Saturday, August 13, 2011

Anatomy of a scene: Boogie Nights

The animal strains of “Spill the Wine” have just started as the chauffer in suit and tie walks towards the pool. Maybe it’s because he’s fully clothed but the camera has no use for him and is diverted to the black man in the red Roy Rogers shirt arguing with his girlfriend about whether the cowboy look is coming back. He gets up in disgust but we only follow him as far as the next table where a Hispanic man is trying to get word through to Jack via a lady so pale it feels like a medium-size slice of irony to put her in such strong sunlight. From there it’s on to a Joni Mitchell look-alike drawn to a table with an insultingly healthy man who’s doing lines. He has powder to spare but the camera is distracted yet again, this time by something sylph-like walking through like no one’s watching, taking a drag, disdainfully throwing the rest away. Seven small steps and she’s swimming away and surely now you’d expect that pesky camera to quit its stalking. But the water’s so tempting it dives in right after her. Eric Burdon’s voice gains in echo as her legs thrash decisively, propelling her away from us. Abandoned, possibly a little disappointed, the camera bobs like a cork on the surface as a man in orange trunks does a jack knife, the bubbles rushing up like a toast to a summer day so intoxicating it could scarcely be real.

This one-take scene is from Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights. As the director acknowledges in his DVD commentary, it’s a very close replica of a similar poolside scene from the 1965 Soviet-Cuban production I Am Cuba. While the debt to the original is undeniable, there is one key difference – the mood. In I Am Cuba, the sunshine is deceptive. You may be watching people get high but you’re not encouraged to feel high yourself. In Boogie Nights everything is dappled and smooth, and you’re being asked to either glide by or jump in. It’s like you could pause this scene at any point and years later still be able to recall what that particular day was all about just from looking at that one isolated moment.

Watch: The Boogie Nights scene and the I Am Cuba one.


chito said...


Mike said...

Great analysis as always