2017 Film Essays

The Bees Won’t Sting: On Celebrity Adoration, Hollywood Misdirection and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Boogie Nights’

In 2017, Hollywood misdirection and celebrity adoration transformed pop culture and online film criticism. Fans drooled over their favorite celebrities and fumed about the shocking behavior of others, while many film writers used social media to publicly express their physical attraction for celebrities, aka the subjects of film reviews and essays. At times, the lines of professionalism and personal admiration often feel blurred, especially on Twitter. Twenty years ago, Paul Thomas Anderson explored themes of fandom and fame with Boogie Nights, most notably through supporting characters like Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman); individuals that seek attention through different means and that can be easily connected to 2017 celebrity culture.

Like The Office’s Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Boogie Nights’ Reed has a way with words, yet he’s painfully ignorant and lacks self-awareness. He listens but constantly misdirects conversations; he’s the male version of Saturday Night Live’s Penelope. Within Anderson’s Hollywood sub-culture narrative, though, Reed doesn’t seem impressed by status, or at least he doesn’t show it. When Reed first meets Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams — an aspiring porn star — he’s passive-aggressive but still takes the teenager under his wing. After all, a friendship could benefit Reed’s career. Forty minutes into Boogie Nights, Reed’s hot tub poem feels purely symbolic of Hollywood misdirection and the celebrity adoration that often clouds objectivity.

I love you, you love me, going down the sugar tree

We’ll go down the sugar tree, and see lots of bees

Playing, playing

But the bees won’t sting, because you love me

Anderson ends the Boogie Nights hot tub sequence with his own misdirection by introducing Eddie’s new porn name. DIRK DIGGLER has arrived, and he’s a star that will not be stung.

In Boogie Nights, Dirk presents himself as a fun-loving, thoughtful guy, and ultimately declares that his new porn character, Brock Landers, should be respectful towards women. It’s a major narrative concern for Eddie/Dirk, yet his alter ego later becomes known for his aggressive behavior, undoubtedly stemming from Dirk’s increasing frustration and unresolved issues with his own mother. After the rise of sexual misconduct allegations in 2017, Dirk’s questionable self-image correlates with celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., both of whom once held immense power in Hollywood, and seemed to be so-called “good hangs” until they were exposed for their behind-the-scenes behavior. Just as Boogie Nights characters use constant misdirection to shift power dynamics, Spacey used misdirection to highlight a coming-out narrative rather than focusing solely on Anthony Rapp’s allegations, while C.K. owned up to his behavior yet still misdirected with his usual “dick” candor. His apology feels like something that Dirk Diggler would say.

“These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.”

Like Dirk Diggler, Louis C.K.’s dick is an important part of his act; a way to offer personal transparency with comedy, a way to acknowledge underlying issues while simultaneously misdirecting people from the truth  —  a way, arguably, to maintain an image for loyal fans. It’s not hard to imagine Dirk, Reed and Louis having an in-depth hot tub conversation about dick humor, and how loyalty, along with the right script, can take them a long way. Like C.K.’s Louie character on FX, Boogie Nights’ Reed is socially awkward, but he’s perfectly normal within his close circle of friends. It’s an organic cycle of sharing and spontaneity, and loyalty leads to more work.

And then there’s Scotty. He’s also drawn to Dirk, but he misdirects conversations because of his sexual feelings and insecurities — not because he wants to move up the porn industry ladder (although he does want professional status: the image, the connections, the lifestyle). Scotty wants what he can’t have, though, and while he may not be a major problem for Dirk, his behavior is problematic nonetheless. Scotty doesn’t sting, he just buzzes in the background.

Scotty adores Dirk and processes information to align with his vision of how life should be, or how it could be. Theoretically, if Scotty had a Twitter account in 2017, one could argue that he’d tweet more about Dirk’s physical attributes rather than his actual talent. On “Film Twitter,” it’s not hard to find young film critics, or film writers, that post loving displays of affection for the subjects they’re covering. That seems like too much adoration, too much drooling at work. Or maybe Roger Ebert’s vision of film criticism, and how professional critics should interact with celebrities, doesn’t translate to the digital age. Maybe it should, though. At some point, you’ve got to take down the celebrity posters, or at least reassess what they represent. Scotty doesn’t initially come across as unprofessional with his behavior, but that eventually changes after a few drinks and some calculated misdirection. Scotty adores Dirk so much that he buys a car to impress him and even dresses like him, too. But he’s directed back to reality when Dirk refuses his sexual advances; he’s directed back to his professional responsibilities. Scotty appreciates Dirk but refuses to fully address his co-worker’s problematic behavior, and vice versa. Like social media, there is too much going on, too many Boogie Nights and connections to be lost.

Like so many admired celebrities, Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler is a deeply flawed individual. But, he’s got a special, special gift. He knows that some people will love him no matter what, and that any “stings” will only be temporary as long he can misdirect information. But for other Boogie Nights characters, the daily stings have severe consequences, whether it’s a back seat insult, a back room encounter or a power move gone wrong. Fortunately for Dirk, a celebrity that goes unchecked by friends, he can look himself in the mirror and manipulate the truth because of his one special gift.

Playing, playing

But the bees won’t sting, because you love me

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor. From 2014 to 2017, he wrote over 600 video scripts for WatchMojo, and he’s the author of their first e-book, WatchMojo’s 100 Decade-Defining Movie Moments of the 1990s. From 2006 to 2012, Q.V. lived in Hollywood, California and worked closely with ABC On-Air Promotions as the production manager for LUSSIER. He now resides in sunny Fargo, North Dakota.

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