Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beam Me Down Scotty


Boogie Nights is one of those seminal (no pun intended) movies that make you understand what movies should and can do when created by someone with a point of view that exists on a level beyond people-pleasing and beyond spectacle.  Paul Thomas Anderson has never been able to accomplish that eerie altered state of both steely-eyed contemplation and movie-movie ecstasy since.  He's tried but usually he stumbles on the "steely-eyed contemplation" part, creating epic yet somehow small-minded, serious-minded pictures that try so hard to be original they lose their minds.  (The Master is probably his worst attempt yet.)  Boogie Nights takes on the 70s and 80s porn industry with a Robert-Altman-frenetic kind of flourish and bombast, but then somehow slows itself down long enough to harden into a real-life dream.  There are textures and perpheries in Boogie Nights that seem both manufactured and incidental, accidental and somehow right on the money.  The early party scene, when Dirk Diggler is taken into the Jack Horner fold, is mesmerizingly messy yet completely controlled.  

It's that sequence in which Scotty first appears.  As performed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Scotty is both buffoon and moral center, a holy fool who haunts Boogie Nights in a way that always brings it back to itself.  I think that's probably what is missing from The Master and all the other movies Anderson has directed since Boogie Nights, that off-kilter, jaggedy nobody who somehow reinvigorates the atmosphere with a sense of  innocence and need.  You feel Scotty's predicament in a deep way because he is not being focused on.  He's always in the background, yearning to be included in the spotlight, but in end he just winds up holding the spotlight on the porn performers he both envies and idolizes.  

If Scotty were to be a central figure, his power as a character would be lost.  His dramatic vigor comes from his intense desire and his banishment to the edges of each scene.  When he does come into focus, he's either chided or bossed back into place, and yet as you follow the overall structure of the movie you also begin to understand that the movie truly is about him.  Hoffman understands this intrinsically, giving Scotty just enough "zaniness" to be comic relief, and just enough tragic splendor to choke you up.  The scene after he lets Dirk know that he loves him is one of the most powerful moments I think I've ever witnessed in movies.  It simply consists of Scotty crying behind the wheel of his car, calling himself names.  It's kind of like a Will-Ferrell lark but also a Tennessee-Williams crescendo, as if Blanche Dubois and Ricky Bobby had a big fat sweet baby.  

I don't ever want Scotty to have his own TV show, or even be featured in Boogie Nights 2.  But I do want to relish the memory of him.  He's more than the sum of his part.