By: Greg Maier
Boogie Nights (1997), the second feature from Paul Thomas Anderson, is an electrifying ensemble piece about a pseudo family of pornography filmmakers in the 70s and the rise of a young nightclub buss boy Eddie Adams (Mark Whalburg) who becomes Dirk Diggler, the world’s biggest porn star. The opening sequence is perhaps the most impressive moment of the film as it is a three minute long tracking shot that starts across the street and tracks all the way into a nightclub where it continues to play with movement until the sequence ends.
Beginning with the sequence’s mise-en-scene, the opening seconds of the sequence show the diegetic film title in bubble font on the marquee of a movie theater, the camera then tilts to a canted angle to reveal a neon sign on the theater that says Reseda, which identifies the location as Reseda Blvd. in San Fernando California. The camera re-levels and is lowered to street level where it follows an old school Cadillac as it parks in front of a nightclub across the street. A non-diegetic title over the moving image says “San Fernando Valley 1977”. Burt Renyolds and Julianne Moore step out of the car and are greeted by Luis Guzman‘s character. They are all dressed in their grooviest 70s nightclub attire which makes the setting feel convincingly like the time period.
The long take continues as the three characters enter the club with the camera tracking in reverse in front of them. The layout of the nightclub set has a circular feel to it with a dance floor in the back center. There is low key high contrast lighting as one would expect in a club setting. Lots of neon and moving lights as well as red candles on all the tables, while the actors faces are often in shadow. Perhaps this is done to hide the character’s true personalities because at this point in the film, we only know the film is set in the 70s and have no idea the characters are pornographers. There is only a slight illusion to it when Luis asks Burt to put him in a movie. More likely, they chose this lighting set up because it is what the lighting was like in actual disco clubs.
Still in one continuous long take, Burt and Julianne leave the frame to the right and the camera follows Luis as he walks to left for a moment to tell the bartender something and then he walks back to the center moving to the dance floor in the back where he encounters Don Cheadle, John C. Riley and Nicole Ari Parker. At this point, the camera breaks the 180 degree rule as it circles the 4 characters two times while they are saying hi to each other on the dance floor. Don Cheadle, who already stands out noticeably simply for being a black guy at the disco, is also wearing an over the top white leather cowboy suit. This is to introduce the difference in style his character has from the others which is a comedic motif revisited throughout the film.
The camera, now on the other side of the original axis of action, tracks to the left to find Julianne and Burt sitting at a table along the outside edge of the circular shaped club. It is here where we first meet Roller Girl (Heather Gram) who roller skates from the background to the foreground of the frame where Burt and Julianne are sitting. A large white spotlight, unlike the colorful lights of the rest of the club, follows her as she skates towards them. This is done to foreshadow the fact the she is a porn actress and therefore has a spotlight on her when you see her for the first time. After their brief conversation, the camera tracks Roller Girl from behind as she roller skates through the middle of the dance floor and then off into the dark background of the frame somewhere on the other side of the club.
The opening sequence’s long cut ends with Mark Whalburg as the 17 year old buss boy Eddie Adams entering the frame from the left just after Roller Girl is out of sight. He is carrying a buss tub and is cleaning a table dressed in a collard white button up work shirt, obviously not one of the groovy club goers. He looks up towards, but past the camera in the direction of Burt and Julianne’s table. The camera cuts to a medium shot of Burt who makes eye contact with Mark, then cuts to a medium shot of Mark with his buss tub but also with neon stars on the wall behind him. this moment of eye contact between the two characters and specifically the neon star lights on the wall, is meant to emphasize how Burt’s character, a porno film director, from the very first glance already knew that Eddie would be a star.
Moving on to cinematography, although I have already laid out the camera movement in the sequence, I will summarize what is happening on the end of Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, 2007). The sequence, aside from the two medium cuts at the end, is one long three minute tracking shot the begins on a crane high up in the air outside and smoothly tracks across the street into a nightclub where it continues to move around until almost all of the main characters of the film are introduced. The long take has several angles and perspectives including medium, long and closeup shots as well a high and a canted angle. Though it is mainly a tracking shot, there are also many panning movements left and right, but absolutely no zooms. There is also an instance where the camera breaks the 180 degree rule and a new axis of action for the scene is briefly set which is opposite from the original.
In terms of editing, the sequence has very little as it is mostly a long take with the exception of two short medium shots at the end. I did notice that during the two medium shots after the long take, the speed of the film is slowed down when the two characters make eye contact. This emphasizes the significance of the the coming relationship between these two characters who have never met. The long take portion of the sequence however, is reminiscent and likely very much inspired by the famous Copacabana sequence in Martin Scorsese‘s film Goodfellas (1990). This sequence also begins outside on the street and follows the two characters in one continuous long cut as they enter the Copacabana night club through the back entrance, through a maze of a kitchen and into the lounge where a waiter arranges for them to have a table brought front and center at the stage show going on. I believe P.T. Anderson chose to open Boogie Nights with a continuous long cut out in the street moving into a club both as a homage to Scorsese’s film, but also for a practical reason. That reason being that the long take establishes so much for the audience, the setting and time frame as well as the majority of the film’s ensemble of characters.
Last but not least, the sound of the sequence is what really polishes off the atmosphere and definitely gets the film started with a bang. Just before the opening seconds with the movie title on the marquee, a blank screen plays a faint slow paced trumpet that sounds like some kind of broken circus music. This mini overture of sorts symbolizes the subjects of the film who are a slightly broken pseudo family of porno filmmakers, much like a pseudo family of circus performers. All the diegetic sound in the sequence is dialogue between characters who are having relatively unimportant conversations. The sequence is more about the atmosphere than anything and therefore the dialogue isn’t very important. The non-diegetic music on the other hand comes bursting out at you from the opening frame and plays through to the end of the sequence really setting off the atmosphere. The song is the disco classic “Best of My Love” by the Emotions (1977) and is the perfect fit to this beautiful and technically stunning opening sequence of an underrated American masterpiece.