Asked to explain what makes a movie work, Howard Hawks reportedly defined the formula as “three good scenes, no bad scenes.” Or at least that’s the catchy sound-bite version—the citation for that remark on his Wikipedia page leads to an interview in which he actually says, “If I can make about five good scenes and not annoy the audience, it’s an awfully good picture.” In truth, the precise ratio of awesome to rancid doesn’t really matter, so long as we give Hawks credit for recognizing, long before the advent of home-video made random access possible, that we don’t experience most movies as irreducible entities, but as a series of discrete moments. Whether the film as a whole succeeds or fails can be almost immaterial. I’m sure Nicholas Ray’s 1951 film Flying Leathernecks is a better movie than the 1990 Jeff Goldblum thriller Mister Frost, for example, but I once completely forgot that I’d seen the former, whereas the latter, which I’m pretty sure kind of sucked, will stay with me ’til death on the basis of a single casually chilling conversation: the opening scene, as I recall.
So welcome to Scenic Routes, which will be an ongoing exploration of cinema’s most memorable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable. I intend to roam all over cinema history, from the silent era to last week, from stone masterpieces to trashy obscurities, but I’ve chosen to kick things off with what I consider to be the most remarkable stand-alone setpiece of the past dozen years: the harrowing visit to Rahad Jackson’s pad in Boogie Nights. Not only is it a virtuoso feat of sustained tension, it’s also, I think, the moment in which we first see Paul Thomas Anderson begin to develop his own distinct voice, rather than simply aping choice bits of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Here’s a brief excerpt of the 11-minute sequence:
Boogie Nights is loosely based on the life of John Holmes, and Anderson based this sequence on his vague memory of an incident described in a 1979 Rolling Stone article, though he later discovered that he’d actually made up numerous details he thought he’d remembered. Rahad Jackson, with his manic disposition and his silver robe fluttering open to reveal his tight Speedos, was inspired by Palestinian-born nightclub owner (and drug dealer) Eddie Nash, who was rumored to have been involved in the infamous Wonderland murders. And if we were to compile a list of the greatest single-scene performances in cinema history, Alfred Molina as Rahad would surely appear near the top. It isn’t just the uninhibited way he grooves along with Night Ranger and Rick Springfield—though that aspect has been hugely influential, the most recent homage being The Hangover’s “In The Air (Drumming) Tonight” bit with Mike Tyson. But what really makes this brief turn unforgettable is Molina’s unceasing euphoria. Even when he’s being jacked, he’s still having the time of his life; it’s as if he makes no distinction between sharing his latest awesome mix-tape and blasting people with a shotgun.
And you must admit, his mix-tape is pretty awesome. I sometimes wonder how this scene plays for people who didn’t grow up with these particular songs, and thus don’t experience an instant sugar rush upon hearing the oh-so-pretentious piano riff that opens “Sister Christian” (set here to a shot of the door slowly closing on our hapless “heroes”) or that tinny “Jessie’s Girl” guitar sound. Anderson (and Rahad) keep the music so loud, the characters have to shout over it, though it still can’t drown out the intermittent bang of Cosmo’s nerve-shredding firecrackers. (“He’s Chinese,” Rahad explains, pseudo sotto voce, as if that explains everything; note that Molina never once flinches at the sound, though everybody else jumps a foot every single time.) Plenty of filmmakers have used pop music as ironic counterpoint, but rarely for such an extended, continuous stretch; there’s something about the succession of early-’80s megahits—about actually hearing one song end and another begin mid-scene, which happens twice (though “Sister Christian” gets cut off, due to Rahad’s less-than-awesome mixing prowess)—that makes this bungled heist uniquely galvanizing, lending it an air of truly banal verisimilitude.
There are still a few leftover Scorsese moves here, primarily in the way Anderson uses the music to choreograph his shots—the camera’s slow zoom on Rahad lighting his crack pipe during the extended build to “Sister Christian’s second chorus (“It’s truuuuuuuue”) would look right at home in Goodfellas. But the firecrackers are an original, audacious touch, and that absurdly self-conscious bravado (“How can I keep the audience on edge? You know what, I’ll just have some guy tossing lit firecrackers around the room for no apparent reason”) would later manifest even more boldly in Magnolia’s “Wise Up” sing-along and in the harmonium that’s magically deposited on Adam Sandler’s curb at the outset of Punch-Drunk Love. (I happen to think that “I drink your milkshake!” takes this tendency a little too far, but that’s largely because There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s most naturalistic film since Hard Eight.) PTA is really going for broke here, not just borrowing from his idols, but working to find his own means of bypassing the brain and plugging directly into the nervous system.
And that’s nowhere more evident than in the way he employs two radically different moments of unnerving stasis. The first of these occurs when Rahad asks Todd (Thomas Jane, who’s never managed to achieve real stardom, even though he’s since landed several starring roles, most notably as The Punisher) how much he and his boys want for their half-kilo of coke, at which point Todd experiences what can only be termed a laughing jag. Since we know that he’s the one carrying the gun, this bizarre outburst—which seems to go on for an eternity, and during which Todd twice attempts to speak, but can’t get past the first syllable—can’t help but suggest that something is about to go horribly wrong. And though I’d seen this sequence at least a dozen times before, it was only when I rewatched it several times for this column that I noticed that Anderson has artificially prolonged Todd’s giggle fit in an effort to make us even more uncomfortable: Listen closely, and you’ll hear those two abortive speech attempts repeated during the others’ reaction shots. (One sounds like “wow,” and the other sounds like “we.”)
But the truly arresting tap-dance on the pause button comes from Mark Wahlberg as Dirk, who’s clearly reached the point in this grand adventure where he’s just praying he won’t get killed. Anderson cuts to a close-up of Dirk sitting quietly on the couch just as “Jessie’s Girl” begins its second verse, and proceeds to hold that close-up for 50 agonizing seconds—an eternity of screen time, given that nothing is happening. And there really is nothing happening, because Wahlberg has gone utterly catatonic. My friend Zach stoutly maintains that Dirk’s mental wheels are visibly spinning during this shot, as he tries to gather the courage to get up and leave, but I have to say, I still don’t see it. If anything, there’s a hint of a wicked smile on Wahlberg’s face at the outset, but shortly after that, Dirk simply disappears, not even really responding when Reed (John C. Reilly, who’s terrific in the movie, but has relatively little to do in this scene) nudges him and says something inaudible. Only at the very end of the shot, just before he rises, does Wahlberg recommence anything we might recognize as acting. It’s a moment of pure mystery, an inexplicable oasis amid off-the-wall chaos, and while I still find most of Boogie Nights too baldly derivative to be truly great, it was in those 50 seconds, and in this scene generally, that I first recognized the presence of a potential master.