City Paper is not for tourists
Boogie Nights fever has gripped the nation, and the prognosis is dire indeed. For weeks it has been one of the top-grossing movies, and it promises to be a box-office smash all the way through Christmas, the sort of “bittersweet” but ultimately “feel-good” flick that brings families together and makes the cash registers bleep with glee. And it’s not only the public that’s fallen in love with this two-and-half-hour valentine to the ’70s smut industry.
Smitten critics are spewing blurb-ready adjectives like so many money shots: “startling,” “audacious,” “invigorating,” and even “courageous,” as if Boogie Nights were some sort of celluloid quest for the eternal truths of existence, instead of a decent movie with a masterfully cheesy soundtrack. They’re hailing Marky Mark’s portrayal of porn star Dirk Diggler as bona fide, bravura actingas much for his crying scenes as for his work between the sheets. They’re ready to hand an Oscar to Burt Reynolds, who plays director Jack Horner, the bighearted patriarch who yearns to make art out of adult films. Naturally, Siskel and Ebert gave Boogie Nights two schlongs up.
But the highest accolades of all have been reserved for the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Reviewers have declared the nerdy 27-year-old to be Hollywood’s newest auteur, not simply another two-bit Tarantino but a ’90s Orson Welles, able to imprint his personal vision on a large-scale canvas, displaying “a talent as big and exuberant as skywriting,” as the New York Times put it.
Anderson has graciously accepted the honorary title, and in interviews he waxes enthusiastic about his inspirations, mavericks like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme. In fact, Anderson has cited specific scenes from Boogie Nights that pay direct homage to such classics as Nashville, GoodFellas, and Raging Bulleven to Cuban art movies.
One film that Anderson fails to mention as an influence is Of Flesh and Blood, an obscure, ultra-low budget Washington film about the same subject: the rise and fall of porn legend John Holmes. Upon its release in 1990, Flesh was reviled as emphatically as Boogie Nights has been celebrated. It’s no wonder, since Flesh is a relentlessly vile piece of trash, as seedy and amateurish as the porn-film world it depicts. To some extent, that’s exactly what director Jeff Mentges wanted to makean exploitation movie about the exploitation-movie racket, whereas Anderson uses the milieu to evoke a romanticized Golden Age of pre-video porn.
The seed that begot Flesh was a 1989 Rolling Stone article on the life of John “Johnny Wadd” Holmes, who (along with his foot-long penis) ruled the adult-film world for more than a decade before succumbing to drugs and finally to AIDS in 1988. (Anderson has also acknowledged the article, but like Mentges he gives it no official credit in his “original screenplay.”) At the time, Mentges was a University of Maryland film student and B-movie addict, and the sordid Holmes saga gave him the subject he needed for his debut. The former lead singer for harDCore band No Trend, Mentges sold his record collection and borrowed money to fund the project, which eventually cost $15,000.
Shot mostly in black-and-white, the 90-minute Flesh stars a cast of local amateurs, mostly rock-scene friends of Mentges’. In the lead role of Wade was Al Breon, a balding, lanky 31-year-old who works as an elementary-school janitor. If this seems an odd choice, Breon physically resembles Holmesat least the down-and-out, junkie Holmesfar more than does the beefcakey Marky Mark, and Breon’s performance exudes a real-life sleaziness that is closer to the facts. In other jarring contrasts, Wade drives around in a beat-up ’84 Chevy van, while Dirk sports a cherry-red Corvette. Also, the autumn scenes of Wheaton and Silver Spring, however much they add to Flesh’s lowlife ambience, severely compromise the film’s attempt to evoke the San Fernando Valley setting where Boogie Nights was shot.
Besides the obvious contrasts caused by the films’ respective budgets, the two directors have radically different aims: Anderson plays up, with the relish of an industry insider, Holmes’ giddy glory years, while Mentges focuses on his descent into addiction, crime, and depravity. In fact, there’s even less sex in Flesh than in Boogie Nights, and Wade spends most of his seminude scenes not humping but holed up in bathrooms, freebasing. Breon’s Wade, epitomized by his obnoxious P.G. County whine, is a thoroughly repulsive character, unlike the charismatic Diggler and his cute-and-lovable supporting cast. Mentges simply takes the dark view, reveling in the underside of porn that Anderson tries to transcend. To end his so-called “cautionary tale,” Mentges depicts Wade dying of AIDS in the back of a police car, whereas Anderson concludes his more upbeat fantasy with a notorious (and stupidly gratuitous) scene that reveals the full dimensions of Diggler’s “talent.”
As a finished product, Flesh is closer to a home movie than anything else. “I was appalled when I found out it was going to be shown in public,” says Cha Cha LeMeaux, who plays porn actress Coco. “I thought it was just a school project. I really hate pornography, but Jeff really needed someone, so I said, “I’ll do it as long as I don’t have to take my clothes off or kiss Breon.”
LeMeaux (a stage name she used to protect her identity) says only half-jokingly that she was “traumatized” by the experience; she still winces recalling the coconut bra and grass skirt she wore in several scenes and says she was suffering from PMS during most of the shoot. Still, she stands by Mentges’ uncompromising vision: “Thomas Hobbes was right: Life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short,” she says. “Jeff used the story of Johnny Wadd as a vehicle to show this in modern-day America. [Wadd’s life]
was so grim it was funny.”
Of Flesh and Blood had its premiere in August 1990 at the now-defunct Biograph in Georgetown; the sellout crowd was treated to a party and complimentary customized Johnny Wade condoms. But the reviews were mostly as negative as Flesh’s misanthropic heart. Washington City Paper’s Mark Jenkins took particular offense at what he dubbed a “low-tech pseudo-exploitation flick” “based on the massively depraved and utterly uninteresting life of porn star and dope fiend” John Holmes. “There’s nothing remotely funny here…”
Undaunted, Mentges forged on, trying to get a distributor. He took two trips to New York to peddle his pet project. At the Independent Film Market, he snagged a Monday-morning screening, but the European and Japanese businessmen expressed more interested in the life-size cutout of Breon freebasing than in the movie itself. “They were all expecting real porno, and I think they were let down they didn’t get it,” says Joe Lee, who plays crazed druglord Eddie Nush in Flesh.
Mentges soon lost interest, but local artist and producer Dick Bangham, who plays a heavy in the film, wouldn’t give up. On a business trip to Los Angeles, he hustled dozens of Flesh videos around Tinseltown, eventually snagging a sit-down meeting with Johnny Legend, B-movie maven and former Holmes associate. Amazingly, Bangham convinced Legend to watch a private screening of the movie, but he too was unimpressed. “I was trying to sell it as the cheapest feature ever made,” recalls Bangham. “And he says, ‘Oh, I made one in color for $13,000.’”
The commercial and critical failure of Flesh sabotaged Mentges’ fledgling career. He quit the business for good, eventually ending up in the wilds of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he works for UPS and hunts deer and duck. Still in debt from the project, he seldom even goes to movies anymore, much less tries to make them. (Contacted by phone last week, Mentges says he hasn’t seen Boogie Nights yet and doesn’t know if he will bother, especially since he is about to embark on an extended bow-hunting expedition. “I’ll bet [Anderson’s] got some rich uncle in Hollywood that helped him out,” he says bitterly. “That’s the way the business works.”)
Indeed, Anderson’s father is a success in the industry, doing voice-overs for commercials and other projects. Moreover, the fact that Flesh did make it to L.A., at least in video form, has fueled some local grumbling that Anderson may have seen it. In fact, there are some striking similaritiesand even some exact dialoguein several scenes, right down to the dark bikini briefs and bathrobe sported by Lee’s Eddie Nush and Alfred Molina’s Rahad Jackson, arguably the best cameo in Boogie Nights. In the scenes, both characters ask, “You wanna play some baseball?” while offering hits of freebase.
These and other details come directly from Mike Sager’s 1989 article for Rolling Stone, “The Devil and John Holmes,” a lengthy, lurid, and exemplary piece of reportage based on interviews with nearly 100 people. Mentges followed Sager’s story as closely as his meager budget allowed, lifting dialogue verbatim from the article. Anderson was far more selective, completely ignoring the grisly Wonderland Avenue slayings (which Holmes was forced at gunpoint to witness) that first inspired the Sager article. Anderson created his own narrative arc for his cleaned-up version of the Holmes saga, filching details when it suited him and discarding more sordid touches, like one of the more memorable lines from Flesh, spoken by a gang member to Holmes as they plot a heist: “You sure about this, donkey dick?”
“[Anderson] embellished a lothe wanted to capture the fluffiness of L.A.,” says Breon, who has seen Boogie Nights twice. “Jeff wanted to go more hard-core, and that’s what he did. But there are a lot of little thingsI call them busy bitesthat are identical in both.”
In Flesh, Breon tells his girlfriend that he’s going to use his “gift” to make it in the world, speaking words from Sager’s article; in Boogie Nights, Marky Mark tearfully gives a similar speech to his abusive mother. There are other visual motifs not in the article that appear in both films, including shots in which both characters lie weeping on the ground after being beaten. In the second half of Boogie Nights, Anderson utilizes brooding instrumental music (in jarring contrast to the disco-oriented soundtrack) that closely resembles the downbeat jazz score for Flesh.
In interviews, Anderson has mentioned the Rolling Stone article, but he also says he made a short film on the Holmes legend, The Dirk Diggler Story, while still a high-schooler in the late ’80s. (Neither Anderson nor Sager could be reached for comment.)
Breon says that while he admires Anderson’s filmmaking skill (“He’s fantastic”), he found Boogie Nights dull, pretentious, and far too long, especially after his second screening. “It’s real slow,” says Breon, whose other film credits include a cameo as a homeless person in Root Boy Slim’s last video. “It’s like one of those artsy-fartsy movies. The ending really left you hanging, so you know there’s going to be a sequel.”
As Boogie Nights becomes a mainstream blockbuster (there’s even talk of a spinoff series on cable TV), Flesh will soon be making a resurrection of sorts. Promoter Jeff Krulik and the Psychotronic Film Society have scheduled a screening in January at Planet Fred. Local viewers can decide for themselves if Mentges’ ill-fated project is indeed the lost and forsaken father of Anderson’s opus. CP