Cinema, Sex and Swimming Parties
Peter Bogdonivich’s The Last Picture Show and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights are the same film
Cinema as a metaphor is best appreciated by people who watch movies; which is everyone besides the strange subset of society that claims they don’t have time to watch movies, their lives too busy as senators, stay at home moms, or janitors. Even people that are “too busy” for a good cinematic metaphor will make time for some nice, dirty sex. And if by some anomaly of the genome someone is “too busy” and completely asexual, well, then I’m sure they still love a good swimming party on a scorching summer day, or a hot tub wind-down from whatever productive things asexual beings do. A film that has all of those elements—cinematic metaphor, sex, and swimming parties—would be just about perfect. Well, I’m here to tell you that this film has been made twice.
Filmmakers are obsessed with movies to the point that it consumes their very beings, perverting every one of their notions of the world. At this point filmmakers get so wrapped up in making, watching, and consuming films that it’s only natural they produce films about films. And it’s only natural that scripts for these films about films get greenlit because the people in charge of those decisions also spend every waking moment thinking, and nights dreaming, about movies. But that’s ok: using film as a plot element is almost as old as the medium. It is so engrained in the fabric of cinema that most audiences can understand film as metaphor. It’s almost inevitable that even the casual moviegoer will at some point accidentally stumble across a film that’s about cinema. It may not be Fellini’s 8 1/2 or the final scene of Full Frontal, but cinema on the screen is just a fact of life at this point. The comparison then between The Last Picture Show and Boogie Nights (both of which deal with changing ideas about cinema as metaphor), may make you feel the urge to click to another tab a slightly more challenging article written by someone slightly less “nom de plume”-y. But if that were the only thing to say about how similar these two films are, this article wouldn’t be an article it’d be a tweet. The point, however, is longer than a tweet, and there’s more to the similarity than film as a metaphor for change.
Let’s start at the beginning, where coincidences begin piling up. Both The Last Picture Show and Boogie Nights are second films by cinema-obsessed directors: Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Thomas Anderson, respectively. Each wrote the script to their film, Bogdanovich with the help of author Larry McMurtry, and PTA with the help of his massive genius brain. Both films are set in time periods close to the filmmaker’s childhood. Both have amazing anachronistic soundtracks. Both films have ensemble casts with huge acting pedigree; the actors in these films read like a list of people that have things on layaway at Marshall’s, but instead of last year’s Wu Wear sweatpants they’re in line for Academy Award Nominations. And speaking of nominations, each film was nominated for best screenplay, The Last Picture Show for Best Adapted Screenplay and Boogie Nights for Best Original. Also, TLPS had four supporting actor nominations and Boogie Nights had two. The actors in roles of surrogate parents in each film were nominated for academy awards, showing that the only thing Hollywood likes more than making movies about film is aging actors and actresses with roles portraying deeply flawed women and men as surrogate parental figures.
You might be wondering, “Surrogate parental figures?” Well, let’s dive into the meat and potatoes of this feast of cinematic comparison. Both The Last Picture Show and Boogie Nights deal with abandoned boys seeking new family structures during epic shifts in cinema and filmmaking. In The Last Picture Show, Sonny Crawford’s (Timothy Bottom’s) father is an alcoholic, or pill head, or sufferer of some other tragic small town aliment that prevents him from taking care his son, while Eddie Adams (a.k.a. Dirk Diggler, a.k.a Brock Landers, a.k.a. Marky Mark) has an abusive mother who is like kryptonite for masculinity and libido. Both of these boys are seeking successful cinema-savvy father figures, and find them. Sonny finds the always-kind Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), and Eddie Adams from Torrance gets discovered by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Besides changing his name to Dirk Diggler, Eddie Adams remains still the same sweet, polite boy as before he made boatloads of money cumming in and on the ladies, and Sonny too stays relatively the same throughout his “mentorship”. He keeps playing sports, flipping Billy’s hat around and eating cheeseburgers while Sam does mentor-y things like teach hard lessons and sponsor a trip to Mexico.
The similarity between these two father figures goes beyond their both being successful, dedicated, honorable men. Jack Horner may be making his nut, if you will, by literally making people “nut” but he still has standards and dreams. While I’m not entirely clear on the ethical codes of small Texan towns in the 1950s, some part of me believes that owning a pool hall and cinema was that era’s equivalent of making adult pictures. The only thing backing that up is my personal exposure to Baptist elders as a child and the fuss they made about playing cards and Eddie Murphy movies. And the fact that Ben Johnson didn’t even want the role to begin with because the script was too lewd, and only took it at the behest of John Ford. I’m not sure if Johnson was a Baptist or if he simply objected to the character owning a pool hall and a diner always playing country western music. Either way, both of these men weren’t the traditional ideal father figures of their respective times and/or locations. Sure Jack Horner was a filmmaker in Hollywood, but nobody at that time would suggest he was suitable father figure. Hell, even poor country western Buck (Don Cheadle) can’t even get a loan from a bank (banks have, I guess, softened their stance on morals from 1980s to now) because he’s an adult film actor. Sam seems to be more loved and respected than Jack, but I doubt that to really be the case.
The only people that really interact with Sam are the town’s kids who he’s trying to mentor, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) whom he’s employing, and the lovely Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn) whom he loves. He doesn’t hold this clout with the rest of the town, to the point where they openly mock his last will and testament after he passes from an untimely stroke. Still, both of these men could give a damn about anyone’s opinion of them. Jack has a vision for cinema, and Sam’s just trying to help some neglected and ignored kids without much chance at a future. When Sam the Lion says, “You didn’t even have the decency to wash his face” after a group of boys try to get local simpleton Billy laid, he’s standing on the same moral high ground as Jack Horner is when he says, “If it looks like shit, and it sounds like shit, then it’s shit” when Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall) pitches the idea of amateurs and video tape. While their societies don’t respect these men, Sonny and Dirk sure do.
Another similarity: both of the protagonists have surrogate mother figures in their films. Dirk has Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Sonny has Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman). Both of these mother figures love the young leads like a mother, while physically loving them not at all like a mother. But can you really blame PTA and P-Bog? A mother’s love is a unique and complicated thing that every man outside of Sophocles has had trouble talking about. So what if they show that motherly love with little bit of sex. I’m sure that will be much more enjoyable for everyone than watching Seth Rogen and Babs examine the subtleties of the relationship with tact, respect and GPS jokes (The Guilt Trip reference). Unlike the surrogate fathers, however, these mothers are deeply flawed and end up suffering the most of anyone in the film. Amber loses her son and is chastised by her greasy ex-husband, and Ruth is abandoned by everyone and left in her own bathrobe-and-television-set prison of depression. So while Sam the Lion may die and Jack Horner may be forced to abandon the art of pornography for a warehouse full of story-less penetration, both of them get off easy compared to the surrogate mothers.
In both films also, the mothers’ failures are repeated by the young men who are the apples of their eyes. Amber Waves is trapped in rooms while Dirk stumbles all the way to the gutter because of the introduction to her favorite vice, and Ruth has to watch the same adolescent sexual desires that landed her in a loveless marriage with a pedophilic gym teacher repeat when Sonny succumbs to allure of Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Adolescent sexual desire crossed with unrealistic expectations and Amber’s coke both rear their true dangers at…you guessed it, the aforementioned swimming parties. Jacy shows how manipulative, shallow and self-centered she is by ditching duck-tailed backfield roughneck Duane (Jeff Bridges) for are-you-serious-are-you-serious Dennis Quaid. Cocaine shows its own ugly characteristics about the same time Eric Burdon and War spill some wine at Jack’s opening swimming party. Neither Dirk nor Sonny is exposed to their potential downfall at these pool parties—at this time they’re both still too innocent and naive to even consider the world has troubles. However, both boys step right on these cultural land mines as if they were in an after school special beginning their journey to the bottom. Both do it on their own, without their surrogate father or mother. Sonny ends up marrying Jacy as her desire for attention reaches all time high, only to be legally denied his right to marry before he’s even able to get a proper wedding night. Dirk’s original fate of becoming an impotent sex worker, leading to a lot of flying fists from the back of pick-up truck, is pretty bad, but his fate only gets worse. As bad as getting beaten up and called a faggot is, it’s nothing compared to shotgun fire interrupting “My Awesome Mix Tape #6” as the back window of your ‘Vette gets shot out.
Both films finish with the families reunited, but the endings are different. The Last Picture Show leaves us with the bleak reality that things will not get better and both Sonny and Ruth are stuck in their reality forever. It looks like Boogie Nights has a more uplifting ending; Dirk is back in the fold and is ready to make another Brock Landers film in Miami Vice garb, the whole gang is back at Jack’s ready to make movie magic, we get to see the dick everyone was talking about all film, and the credits roll. Everybody won. But where Sonny has realized that this is it for him, stuck in a small town with an aging depressed lover, staring off waiting for the end of his life, Dirk jumps in the Gatsby delusion machine ready to go back to a world where there are fifteen, sixteen guys just standing around doing lights for his films, and where he’s a star. When the cinema closes in The Last Picture Show, it makes Sonny realize how TV is moving into homes and privatizing the once-public dreaming that Sam the Lion believed in. But in Boogie Nights, Dirk fails to realize the blow that video will deliver to his beloved adult entertainment industry. Sonny has to live in reality while Dirk goes on believing that his family will protect him from everything as long as he submits to Jack’s will. The different endings reflect both the era in which they were set, and the era in which they were made. In The Last Picture Show it’s the hopelessness of the late sixties and early seventies and in Boogie Nights the willing choice to ignore the bleakness of the late nineties. For all their similarities, and the few differences.
Cinema, sex and swimming parties; these are just some of the things that these two great films share. And all these similarities make each one even better than the individual aspects that make them appealing.