposing “associate” of Rahad’s, who lets them inside with nary a suspicion. As the trio enter Rahad’s front hall, Anderson’s camera hangs back a moment to record the front gate slowly swinging shut, the prison-cell allusion ripe for the picking:
But what type of prison cell might Anderson be intimating? The literal kind awaiting those dumb enough to engage in a felony weight drug deal? Or how about the figurative kind–the mind of an addict. Then again, maybe it’s a harbinger–the inescapability of Rahad’s house once they enter.
Anyway, Anderson’s camera, courtesy the great cinematographer Robert Elswit, dollies through the front hallway and into the living room, where we’re introduced to a robe-clad Rahad playing air piano by the fireplace while, even weirder, a skinny Asian man (Rahad’s “comfort” boy, perhaps?) crosses the room, tossing a lit firecracker into the air:
Why the air piano, you ask? Well, on the soundtrack we hear the opening notes of “Sister Christian,” the 1984 power ballad by Night Ranger, a band who, notes Wikipedia, to this day “remain very popular in Asian countries, particularly Japan.” Of course, upon reading those words any self-respecting cinephile immediately should conjure the memory of this scene:
Rahad, stoned out of his mind, turns to welcome his guests clad only in the aforementioned robe and what look to be pair of red tighty-whities. The actor playing Rahad, Alfred Molina, is what you might call a “good sport,” has been throughout his entire film career. Not only was he brave enough to allow Paul Thomas Anderson to dress him in a Speedo for his one big scene in Boogie Nights, 16 years earlier he had the balls to let Steven Spielberg drape him with dozens of tarantulas for his one big scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember that? Yeah, it’s the same guy.
After some initial pleasantries, Rahad asks to see the coke, but quickly loses focus when “Sister Christian” builds towards a crescendo, which he performs via air piano, air drums and air guitar. (“I fucking love that song!”) While this is going on the Asian guy continues wandering about the room, lighting and throwing firecrackers, each sharp crack! startling the living crap out of Dirk, Todd and Reed, who have jammed themselves uncomfortably onto a small couch:
Rahad eventually asks how much for the coke. Todd, so tense from the loud music, the firecrackers, not to mention the situation, nervously giggles at the question much too long before finally saying, “Five grand.” Rahad says no problem and motions to his bodyguard to hand over the money. However, when the bodyguard leans over to give Todd the thick envelope of cash, his loose-hanging sweatshirt reveals a gun holstered to his chest.
Anderson’s camera pushes in on Dirk and Reed, their elation from just a moment before–the scam actually worked!–literally oozing out their pores as flop sweat. As Rahad lights up his crackpipe, Reed leans in to Todd to warn him of the gun. Another firecracker explodes, causing Reed to almost jump out of his skin. Dirk nervously glances over his shoulder towards the dining room–it seems that, contrary to Todd’s assurance, Rahad checks his product after all, delegating the task to his bodyguard, who now sits at the table pouring the coke into a pile for weighing.
Dirk whispers to Reed who whispers to Todd that they need to “get the fuck out of there.” The Asian guy keeps lighting off firecrackers. Rahad, his buzz properly freshened, crosses the room, picks up a wooden box and, turning to the trio, asks them if they want to see something “really fascinating.” He brings the box to the coffee table in front of the couch and opens it up. An exploding firecracker startles the mud out of the guys as they look upon a very shiny, very large pistol. Does Rahad know about the scam? Is he toying with them? No on both counts. Turns out he wants to show the boys that he’s brave enough (and stoned enough, of course) to put a bullet in one of the chambers, hold it under his chin and play some Russian Roulette:
“What, you think I can’t do it?” he asks. “You dare me!”
“No we don’t dare you!” says Reed, as another firecracker explodes, causing everyone on the couch to twitch:
But Rahad doesn’t pull the trigger; turns out he was screwing with the boys. “Your fucking faces, man!” he laughs, before going off on a coked-up riff about how much he loves making mix tapes, like the one they’re listening to now, because “I don’t like being told what to listen to, when to listen to it or anything!” Suddenly the music stops, the room goes quiet and Anderson, cribbing from Scorsese, dollies hard and fast towards Rahad’s tape deck and the mix tape inside:
The auto-reverse kicks in; however, before side B can play, another firecracker pop! tears through the quiet. Rahad indicates towards the Asian guy, telling the others, “It’s Cosmo. He’s Chinese.”
Rick Springfield’s 1981 hit, “Jesse’s Girl,” begins to play. Cosmo lights more firecrackers. Rahad smokes more crack. The trio continue to sit on the couch, fairly wetting themselves from nerves. Anderson cuts to Dirk’s face and holds. Reed whispers something in his ear but Dirk barely seems to hear. The camera lingers a good 49 seconds, an eternity in the movies, as various emotions play across Wahlberg’s face. The stress of the situation–the ill-conceived and unravelling scam, the guns both concealed and visible, the firecrackers, the manic, unhinged personality of Rahad, the imposing figure of his bodyguard, that moron Cosmo and his firecrackers, his whole shitty life–has finally led to an epiphany. He wants to live.
Dirk finally snaps out of it. Jumping from the couch with Reed, he tells Rahad they’ve gotta get going. Rahad, bummed, walks over to the two and says, “Aw, come on, you just got here!” As the three begin to argue the merits of staying or going, Anderson cuts to and slowly pushes in on Todd, who, unlike his buddies, hasn’t budged from the couch. Something in his body language, a certain discomfort, seems to be indicating that he’s about to make an ill-advised pronouncement:
“We’re not leaving yet,” Todd mutters, barely audible over the chatter coming from Dirk, Reed and Rahad. He screws up his courage and adds, much louder this time, “Hey, hey, hey! We want something else from you.” At first Rehad seems OK with this, good-naturely asking “What?” His smile starts to dim, however, when he takes a good look at Todd’s face and sees that something’s off:
“In the master bedroom,” says Todd, his mouth so dry we can hear the smacking of his tongue and lips. “Under the bed, in a floor safe. Understand?” Dirk and Reed can’t believe what they’re hearing. “What the fuck’s the matter with you, Todd?” barks Dirk. “Let’s go!”
Todd isn’t going anywhere, though. And so, in the best Tarantino/Scorsese fashion, the situation quickly deteriorates, the violence erupting to the next song on Rahad’s “My Awesome Mix Tape #6,” German band Nena’s 1983 guilty pleasure, “99 Luftballons.”
Who-whee, my palms are sweating!
This, folks, despite being a touch derivative at certain moments, is a virtuosic scene if there ever was one, a master class in editing, camera movement, sound design and, of course, rising tension. What Anderson has done is take what is inherently an edgy situation–a drug deal–and amped up the agitation about 100-fold via information known only to the audience (Todd’s gun, the fakery of the “cocaine”); loud, irritating noises (Rahad’s mixed tapes, Cosmo’s nerve-rattling firecrackers, especially when seen in a good movie theater or at home with a decent sound system); the jumpiness and general unpredictability of strung out drug addicts (pretty much everyone in the scene save the bodyguard); the subtle and not-so-subtle introduction of additional weapons (a glimpse of the bodyguard’s holster, Rahad’s Russian Roulette handgun); and finally, Todd’s point-of-no-return moment: his demand for the contents of a safe belonging to a well-armed, stoned-to-the-bejesus drug dealer with a personal bodyguard.
Of course, the scene plays about a million times better when watching rather than reading about it. Problem is, Warner Bros won’t let any of their movie content play on YouTube, not even clips. So, alas, I guess you’ll just have to rent the movie to see what I’ve been going on about. Sorry!