Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of LA’s porn industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is very much a two-sided coin: the film has a much lighter, upbeat first half while the darker second half, which begins with the turn of the decade, is ushered in by a double murder and a suicide.
Here, in the build up to the film’s tonal switch, assistant director ‘Little’ Bill Thompson (William H. Macy) discovers his wife, an aging porn actress played by real-life ’80s adult video star Nina Hartley, having sex with an unknown man on a driveway in front of a group of onlookers. Even within this ridiculous premise there are further moments of absurdity: first she chastises her husband for embarrassing her, before the cuckold is accosted as he walks away from the scene by colleague Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay), who wishes to discuss the finer technicalities of a future video shoot.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and Anderson’s composition here, keeping the watching crowd in the background between the mouths of the two characters in dialogue, is a great move. It accentuates the fact that Kurt is oblivious to Bill’s simmering fury, and allows for two great comic payoffs at the end: first Bill getting the words ‘cock’ and ‘ass’ mixed up, and then Kurt’s nonchalant decision to join the watching party at the end of the conversation.
Scenes like this one highlight Anderson’s commitment to the relatively-minor characters in Boogie Nights as well as his ambivalence to sexuality during the film. The movie is full of well-drawn, interesting characters like Bill, and they all have different problems to grapple with: unfortunately he isn’t able to deal with his wife’s ongoing infidelity too well…
(Warning: due to a little bit of swearing the video is NSFW.)