Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pretty Baby (1978)

Das Verkaufte Brooke

directed by Louis Malle
starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine,
Susan Sarandon

To comprehend the mere fact of Pretty Baby's existence — it being an Oscar-nominated, major-studio-distributed, child-prostitute drama that undressed, deflowered and Playmate-posed an eleven year-old Brooke Shields, then milked the ensuing is-it-art-or-exploitation publicity wave for all it was worth — you'll first need to understand that Shields was, in essence, America's first mass-marketed child sex symbol. More to the point, the future star of The Blue Lagoon and eventual best bud to Michael Jackson (plus "whitest woman in America," according to Eddie Murphy) was our most brazenly commodified emblem of child porn chic — a curious by-product of '70s licentiousness that (apparently) saw the inclusion of pubescent forms within the decade's panoply of aestheticized femme-flesh as just another nudge of the ol' envelope; instant Che Guevara points in the libertinism-as-revolution sweepstakes.

There's arguably no more jaw-dropping a monument to '70s depravity than the topless bathtub shot of an oiled-up, ten year-old Brooke on the July 1978 cover of France's Photo Magazine — a cover that once decorated European newsstands, and which (as of this writing) the venerable old shutterbug journal still proudly displays on its official website. I say "arguably" — this was, of course, a time when hardcore porn reels featuring honest-to-God children were hawked in the backs of skin mags (with ads touting the tender ages of the kids involved); a time when "reputable" smut companies like Denmark's Color Climax could crank out titles such as Pre-Teen Sex and Sucking Daddy with full legal protection. This stuff was underground even by the standards of its own debauched era, though: confined to the trenchcoat disguises and averted gazes of Times Square's dankest crawlspaces; to the back rooms and under-the-counter stash drawers of places where Travis Bickles would linger like an oily fart, soaking up the clammy air of sexual impulse diseased and corrupted, and then feeding it back into their own dysfunction — exactly where you'd expect it to be.

By contrast, Bite-Sized Brooke in that Photo Magazine spread — with her childishly outsized head and eyes, and her vixenish smudges of eyeliner; with her coquettishly exposed pink nipple and sudsy expanse of leg; with her fiendishly intentional linkage of your wee daughter's bathtime to the classic girl-in-the-bath setting of the all-American centerfold (along with its attendant dirty-tart-who-needs-to-be-cleansed arousal mechanism) — this was the pedophile's gaze as "high art"; "high art" as legitimized by trend-setting lensmen like Francesco Scavullo (who shot Brooke at eleven months old for an Ivory Soap campaign and went on to capture some of her first nudes), "high art" with the imprimatur of starmakers like bigwig Eileen Ford (who started a junior division at her Ford Modeling Agency in deference to Shields' cultural impact).

Brooke's turn in Pretty Baby sparked all the tongue-wagging and pretend-outrage that Teri Shields, Brooke's mother-cum-manager/pimp, intended it to. Teri Shields, it's said, was determined from the time that Brooke was a baby to milk her little beauty for all she was worth — and this she certainly did, even if it meant offering her up as masturbation fodder for the world's kiddy-diddlers and incest fantasists. Cleverly, Teri Shields milked the exploitation of her daughter at both ends. She sold Brooke as pedo-bait across the pond, and to the fashion world at large, to capitalize on the anything's-permissible-in-the-name-of-art tastemaking of jaded hipsters and godless Eurotrash (though even that Photo cover hedged its bets by upping Brooke's age from ten to twelve). She then orchestrated publicity over it all in the mainstream with superficially pearl-clutching magazine articles that, of course, doubled as covert enticements to view — and embrace — the very thing one was expected to furrow one's brow over.

"Brooke is twelve. She poses nude," declared the September 26, 1977 issue of New York Magazine. "Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell." Accompanying this was a cover shot of Teri standing just behind Brooke with a serene pride on her booze-lined face, her hands on the girl's shoulders as if showing off a mare of impeccable pedigree for a prospective buyer — as if presenting her, à la the madam in Pretty Baby, for our inspection of the goods just prior to defloration. More subversively, celebrity-fluff weekly People Magazine used Brooke and Pretty Baby to sell child erotica to Middle America. People's May 29, 1978 cover paired its tantalizing reference to the actress "stir[ring] a furor over child porn in films" with a leg-revealing shot of the then-twelve year-old cradled in a wicker chair and holding flowers, barefoot and clad in what looks like a nightgown; her gaze, with just a flicker of impudence, imploring the viewer: "Please, mister... be gentle." It's a shot that plays so shamelessly upon the girlishness of her physique (there's even a Band-Aid near her shin so as to suggest the scrapes of childhood), a visual so baldfaced in its calculated appeal to foot fetishists and "leg men," and so loaded with "nymphet's first time" suggestiveness (subtle touch, those flowers), that it seems purloined straight from the seedier end of 42nd Street.

Her "Toulouse-Lautrec pout" was "sensual, ethereal, mesmerizing," according to the People article. Twelve year-old Brooke was offered a part in a "Swedish lesbian movie," the article informs us; it also tells us of the adorably innocent response she gave to Playboy asking her what the term "good in bed" meant to her. Meanwhile, you're recalling the steps little Brooke was set upon on her mommy-mandated climb to middle-of-the-road bankability. You're recalling the Brooke of a few years prior, served up — helpless as a lamb — to the judgment of Francesco Scavullo's camera: pouting in lipstick and white orchids, striking sexpot poses in a baby toga hiked up almost to her non-existent hips on one side; and naked as a dove, meeting the viewer's gaze head-on, in another, more "iconic" shot that still commands hundreds of dollars at art auctions. "I don’t even have my period yet," People quoted Brooke as chirping, while you thumb through The Brooke Book, the quickie cash-in on Pretty Baby's notoriety, rushed out at Mama Teri's behest, with its split-personality divide between wholesome testaments to Brooke as the goofy-face-making, all-American kid next door and virtual beaver shots of Brooke in candy-striped knee-high leggings, her thighs parted to give us as unobstructed a view of her underbaked muffin in tighty-whiteys as the law would allow.

Child-porn Brooke was merely Phase One, however; a phase that the arthouse cachet brought about by Pretty Baby enabled her to ditch and attempt to sweep under the rug like a dead roach seconds before your new girlfriend visits. She and her mother weren't wholly successful at this disappearing of the past; they'd spend a good stretch of the early '80s in court, fighting to keep photographer Garry Gross from circulating the entirety of Brooke's bathtub set, from which Photo had drawn its infamous cover (along with publishing some of its more "subdued" shots), and for which Teri had signed over full rights to Gross back in the do-anything-to-get-Brooke-noticed days. The courts would rule against the Shieldses — "artistic merit" and all that — and Photo would celebrate the ruling by devoting a second layout to the full set. But, by then, it scarcely mattered — Teri Shields' puppeteering had paid off. Phase Two was well underway: Brooke Shields as America's Sweetheart with her very own doll, to boot — she of the aw-shucks George Burns comedies and the celebrity acrobatics on TV's Circus of the Stars; she of the high-fashion gloss and the Revlon ad campaigns; she of the Bob Hope USO tours and the hanging out at the Grammy Awards on the arm of the "Just Say No" Decade's single brightest pop supernova.

Gone was the symbolic child sacrifice of her virgin flesh led stripped to the altar of the camera's eye, of her defilement in Pretty Baby, of her murder in the 1976 horror cheapie Alice Sweet Alice. Brooke had paid her dues, she was now a star — and stars, like gutter whores who've worked their way up to the big house, don't have to sell you their bodies, and they don't have to flash you their underwear in some pinup photographer's idea of a little girl's bedroom. Stars get to do "tasteful," high-toned nudity, like Brooke's sex scenes in the 1981 teen-romance melodrama Endless Love (shot when she was fifteen). They can avail themselves of body doubles in The Blue Lagoon, while keeping their nipples obscured with cascades of hair. Post-Pretty Baby Brooke wouldn't be caught dead courting the perverts and reprobates on whose predilections she made her fame; newly haute couture Brooke's brand of cheesecake was strictly clothed and rubber-stamped with name-brand approval, such as her Lolita-comes-to-Madison-Avenue TV blitz for designer jeans, in which she rolled across a floor with her ass in the air, and cooed to us that nothing came between her and her Calvin Kleins.

Pretty Baby was a natural career move, though, given the era in which Brooke was first marketed. (Christ, just imagine if Stanley Kubrick had waited ten years to direct his adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita.) Such was the '70s zeal for wanton taboo-busting that filmic offerings to the spirit of Lewis Carroll came to seem as commonplace as the clap. Sixteen year-old Melanie Griffith bared incipient sweater pups in Arthur Penn's Night Moves and in Michael Ritchie's teen beauty-pageant comedy Smile (both 1975), while the same-aged Jenny Agutter had skinny-dipped throughout Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout in 1971. Fifteen year-old Cathryn Harrison breastfed an old woman in Louis Malle's surrealist allegory Black Moon, while photographer David Hamilton live-actioned his filtered-lens chronicling of birthday-suited jailbait with his 1977 directorial debut Bilitis, and its sprinkling of twelve to fourteen year-old girls Walkabout-swimming and frolicking under the sheerest fabrics imaginable.

You had the 1970 Czech horror fantasy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, with its unveiling of thirteen year-old Jaroslava Schallerová's unblemished anatomy as handy metaphor for unsoiled purity. There was Wim Wenders' 1975 road odyssey, The Wrong Move, in which a grown man introduced a naked twelve year-old Nastassja Kinski to S&M Lite; Kinski would likewise beguile a grizzled Richard Widmark with her full-frontal walk of seduction in Hammer Studios' To the Devil... A Daughter the following year. Kraut sexploitation makers — spurred by Deutschland's post-Hitler frenzy to reject, in as Jewish-influenced a manner as possible, all time-honored notions of good Aryan comportment — had been undressing minors since at least the 1969 sex "documentary" Freedom to Love and its tableau of a tentative dyke-out between two girls, neither of whom looks to be a day over eleven. The soft-porn Schoolgirl Report nudies subsisted on the disrobing of various fifteen to seventeen year-old Mädchen, and #13 in the series (Don't Forget Love During Sex) showcased the rather frighteningly advanced development of — how cheekily appropriate — thirteen year-old Katja Bienert.

I haven't even detailed the unalloyed zest with which the swarthier side of Europe managed to lower the screen-nudity age bar. Whereas your Frogs and your Dieters tended to make at least a cursory stab at concealing their hebephilic compulsions behind the old "artistic merit" smokescreen, you had Greeks like Ilias Mylonakos, who paused the narrative of his 1979 Emanuelle, Queen of Sados (a.k.a. Emanuelle's Daughter) so as to scan up and down the soap-slicked body of twelve year-old Livia Russo in a pointlessly protracted shower sequence, and to stare up her skirt during an equally drawn-out scene of her squat-and-thrust disco dancing. Italy's contributions to '70s tykesploitation were so plentiful, they started jumping up out of nowhere before the sensitive had time to duck — as in Eriprando Visconti's 1977 trauma-from-kidnapping thriller Oedipus Orca (a knock-off sequel to his 1976 La Orca), where suddenly we're treated to the sight of a preteen girl undressing in front of the mirror and appraising herself. (A "spiritual" ancestor, if you will, to a similar moment in Catherine Breillat's 2001 À ma sœur!) The Boot even gave us entire plots dedicated to this stuff. Twelve year-old Katya Berger spends half of 1978's Piccole Labbra (that's Little Lips) co-starring with her tits — or the closest approximation that she can muster at her age — in an intermittently gripping tragedy-with-a-extra-mozzarell' about an impotent writer who's returned from World War I too shellshocked to consummate his obsession with her. The low point (or high point, depending on your fantasies) of Massimo Pirri's Ennio Morricone-scored L'Immoralità (1978) was a bathroom-floor sex scene wherein ten year-old Karin Trentephol climbs out of the tub and proceeds to seduce the pedophile child-killer who's holed up at her family's house, and who's busted in during her rubber-ducky time to hide from policemen searching the premises.

Brooke's prototype was French child model and cause célèbre Eva Ionesco, the infinitely haughty-looking Greta Garbo of superstar lolis, who'd been posing as a live china doll for mommy Irina since about the age of five, and in the buff since not long after that — her childhood drained of all innocence (and, apparently, joy) then preserved in moody monochrome for eternity's deviants. Teri Shields copied pages straight from the Irina Ionesco playbook: an early determination to cash in on the molestability of her only child while holding to the plausible deniability of "it's not pornography, it's art"; the scandal-seeking nudie spreads in Photo and other European publications with her progeny's ripening fruits plastered on the front; boosting her moppet's fuck appeal by selling her as a miniature woman (with makeup, jewelry, heels, lingerie); parlaying the tut-tutting of culture guardians and the morbid curiosity of outrageous-art connoisseurs into a bid for her daughter's silver-screen viability — the hope that yesterday's junior exhibitionist might have some longevity beyond the sullied-youth demimonde.

Eva's great leap to the next plateau was 1977's Lord-of-the-Flies-as-kid-erotica kink-fest Maladolescenza — Italy's queasiest donation to the vanguard of the times (or of any other times); an obsessive's record of her and co-star Lara Wendel's early puberty so discomfitingly intimate that it remains in legal limbo, and has for years been sidelined to the home-video ghost realm of bootlegs struck from a long-deleted German DVD plus whatever VHS tapes from the '80s are still kicking around. Teri Shields was far savvier a careerist than Eva's mother and, thus, Brooke was much luckier. Where Irina Ionesco hitched Eva's future to a badly-dubbed, patchily-directed cellar-dweller of a film that asked her to show off her asshole, mime receiving cunnilingus and kill birds, Brooke got the director of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien to gild her pathway. She got longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist to caress and sanctify the impropriety of her gawky little kid's nudity into something out of a Bouguereau painting. She got to ride the wave of plaudits from Roger Ebert and the New York Times, and Pretty Baby received the ultimate in art-not-pornography vindication: a Technical Grand Prize win at the Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, a nod from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Brooke Shields from the early '80s forward was bigger than Coca-Cola, her genesis as baby temptress all but memory-holed. Yet, Eva Ionesco will go to her grave as "that little girl who posed nude in the '70s" — and this is despite her post-Maladolescenza litany of bit and character parts in perfectly middlebrow French films; it's despite her haunting (and haunted-looking) debut as Roman Polanski's hallucination of a crippled goth girl in his suffocating mood piece-turned-blackest of pitch-black comedies, 1976's The Tenant. (Had Polanski made The Ring at the time, his Eva would've been a shoo-in to go crawling out of a TV set.) Battling her mother in court for the rights to those old photos, directing a film (2010's My Little Princess) that reenacts her stolen childhood: the most publicized chapters of Ionesco's life since have only served to reinforce her as the mirrored disco ball of an era few now wish to acknowledge, and which even fewer would ever believe happened, were it not for the morally shaky artifacts it left behind.

If you're seeking the era-summarizing jolt of a single image that outdoes the schizoid disconnect of The Brooke Book, that outpaces even the shock value of Brooke on the cover of Photo, there's the May 23, 1977 cover of Der Spiegel, the German news weekly and bible of lefty-think that, not incidentally, made clear its position on Donald Trump's election to the U.S. Presidency with a cover piece labeling it "The End of the World." Der Spiegel was no less full of shit forty years ago when it paired a breathless tabloid headline about "Children on the Sex Market: Lolitas Sold" with some of the best child-selling seen outside of the third world: a flagrant cheesecake shot of an eleven year-old Eva, patterned to the letter from something out of Penthouse or perhaps European men's magazine Lui. It presents Eva, as sullen-looking as ever, half-perched on a stool, her right hand raised and poised atop the curls of her good-time-dolly bouffant in bald mimicry of a pinup queen's flaunting of her God-given bounty. Needless to say, she's stark naked but for her porn-starlet wardrobe of fingerless black lace gloves, a long bead necklace, and thigh-high stockings topped off with the kind of pink frills one might find on the bedspread in a little girl's room. The contradiction of her fledgling middle-schooler's breast development juxtaposed with the full bramble patch of early-onset pubic hair bequeathed to her by Romanian ancestry beckons the viewer; it calls to the newsstand passer-by, like the underage streetwalker in a Brazilian favela calls out to the handsome American in a suit: to stop, gawk and react.

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Pretty Baby is, in spirit, the story of Eva Ionesco. Louis Malle was struck by her early portfolio, and by its hushed-voice prestige among his coterie of committed artistes and bourgeois heretics against restraint. It inspired him to take hold of Polly Platt's script about a young girl's hard coming of age; he infused it with all the qualm and turmoil he saw straining to break the skin of Eva's costumed and choreographed image — especially in Irina Ionesco's black-and-white cocktails made of equal parts child sex trade circa Weimar-era Berlin and Murnau's Nosferatu.

Behold the blasphemy against age of consent on Zoom Magazine's August 1979 cover — Eva, with a defiant hauteur in her toplessness in this 1976 shot; Eva, with the hands-on-hips petulance of a brat who's been told to clean up her room. Behold it, and you'll find the genesis of Violet, Pretty Baby's grade-school lady in waiting, and her near-constant outbursts; you'll see the rough sketch of Violet sassing the house mammy when chided about her teasing of a black boy, you'll see Violet asserting her place on the brothel totem pole by either lording it over the other whores' children or flaunting her carnal knowledge at them. Draw a straight line from the emotional disconnect beneath Violet's harlot burlesque, and it leads you back to Eva bronzing naked in the Ibizan sun for Italian Playboy's October 1976 issue, her schoolgirl-in-math-class disinterest at enduring Jacques Bourboulon's innumerable setups a mere blemish atop her old pro's ease at spreading her legs with just a hint of clam, at striking the classic arched-back/tits-out pose, at miming doggystyle on all fours with her eleven year-old ass pointed skyward. (Why, there's even a pillow for her to rest her face on — who said porn was never classy?)

Delve into Malle's insistence on the normality of child prostitution in the 1910's, despite scant evidence of it in his source material, and you'll realize it's the audacity of his own time he's examining from the distance of the period piece. Gasp at Violet carried aloft as live meat on a platter — visual confirmation of her pre-menarche state to a gathering of the brothel's customers — and you'll recall "Classe 1965!," the title of that 1976 Playboy layout wielding proof of Ionesco's pubescence as a badge of honor. Gape askance at Violet's cherry being auctioned off the way Irina Ionesco made a pricey art-gallery piece of her daughter's hairless vulva, the way rare book sellers still fetch a pretty penny for first-rate copies of seven year-old Samantha Gates full-frontaled and centerfold-postured all throughout Alice, photographer Hajime Sawatari's 1973 re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. Marvel as the madam interrupts Violet's bath time to show off her sopping allure, Garry Gross-style, to a would-be defiler. Unpack the implications of Violet being rouged and dolled up for her ravishment at the hands of johns over four times her age — a whores' debasement ritual born of the slattern's hatred for all things innocent; a bestial disfiguring of girlhood via the mercenary considerations of the sex market that's as sublimely depressing as Eva, high-heeled and leopard-printed, in the October 1976 issue of Playmen, an Italian Playboy knock-off that trumpeted her on that issue's cover as "L'Adolescente Nuda."

In fact, if hebephile porn has an analogue to the On the Lookout sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, that Playmen spread is it: Phillippe Ledru shoots a tired-looking, slightly bloated Eva swimming in baby fat as if he were auditioning victims for a snuff film. Desecrating childhood seems to be a theme: Ledru has her stand panty-less before a smiling religious bust as she crushes a doll beneath her platform fuck-me pump. He poses her like a Raggedy Ann tossed spread-eagle onto a bed, her left nipple haphazardly exposed as if her shirt had been forced open — here, she's flanked by wooden dolls out of a demonic-possession movie that parody the malleability of her plaything's existence, as she tugs the boxers she's wearing up around her crotch so they resemble a pair of diapers with the impression of her vagina pushing through. Elsewhere, he has her lifelessly mimic the poses seen in old Marilyn Monroe snaps within the frame, and the effect is one of the cruelest mockery. It says: kid, you can parade the spitting image of a real screen siren all you want, but you'll never escape this cluttered, windowless pedophile's apartment and these thrift-store props. You're meat for freaks, our dour lamb at the sexual-liberation altar — doomed for posterity to these dreary, washed-out colors, to this cheap smut-rag print job, to the fringe renown and back-of-the-closet collectors' stashes inspired by your ignominious, throw-away childhood.

This is a child, these photos scold us from within the ready erotic charge she transmits, from within her uncanny elegance at even the earliest age. It's a child resentful at having been coaxed into doing things she didn't want to do, a child whose one constant throughout her modeling work was the projection of a pronounced sadness. Irina Ionesco and the photographers she loaned Eva out to learned to work with this built-in handicap. They thwarted Eva's undisguisable instinct to sabotage their sexualizing of her, twisting it into a willful kid's approximation of you'll-never-have-me femme-fatale insolence — a kiddie-dominatrix glower that only enhanced the obscenity of her portrayal, thus realizing its creator's intentions.

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Pretty Baby reflects upon a time when America tried to reconcile with man's taste for sin by way of a fairly radical social experiment: the "Storyville" district of old New Orleans, where prostitution was — from 1895 until about 1917 — regulated as quasi-legal under the legislation of City Councilman Sidney Story. Story, it's said, was inspired by port cities that acted as open containment zones for vice. The hunch behind Storyville was that authorities could keep a tighter watch on the whores and their madams cordoned off from respectable society, and allowed to operate in plain sight, than they could with them scattered about the criminal underworld. The era survives largely in the photographs of Ernest J. Bellocq, who captured Storyville prostitutes in simple, undramatized states of being, mostly in the very bordellos where they plied their trade.

Nothing in these photos, though, supports the Southern-fried Weimar Republic that Malle concocted for Pretty Baby, with its pedophilic Bellocq taking home the child prostitute Violet (Shields) after she's abandoned by her mother, and turning her into his unofficial wife and all-around erotic muse. The source for Violet was a rather blasé ex-prostitute interviewed in the 1974 book Storyville, New Orleans by historian Al Rose, whom Paramount Pictures paid fifty thousand dollars for the rights to his material. As quoted by Rose, she reflects on a life of sex work as the family business with curiously self-satirizing whore logic, sounding like a sweet but dim-bulb trollop straight out of Mark Twain:
I know it'd be good if I could say how awful it was, and like crime don't pay. But to me it seems just like anything else, like a kid whose father owns a grocery store. He helps him in the store. Well, my mother didn't sell groceries.
Rose would dispute the way that Malle sensationalized this woman, a marginal figure at best in his account (and even there, I'd guess that the real-life figure — if she existed — has been "touched up" by the writer's pen). Certainly, there's no record of Bellocq having met her or, for that matter, having ever shown an inclination toward what German sleaze merchants in the Wild West days of the porn biz would refer to as Kindersex. So one wonders, when seeing that Malle has fashioned a through-a-child's-eyes take on Storyville centered upon Violet, when then noting the way that Keith Carradine's Bellocq fixates upon Violet as the perfect subject for his own camera: to what degree has Malle emptied out the particulars of the real-life E.J. Bellocq and merely used him as a vessel for his personal fascination with Brooke-as-Eva Ionesco? To what extent did Malle and screenwriter Platt fixate upon a wisp of a concept in Al Rose's book and puff it up beyond history's dull constraints in fervid speculation — in fantasy — about the tragedy of Ionesco's life?

The Marilyn Monroe-ization of young Eva Ionesco reads like a blueprint for Malle's direction here. It's Ionesco's chafing at her own objectification being channeled when Violet, splayed nude like a junior Playmate in Bellocq's home studio as he meticulously prepares his camera, leaps up in restlessness, throws a tantrum, and begins smashing and scraping away at his glass negatives. To the befuddlement of art historians, the faces in many of the real-life Bellocq's negatives were indeed obliterated in such a manner. (Was it the photographer's shame? Protecting his subjects' identities?) But there's an intriguing detail in the scene for those with keen eyes: the outline of a girl's image is briefly visible in one of the negatives that Violet snatches up, and the mop of curls that we glimpse is a perfect replica, not of Violet's straight locks, but of Ionesco's mane as styled in the bulk of her modeling work — most especially in her mother's photographs. I'm not suggesting that Malle riddled Pretty Baby with easter-egg tributes to the object of his aesthetic concern — he most likely meant to imply that this was simply a random portrait of one of Bellocq's other subjects, probably Violet's mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon), who sports a similar coiffure. The visual "slip of the tongue" is telling, though — an undeniable call-out for those familiar with Eva Ionesco (though few moviegoers would have been in 1978), and especially suggestive of Malle-Platt's real inspiration if one reads Violet's pique in the scene as a reaction to her own image.

Shields as Violet registers as well as she can. Malle forbids a surplus of child-actor preciousness from wilting his canvas, so what we get from her is the distilled essence of all little girls — an impetuous, demanding, self-obsessed, occasionally mean-spirited little diva taught that the center of the world sits between her legs — compounded by the character's fatherlessness and by the amorality of her formative environment. (Baudelaire on la jeune fille: "A little fool, a little slut; the greatest idiocy united with the greatest depravity.") But Violet hasn't much to communicate to adults beyond the warped sense of human intimacy imposed upon her by her draw of the short stick — and this Malle largely glosses over. If anything, Pretty Baby suffers from having too much taste. It prioritizes sober-mindedness speckled with odd sops to Spielbergian sentimentality over truth; it serves up prostitution as a kind of Oscar-bait museum exhibit — sterile and encased in the good intentions of a "serious artist" — rather than risk pushing us, and especially our sugar-and-spice conceptions of little girls, into thorny psychological terrain. Malle treads so gingerly along the right side of the line between Euro-auteur envelope-pushing and Maladolescenza that he never takes us into anything we can't blithely transition away from — it's as if nothing in Violet's world ever lingered or scarred, which only completely contradicts the entire point of the film. Malle's pulled off the neat trick of using Violet's real-life inspiration as fuel for his fever dream of perversion that implicitly moralizes about the Bad Old Days, while taking her nonchalance in the Al Rose book at face value. The two elements cancel each other out, rendering Pretty Baby the cinematic equivalent of that Der Spiegel piece.

Violet's carried off to her first time by an outwardly meek banker type, who's as glum and uncommunicative in getting his money's worth as she is wide-eyed and tremulous. The silence between them and the darkness of the room play against Violet's expectations of gentility — he closes in on her, and we're primed for her naïveté to meet its vicious death. Malle cuts to her shriek of pain as heard by a pair of children listening outside the door. As the whores pile into the room after, first to check that she's still alive, and then to laugh with her as she tries to mend the shards of her innocence over the agony from her batter-rammed and disarranged innards, the moment wobbles on the brink of some great, sad irony — some skewering of evasion as human coping mechanism like the post-assassination crowd sing-along to "It Don't Worry Me" in Robert Altman's Nashville. It gets about halfway there but it withers away because Malle isn't interested in asking real questions about what he's showing us. To do so would mean turning a critical eye on the women in the film, for one, and that might mean jostling us from our smug easy chair of current-year enlightenment, which rests nonnegotiably upon the insistence that women of history never had agency, that they were never more than, at best, pretty pets straining against a leash clenched in the iron grip of patriarchal whim.

And yet, it's impossible to maintain that argument in the face of what Pretty Baby shows us. It's the women here who tend oppression's garden. It's the Hatties and other would-be/should-be nurturers of Storyville who sustain, condone, and profit unhesitatingly from a subculture of child exploitation, of self-exploitation, of bidding away anything that isn't nailed down to the man waving the highest dollar. Malle gives us a childhood to make Charles Dickens weep: one born of sexual expendability to go with its abject poverty; one steeped in the cheapest, stinkiest and most degradable aspects of femininity unshapen by any kind of ethical guidelines or stabilizing societal force. We see little Violet, excited at the birth of her baby brother, tearing through the cathouse at peak business hour to share the news with all the prostitutes — the only "family" she's ever known. But, of course, they couldn't care less; they're too busy engaging customers (as she watches on) to bother sharing in the wonder of new life — a life that they know won't have any value in this environment, anyway. We see Violet start her morning in a rat-infested dumping-off chamber for the brothel's children, where they sleep, packed in like sardines, some two to a bed. We see Violet pressed into early parenthood, as the only mother figure around to quiet her screaming brother while Hattie sleeps off the drunken revelry of the previous night next to her naked john. We see Violet shooed away and ignored by everyone from Hattie to Bellocq, whose initial interest is in the portraits he tries to capture of her mother, and not in the irksome brat who insists on planting herself next to his camera and spoiling his painstaking artistic process with her mugging and endless questions.

We see Sarandon's Hattie, mother in title only, so at home in the gutter and so blatantly unsolicitous of Violet's well-being, that she lounges about in all manner of undress before the girl's curious eyes, and ensures by her non-existent parenting that Violet's most accessible pathway forward is to trudge along in her own footsteps. Violet stands by as Hattie gets into a scrape with a boorish caricature of a john, who puts his hands upon her before she returns the favor — they roll and tumble about like something out of a silent-era domestic farce. Malle refuses to shape the moment; he declines to link it to Violet's developing sense of male-female relations, to her notion of what her place is in this world she inhabits, so it deflates into sitcom slapstick, punctuated by Violet's chuckling as if seeing her mother attacked were just the most gosh-darn hilarious thing ever. Malle leaves you with the suspicion that having Hattie wind up on top was his attempt at endearing this wretched Jezebel to us as some tough-gal proto-feminist who don't take no guff. Some heroine, though: Hattie the Teri Shields stand-in offers no objection to the madam's decision to whore her daughter off at the age of twelve; she virtually hand-feeds the kid to a customer herself. She displays so little awareness that there might be another life choice for Violet, so little concern over whatever Violet will be left to as she ditches the kid for a better life with her new husband, that she's functionally a sociopath — the banality of true evil embodied in the raw female survivalist instinct. (The impression is only furthered by Sarandon's open-mouthed, deliberate, never-quiet-there style of acting.)

And what of Violet's bought-and-sold virginity — something that might have served as the horrifying black-hole centerpiece of a much more honest film, something whose implications and in-the-moment details, both physical and psychological, might have been explored by a director with balls, with artistic integrity? Questions abound in anticipation of genuine daring, such as: How precisely does Violet feel about servicing men old enough to be her grandfather — how does she stow it away in her mind? At what point does Violet come to enjoy the sex, as all whores must? (We only kid ourselves that they toil away joylessly, just as we convince ourselves that sexual adventurism is a stranger to the young.) "Ah hate chu!" Hattie winds up spitting at Violet on the heels of a face slap. "If it weren't for you, I would've been outta here a long tahm ago!" How conscious is Hattie otherwise of this resentment toward an unwanted burden — of her spiteful crab-in-a-bucket impulse toward filthying her own daughter's vagina, just as hers was long ago scarlet-lettered and Storyvilled away beyond the reach of a proper life? Malle teases with a scene of Violet following Hattie and her john into a room and then shutting the door behind her as she steps inside. Then, he cuts away and it's never built upon. But what are Hattie's boundaries as it relates to the violation of her child — would she balk at a john whose great unscratched itch is to enjoy a mother and daughter together?

Bellocq transfers his attraction for Hattie over to Violet since he sees the girl as a less tainted version of her mother that he can mold and idealize — but how does he bridge the gap between Violet the sex object and the heedless orphan he spends all his time reprimanding? How will the Violet of Malle's final shot transition into society, post-Storyville, and will men ever suspect the past that bubbles, dormant but ever alive, beneath her newly scrubbed-and-bow-adorned exterior? Frances Faye, as the elderly dwarf of a madam, hobbles about the margins, looking like an old Jewish drag queen someone found beaten and stripped of makeup in an alley, but who still insists on the glamorous airs of his stage act. Malle assures us of her bone-deep venality by foregrounding her counting of money at the breakfast table as Hattie breastfeeds her baby. How did this Irina Ionesco figure make the transition from procured to procurer (as would be most likely)? At what point did the door to any glimmer of conscience inside her become rusted shut?

We get neither answers nor even an awareness of the questions. Stymied by Malle's cowardice posing as objectivity, you struggle for an answer as to why Pretty Baby was even made. The closest he gets to rendering a verdict on any of the film's goings-on are the demurrals of a couple of brothel denizens as the price on Violet's hymen is announced, and the vaguely unsettled looks of the house piano player, played by rubbery-faced blaxploitation regular Antonio Fargas. We know he's intended to represent some oasis of humanity here since a) he's black, and Malle already told us what a jazz-worshiping French Negrophile he was in the semi-autobiographical Murmur of the Heart b) he's the only character who relates to Violet, not as a Raggedy Ann to be stripped and posed, and not for her potential earning power, but simply as a child.

Malle contradicts even this, though, when he shows the Fargas character smirking and offering advice as the women primp Violet for her debut customer. The director's fealty to his own concepts is as tenuous as his commitment to the reality of segregated 1917 New Orleans, which he alludes to whenever he wants to score easy points against the characters, but which he otherwise ignores in favor of his soggy multiculturalist delusion of black and white whores operating freely within the same establishment, and of Fargas' grown-ass Negro being allowed anywhere near a young white girl — and in full view of paying white customers, at that. (More sticking points for Al Rose in his savaging of the film.) We get Violet having her legs rubbed with muck in a voodoo ceremony to bless her with irresistibility to men, we get dyke-dancing and (implied, as usual) salt-and-pepper threesomes, we get the near-murder by ballpeen hammer of a violent drunkard — but what, if anything, does Malle feel about any of this? The non-judgment of the cultural relativist is gutless faggotry for a serious artist — true artists judge; they make statements, they bolster their art with a moral clarity or, at the very least, an unwaveringly delineated point of view, as Paul Thomas Anderson did in Magnolia when he denied daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator the escape of his own death, as Malle himself did when peeling back the psyche of Nazi-occupied France in Lacombe, Lucien and, later, in Au revoir les enfants.

In March 1977, just over a year prior to Pretty Baby's release, and two months before Der Spiegel used Eva Ionesco to sell the charms of the unripe, Malle's colleague, Roman Polanski, was taken into police custody. The charges against him were: rape by use of drugs, sodomy, perversion, unlawful sexual acts upon a minor under the age of fourteen, and furnishing controlled substances to a minor. The victim was thirteen year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), whom he'd photographed topless for a Vogue spread at the home of an absent Jack Nicholson. Polanski would plead guilty to simple unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, then flee to France, where he's avoided extradition since 1978. He's long maintained that the sex was consensual; in a 1979 interview with novelist Martin Amis, he summed up what he saw as the hypocrisy of the law by asserting that judges and jurists all wanted to fuck young girls as much as he did.

Polanski's fondness for the training-bra set was no secret; Hollywood is an industry where noshing on the children of the goyim was old hat back when producer Arthur Freed flashed his petseleh to an eleven year-old Shirley Temple. (See also: mogul Jack Woltz in The Godfather, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Bagatelles pour un massacre.) And like Eva Ionesco, like Brooke Shields, like Violet, Samantha Gailey was nudged forth into the Devil's embrace by her own mother, an actress and model who'd approved the photoshoot with Polanski, offering up her little lamb on a Seder plate in exchange for career advancement. Pretty Baby was happening all around Malle; safely confining it to his neutered conception of the mythic American past was his first miscalculation. His greatest: not stepping aside so that a tortured degenerate like Polanski could enliven this pimping of a little girl with the grit of personal experience.

©2017 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jolene (2008)

Modern Woman, Interrupted or: The Black Hole

directed by Dan Ireland
starring Jessica Chastain, Dermot Mulroney, Frances Fisher,
Rupert Friend, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Vartan

I'm probably overrating this due to whatever remnants of an old ginger fetish are still bouncing around my psyche but carrot-topped (and presumably fire-crotched) Jessica Chastain makes quite the impression in this adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow short story — and that's even when she isn't flashing tits and gracing us with the most edible pair of pink pokies since whatever nude scene Julianne Moore did five minutes ago. Thing is: that impression is quite something other than what Jolene and its Sundance-caliber regurgitation of The Female Eunuch intended.

Jolene's titular drifter is an actress' dream come true, since Chastain isn't required to play a single recognizable facsimile of a woman but, rather, several feminine archetypes — spirits conjured in delirium by the collective male libido. There's Jailbait Jolene, hopscotching between Princess (via the worship of her guileless teen hubby) and Lolita (succumbing to the predation of his lascivious uncle). There's Teen Delinquent Jolene and her experimental dalliance with late-night Cinemax-ready bisexuality. There's Scorned Woman Jolene, who unleashes righteous, property-wrecking fury all over the baby-mama drama of the cad she's been foolish enough to trust. (For a few minutes, it's as if someone decided to remake Waiting to Exhale and Chastain is in the Angela Bassett role.) There's Jolene as Eternal Siren, slithering about for a room full of hypnotized cocks in the best filmic approximation of a striptease since Showgirls dared you to jack off right there in the theater. Most importantly, there's not one but two variations on Tragic Woman Without a Man Jolene: first, as the Gangster's Moll who loses her old-world sugar daddy to Mob turf warring; then, as the Victim of Domestic Violence separated from her precious little boy. (This last bit being the film's most conspicuous sop to the wymyn's-rights crowd, what with our current court system and its lopsidedly mother-favoring custody racket.)

She and director Dan Ireland think they're paying tribute to the true-survivor spirit of the bosomy ones; showing us how feminine resilience maintains itself through a lifetime of abandonments, betrayals and abject abuse at the hands of men. But what they leave you with is a near-Schopenhauerian meditation on woman as the eternal blank slate: a black hole of insecurities, toddler-like solipsism, and non-existent decision-making skill filled with whatever purpose is given to her by whatever lover/protector/parent figure she's led by at a given moment. Jolene weathers it all — priapic hebephiles, predatory rug munchers, serenading drug dealers, bargain-bin Bugsy Siegels, Bible-thumping woman-beaters, even inspiring a good-hearted simpleton to bungee-jump off the nearest bridge with no cord. But, for all her troubles, she winds up no more settled or complete as a woman than she was at the start.

No matter; dykes, feminists and other such cultural effluvium get the imagery here that soothes their misandric breasts: Jolene, untethered from the demands of the patriarchy and cast adrift on the waters of her own self-determination. It doesn't matter where she ends up, how she gets there, or whether she'll ever possess the wherewithal to elevate herself beyond a reliance on blind luck and the day-to-day foraging of an alley cat (on the basis of what the film shows us, "yes" is a fool's bet); that her freckle-dusted square peg is no longer pressed by male expectation into round holes (including that of "mother," apparently) is, for these people, victory enough.

Jolene's idea of a bittersweet ending is to send her off to the casting couches and Jew-lluminati soul-sucking of the Hollywood meat market, and if the film had the slightest bit of irony in its suggestion that a patchwork of fractured personas can find herself in a career of playing make-believe, we might have had a nice little satirist's jab at Tinseltown; a sly wink in the direction of Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Drive. As it stands, though, there's her voice-over narration and its delineation of her innermost "thoughts"; it bleeds enough painful sincerity to soak a dozen tampons.

©2017 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Paul Thomas Anderson: Top to Bottom (1996-2014) — Part I

To the extent that you watch Paul Thomas Anderson's films these days, you're likely either a full-on PTA-is-the-Second-Coming! true believer or a hopeless romantic, clinging Jimmy Stewart-in-Vertigo-style to the disintegrating rooftop of a high from nearly twenty years ago — that cineaste's elation upon discovery of Hard Eight or Boogie Nights that said, "Here's the next level in the use of Hollywood form and technique to frame everyday drama; here's a filmmaker whose sentimental flourishes and smart-aleck facility with film as panoramist's canvas speak to an audience of fatherless kids and people whose only real families have been the ones they've managed to cobble together."

My verdict: I can't think of another working director who's thrown away his early potential to connect with mass audiences and rival the legacies of the old greats the way Anderson has. Even as his mastery of tone and mood have deepened, and he's largely (thankfully) grown beyond his former kid-who-knows-every-Scorsese-and-Altman-film-by-heart mimicry, he's gotten progressively worse as a storyteller.

It's fine that he eschews the old conventions that make for drab formula retreads and all but, along with them, he seems to have sworn off the most rudimentary knowledge of how to tie character and plot elements together, of how to craft narratives that feel as if they're going someplace, and which sport a sense of resonance beyond whatever personal meaning the story has for him. Entire gaps are missing from his most recent films as if he'd shot first drafts; neither The Master nor Inherent Vice concludes so much as each film simply slams face-first into a wall, then yells out for Anderson to roll the credits.

I blame constant, ravenous ego-fellatio from the critical establishment, most of whom would put a three-hour reel of Anderson taking a dump while humming the melody from an Aimee Mann demo on their year-end top-ten lists. I also blame a pretentious internet groupie squad that elevates every silence, every forced quirk, every absurdly showy camera pirouette of an Anderson film to heights of instant canonization that not even a Stanley Kubrick or a Robert Altman enjoyed. Both groups seem concerned with justifying their own worship of him — a badge-like signifier of their personal tastes — more than they are with any sort of honest analysis.

I don't think the emperor's completely naked here, though. I'm as intrigued by the trailer for his upcoming Phantom Thread as anyone; I'll probably never give up hope that Anderson will someday marry his early gifts for narrative closure and for sketching offbeat America to the intensity of focus he displayed in There Will Be Blood and in The Master's first half. Maybe he needs to start fucking Fiona Apple again.

In the meantime, let's chart the decline:

1. There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood at its best is pure waking dream; less a motion picture written, scored and directed than a writhing, wriggling piece of our national character — as preserved in amber by muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 novel Oil! Anderson is partially adapting here.

There's some of the poetry of a silent-movie epic in its painterly widescreen tableaux of an American West in its bare-plains infancy, in the film's wordless, ritualistic evocations of what it meant to make one's living from the land, in the way that its chunk of the early years of America's oil industry quietly unfolds like the petals of some rare orchid opening — gradually, wondrously. Daniel Day-Lewis, as oil magnate Daniel Plainview, likewise recalls an earlier era of cinematic spectacle with his turn-of-the-century Snidely Whiplash-cum-railroad baron look and his crooked gait and his verbal conjuring of director John Huston (think Chinatown) plus any number of Woodrow Wilson-era bigwigs whose voices he studied recordings of in preparation for the role.

What doesn't work so well is the film's easy assumption of venality and two-bit hucksterism in Eli Sunday, the town's self-appointed young preacher who winds up facing off with Plainview for nothing less than the town's soul. Eli's the paper tiger of Religious Hogwash that Anderson pits against the raging Colossus of Reasonable Agnosticism, and the outcome of said battle is never in doubt; it's forecast from their first meeting. How much more powerful would Blood be, though, had it rejected the taint of postmodern hipster antipathy to Christianity in order to examine — truly, seriously examine — the psychological motivation for Eli's God complex? What if Anderson had given Eli just a smidgen of the same blemished humanity he lent to daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator in Magnolia? What if — instead of the Saturday Night Live sketch we get of Eli "casting out" the "evil spirit" of an elderly woman's arthritis — he'd endowed Eli with a genuine gift for speaking to the emotional needs of his congregation, for applying a measure of spiritual unguent to their lives? As hilarious as that arthritis bit is (and I do love it), it's little more than tent-show revival theatrics; easy laughs. It's beneath the auteurist stature that Anderson, by this point, was so clearly capable of attaining.

Anderson gives Blood a sense of historical weight, though — of scope. It boasts a vision of the world beyond Daniel Plainview and it shows us his influence on that world. America's gain is his loss, his self-enforced isolation, his willful descent into the fate of a Howard Hughes who's spent one too many winters at The Shining's Overlook Hotel.

2. Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight, though it takes place in Reno, isn't the only film since Robert Altman's California Split to fully capture that amiably seedy Vegas vibe of impeccably dressed losers and tired cocktail waitresses who turn tricks when their shift is over if they're behind on the rent. But it's the first since Altman's existential shrug of an addiction comedy to wear that vibe like an old pair of slippers, to bleed it from its pores and leave your living room stinking of sighed cigarette smoke and the fuck-me perfume of raccoon-eyed casino floozies. His first time at bat, Anderson managed to capture the finest performances his three leads — Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Gwyneth Paltrow — will ever give. He also crafted what's likely the most effortless-seeming, formally perfect narrative he'll ever attach his name to.

Hard Eight personifies the channel-surfing-at-2 a.m.-and-just-stumbled-across-this-movie-on-Showtime movie — a quietly cocksure crime yarn spun by a kid who's been up on cigarettes and coffee and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur since the night he was born, a kid who lives to turn actors loose on a precisely worded monologue and to gaze at them with CinemaScope eyes. The film sucks you in with its shaggy-dog hook of an opener, teases you with flashes of loneliness and alienation behind the comedy, deftly slips father-son pathos under its cool film noir shadings, then packs a world of unstated emotion into something as simple and unshowy as an antique of a gambler sitting in his hotel suite and watching a video of his surrogate son with his brand new bride, the son so completely swallowed up in the stupid, ignorant bliss of a first-ever romance that the old man'd do anything — we'd do anything — to keep the poor bastard from crashing back to earth.

Samuel L. Jackson lurks on the margins of all this like a cagey Rottweiler waiting for its moment to attack. He's all coarse guy talk and pimpish leering and squeaking leather and far-too-boisterous laughter before he morphs into your worst secret come back from the dead just to royally fuck up your day — the birth of Magnolia's "We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us."

Hard Eight strides in the bespoke suit and wingtips of its protagonist: calm, self-assured, never calling attention to itself, never using five or six words when two will do; biding its time to spring forth from a darkened room and make an impression on you that you'll never forget, in ways that you never saw coming. It ends on the perfect grace note: its final frame could well have served as its first.

A hard-boiled genre archetype turns to self-sacrifice to nullify a threat to his family — to keep the innocent from crashing back to earth — and he's the purest, truest father Anderson's ever written.

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

What works best about Boogie Nights is also what sticks in your craw about it. Aside from Anderson having lifted lines and scenarios nearly verbatim from various John Holmes pornos, aside from his having carbon-copied the ensemble texture of Robert Altman's Nashville and his having poached the final scene of Scorsese's Raging Bull (while cramming in as many whip pans and blinding camera-bulb flashes and chuckles at gaudy Seventies fashion from Casino as possible), he's diagrammed Nights as a porn-world Goodfellas — a period-piece rise-and-fall charting the seduction of Henry Hill/Dirk Diggler away from an abusive home and into the warm surrogate-family embrace of the Mob/the adult-film industry, as personified by the avuncular charms of all-powerful capo Paulie Cicero/veteran skin-flick director Jack Horner.

From there, Henry/Dirk must prove that he belongs by passing the initiation test of taking his first arrest like a man/successfully shooting his first sex scene, after which he rises to become an indispensable Mob associate/king porn stud, swims in cash and endlessly available pussy, and proudly shows off the tacky accoutrements of his nouveau riche lifestyle before getting swallowed up in the cocaine vortex of a singularly drugged-out era. Come the dawn of the Eighties (oh no! Reagan's elected! the mood of the country's changed! the party's over!), Henry/Dirk is free-falling through the abyss faster than you can say "downfall," running afoul of his former mentor and bottoming out via a brush with mortality. In case you still haven't grasped that Anderson really, really took Scorsese's Mafia opus to heart, he gives us a scene of Dirk crawling back to Jack with hat in hand that's so stupendously, unapologetically literal-minded in its rubber-dong-out aspiring to Goodfellas' emotional heft that it has Horner tending to some food at the stove as Dirk shuffles into view with cracked voice and watery eyes — done, of course, in sheer balls-the-size-of-a-gangster's-level imitation of Paul Sorvino's back-kitchen sausage-frying as Ray Liotta schleps up to him and walks off with thirty-two hundred dollars for a lifetime of friendship.

Anderson isn't trying to slide his influence under the radar of his narrative in hopes that the seams will disappear, though. His opening re-staging of Goodfellas' from-the-street-and-onto-the-club-floor Copacabana shot thumps its own chest as it cries out, "hey, Marty, watch this!" Anderson wants you to notice the template he's working from here. He's inviting you to make comparisons between Boogie Nights and the films that inspired him to try to one-up them with even more outré how'd-he-do-that? camera pageantry, with a bigger and more obsessively detailed sense of time and place, with more extravagant set pieces, with a more deeply ensconced anthropologist's snapshot of a subculture — and, yes, with a more ostentatious stab at assaying a major shift in the American psyche.

The problem with inviting such comparisons is that an audience inevitably asks: what do you actually have to say in relation to the masters you're cribbing from? And the answer for Boogie Nights is: beneath all the visual pizzazz and period-appropriate soundtrack decoration, not much. Originality-wise, it's unquestionably a step or two down from Hard Eight, and what he has to say about the porn world and the misfits who populate it is a whole lot of been-there-done-that for all the fireworks he shoots off to get us there. Surprise: fucking for profit while Hoovering half of Colombia up your nose will lead you to some dark places in life. Newsflash: success goes straight to the heads of idiots with no grounding in reality, and striking out on your own — without a cogent strategy or even a marketable real-world talent — might lead you to beating off in cars with gay-bashing closet cases. It's like a dry run for Magnolia's three hours of the wildest, craziest brushstrokes imaginable just to give us a painting of a bowl of fruit.

And yet, I adore the thing. Boogie Nights soars. It pants, it preens, it zeroes in on desolation in the middle of a party. It watches as the people around it come spectacularly undone and it gets right in their faces — close enough to taste their tears. It's as quotable as Pulp Fiction and it's been one of my go-to movie-in-the-background-of-a-party movies for at least a decade now. It highlights his debt to greater filmmakers, yet Anderson excels when foregrounding his whiz-kid giddiness at I Am Cuba-diving into heretofore cinematically untouched waters (aside from Hardcore, Paul Schrader's 1979 runaway-gone-XXX re-imagining of The Searchers).

That giddiness is fused with his prankster's sketch of what the era actually felt and smelled like in real time, and we get some of the Nineties' best set pieces — Dirk lost in underwear-clad self-worship as cinematographer Robert Elswit's 360-degree-panning camera takes in the posters on his bedroom walls: a dizzying catalog of "Me Decade" iconography that could double as a museum exhibit; Don Cheadle's cowboy-garbed Buck Swope, on his joke of a day job, using a country-and-Western 8-track to try and sell a stereo; Dirk's first sex scene, as it moves from the mundanities of last-minute blocking and scripting decisions to deliciously stilted porn dialogue to Julianne Moore's bubblegum-pink milk nozzles to the first real family embrace that a dishwasher from Torrance has ever known; every excruciatingly drawn-out second of the freebasing, firecracker-throwing "Sister Christian" sequence as it snowballs from Rick Springfield to Dirk's slow-boil moment of clarity to that awful gut-sick moment when you realize you've cast your lot with a fucking coked-out maniac who's likely to get you blown apart with a shotgun.

It's not a true "blue Hollywood" exposé, of course — for one thing, if it were, Dirk's what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here? moment of bottoming-out would play less as a queasily funny Quentin Tarantino homage; it'd be an outright descent into hell, with the bludgeoned corpses and drawn-out torture and crime-world revenge-plotting of its obvious inspiration: the 1981 "Wonderland Murders" involving real-life Dirk Diggler prototype John Holmes. For that matter, Anderson wouldn't be content to pretend as if adult film were populated with nothing but rosy-cheeked exiles from suburbia rutting for the profit of Mafia-run distribution channels; he'd make at least a token gesture of acknowledging the Tribal hand that kept — and keeps — the biz propped up, from the bulk of on-camera "talent" during its Seventies-to-Eighties "Golden Age" to the majority of its producers and distributors and cultural cheerleaders. Anderson ensures the relatability of his gutter-residing never-could-be's to us through a kind of paternalistic largesse — making them sweet-natured dim-bulbs that one can't hold too responsible for their stations in life.

And then, there's that bit with Robert Ridgely's underworld financier getting busted for corruption of a minor, which Jack Horner treats with the same disbelief-turned-to-revulsion that Middle America would. Certainly, a guy who'd done all the preparatory research that Anderson had would know that such transgressions are nowhere near as unheard-of in the business as Boogie Nights would have you assume; one need only look to the early porn career of a still-underage Traci Lords (despite the industry's ass-covering claims of ignorance), or the ubiquity of jizz-biz hangers-on who make their debuts five seconds after they turn eighteen and expect people to imagine that their period of "discovery" and industry "nurturing" somehow stretched back no further than the age of consent. (For the record, my own time in L.A. brought me within the orbit of a couple of fourth-tier porn girls, the kind who'd done a few shoots "here and there" but had amassed no real notoriety or success from it. I'll never forget the nonchalance with which one of them  a real Rollergirl type if I've ever seen one  informed me of the time she'd been offered a tidy sum to participate with another starlet in a private shoot involving a pair of minors. She declined; it wasn't her "thing," she'd said, but the other girl shrugged and took the money. "It happens," I was told.)

Ultimately, though, Anderson's under no illusions about these people. On his Boogie Nights DVD commentary track, Anderson mentioned what he called the "'you know' girls": starlets he'd encounter on his visits to porn shoots who, when he'd ask what they thought or felt about what it was they were doing for a living, would mumble an "oh, you know..." that trailed away into a giggle or a staring-off into the distance. His prediction: that someday, all the pent-up rage behind those "you know"'s would come bursting forth in a paroxysm of long-simmering realization directed either at others, as in his Rollergirl's roller-stomping of some college kid's head, or at themselves, as in the William Macy character's Shauna Grant/Savannah/Megan Leigh special right through the brainpan. They're fuck-ups, these perpetual margin-dwellers. They're losers, they're geniuses at nothing but self-delusion — cultural relics hopelessly unsuited to the sea change in the national mood. (A Sam Peckinpah character could relate.) It's less a market-minded omission than a sheer act of mercy that Anderson draws the curtain just before the height of the AIDS crisis. Boogie Nights sums itself up, sums up America's post-"revolution" hangover, sums up the what-the-fuck-have-I-done-with-my-life? weariness of an entire swath of society, with a single look on Julianne Moore's face — a look that portends the storm clouds that'll gather and progressively darken above this lot while they pause to do another line and pop in another eight-track, trying their damnedest to keep the orgy going into the harsh morning light of their own declines.

"For the wages of sin is death," so sayeth the Bible, and death, as Boogie Nights' soon-to-be-referencing-Exodus-8:2 helmsman makes clear, likes its bit of foreplay, too: gnawing away at the still-living long before it moves in for the climax of the final embrace.

Part II to follow...

Further reading:

There Will Be Blood: America!

©2017 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .