Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
[Author’s Note: I’m finally going to see The Master this weekend, so I thought I’d dig through my old papers to find one on writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough, Boogie Nights. I wrote this a couple years ago for my Media Criticism class. I’d like to think I’ve improved as a writer, but I still think it’s interesting to note the quasi hero’s journey in Dirk Diggler’s story, so here’s a “warts and all” version of my younger self.]
The 1970s had many iconic elements that came to define the decade. Watergate, solo Beatles, cocaine’s rise to prominence, The Big Red Machine, and many other things are cultural touchstones from that era. However, few things defined that time more than the pornography industry, with its outlandish acting, funk guitar solos, and blatant subversion of societal norms. Boogie Nights, a 1997 film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, depicts the porn industry in its only-in-theaters days and the rise of the videocassette market which would revolutionize the trade at the expense of the lofty ambitions of the film’s central characters.
The film involves an industrious adult film mogul, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), discovering the film’s protagonist, a young nightclub dishwasher named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). Entering Horner’s world of sex, drugs, and stardom has a profound effect on Adams, who begins to live his life as the character he creates for Jack’s films, Dirk Diggler. He becomes one of the most widely acclaimed adult film stars in the business, helping Horner create a version of cinema unthought-of before they entered the picture, and the success goes to his head.
The film opens with Horner discussing his ambition to turn the porn industry into its own genre of film—rivaling things like science fiction—with his girlfriend, and frequent star of his films, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). He expresses his desire to find a crossover star for his films, one that can add a bit of acting to the films’ raunchy nature. This is when Horner notices Eddie, then a 17-year-old dishwasher at the club, from across the room. He sends one of his other collaborators, simply known as Rollergirl (Heather Graham) for her refusal to ever take off her roller skates, to see if Eddie has what it takes for his kind of work.
After joining Horner’s troupe, things start getting very good for everyone involved. Dirk quickly becomes a favorite among porn viewers and critics alike, and begins winning industry awards. His greatest success comes after creating yet another character, a private eye named Brock Landers, who not only has sex with myriad women, but also solves cases with his partner, performed by Dirk’s friend and Horner movie staple, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly).
The film takes many interesting turns with the supporting characters, such as the drug addictions of Amber, Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) aspirations to open an electronics store with the money he makes performing in Horner’s movies, and the tragicomic relationship of Horner’s assistant director, Little Bill (William H. Macy), and his constantly cheating wife. All those subplots are intriguing and entertaining, but the action mainly rests on Dirk’s shoulders.
That degradation of Diggler’s life is altogether fascinating. The turn his life takes as the ‘70s end, going from a life of constant success and affluence and devolving into a nightmare of cocaine, failure, and egotism works tremendously well. He has a mansion, a 1978 Chevrolet Corvette he cherishes, and the love of a surrogate family—particularly the older, more experienced mother figure to all of Horner’s actors, Amber—but his success gets in the way of clear thinking. His descent begins on New Year’s Eve 1979, when a business associate of Horner’s declares that the days of their movies being shown in theaters across the country would soon be coming to an end. Horner dismisses the news for a time, but eventually evolves with the industry. Diggler, on the other hand, does not, ending in a downward spiral that leads to prostitution, a horrible vanity musical project, and armed robbery.
Anderson’s slick, stylized direction, including the intricately blocked tracking shot in the nightclub that opens the film, indicates a mastery of the technical side of filmmaking. Moments like the filming of the first Brock Landers film are interesting and extremely funny in dialogue, poor acting of the porn stars, and the aesthetic change from widescreen format to the squared look of the adult film industry.
There are plenty of entertaining winks and nods to the audience—the Raging Bull-recalling scene at the end, etc.—throughout, but like all great stories, the film centers on the characters and their relationships. The most interesting is the Freudian nightmare of a relationship Dirk has with Amber, a lonely cocaine addict dealing with her legal inability to see her biological son due to her addiction. Dirk has his own mother issues, as shown by the few brief fight scenes with his mom, and he forms a bond with Amber steeped in duality.
They clearly love each other very much, but at times it’s unclear what kind of love they have for each other. The majority of the time, Amber attempts to replace her lost son with Dirk. She buys him Christmas gifts, calls him her “baby boy,” and things like that. However, on camera they have gratuitous, and repeated, sex. This implies plenty of deep-down issues of Amber’s own and it greatly helps enhance the enjoyment of the movie.
The lesser characters all have their moments to shine, as well. Reilly’s Reed is a sweet, dumb, and unattractive guy who doesn’t at all seem to be a good fit for the porn industry, but the “family” keeps him around, even if at times it’s just for his interest in performing magic tricks at parties. Cheadle is great as the ambitious Buck, enhancing a background character with sadness and a take-what-life-gives-you attitude when a horrific accident provides him a tremendous opportunity. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a young gay man named Scottie who longs to be with Dirk, and Graham’s Rollergirl is more than just a bimbo; she’s a very sweet girl who stands up for herself when she needs to. And William H. Macy gives a great performance showing the downside of the “swinging ‘70s” culture as Little Bill.
Something that sticks out about Boogie Nights is its ability to defy expectations of what these characters should be. After all, it is a film about a widely derided profession, but these are all sympathetic and wholly relatable characters. A big reason for this is Anderson’s slyly methodical application of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Nearly every step Dirk takes throughout the film is informed by Campbell’s elements.
The best way to analyze a text like this is to first watch the film with a notebook and pen. Each step in the hero’s journey, from the call to adventure to freedom to live (“Monomyth Summary”), should be listed in the notes and for every moment in the film that relates, specific notes should be taken.
After the first viewing is completed, a good understanding of the monomyth is reached. At that point, the film should be watched again with the director commentary, and that informs further understanding of the text, including the intentions of the writer/director.
Monomyth: Departure in Boogie Nights
The film begins, like any mythic story, with the call to adventure. In Boogie Nights, however, that call is prolonged for a long time.
After an aesthetically complicated—and incredibly impressive—opening tracking shot that consists of several minutes, the camera settles on a conversation between Jack and Amber at a night club. Jack is suddenly distracted as the action goes to slow motion and the camera settles on the hero of the piece, Eddie-Dirk, who is picking up dirty dishes across the club from Jack. Eddie is young, strong, and has a look-at-me factor that Jack can’t ignore. This serves him well not only as an adult film star but as the star of the movie, because it provides the audience with a likable character despite the perceived immoral profession he works.
Jack confronts Eddie in the kitchen, and Eddie takes the conversation to be a solicitation of prostitution, and names a price for Jack. Jack tells him it’s nothing like that, and instead asks him to have a drink, but Eddie refuses, saying that he has to work, promptly refusing the call.
Jack returns to his table with Amber, but enlists Rollergirl, the most bubbly of his actresses, to check out Eddie’s “credentials.” She corners Eddie in the kitchen where she engages in sexual acts upon him. She returns to Jack at the table and lets him know that Eddie is incredibly well endowed. In a scene involving Eddie’s then girlfriend, his admission of, “everyone’s blessed with one thing” implies an almost godlike quality to Eddie, and Rollergirl’s entrance into his life takes the place of supernatural aid in Campbell’s list.
The night ends and Eddie leaves work. He’s walking down the street when a car rolls by. It is populated by Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl. Jack invites Eddie to join them, and he gives in, as he gets in the car and they eat at a diner, where Jack outlines his ambitions for their films, which he wants to be a true cinematic genre as opposed to simply a sexual release for viewers. This impresses Eddie, who then joins the group to Jack’s house, where Jack insists Eddie have sex with Rollergirl so he can determine whether he can use Eddie or not. This represents Eddie’s crossing of the first threshold in a big way. He then returns to the home he shares with his parents, only to be greeted by his seething mother, who starts a monumental fight with him and kicks him out of the house, never to be seen again in the film. She fulfills another of Campbell’s requirements, as the hero often has issues with a father, or in this case, parent, figure.
After getting kicked out of his house, Eddie returns to Jack’s house, as he has nowhere else to go. Jack is having a party that day, and the members of his filmmaking troupe are all there. This all represents a complete departure from Eddie’s known life, as cocaine, sex, and all manners of general partying are everywhere around him. It is not at all what Eddie is used to, especially when a young girl overdoses at the party. He is surrounded by new, strange people, all of whom share in an affluence he had only been able to dream of up to that point in his life. This is when Eddie meets the Colonel, a producer who funds Jack’s projects. When told Eddie is a new actor for their stock, the Colonel tells Eddie to possibly think of a stage name. In an entertaining scene in a hot tub, Eddie tells Jack he can see his name emblazoned in neon, and the words are shown on the screen as “Dirk Diggler.” This complete renunciation of his former life is the last part of Eddie-Dirk’s departure, known to Campbell scholars as the belly of the whale.
Monomyth: Initiation in Boogie Nights
The newly christened Dirk now has to start working for Jack. He soon finds himself at his first film shoot. He’s nervous about being called for his first scene, and waits in his dressing room, talking to himself in the mirror, trying to diminish his nerves. He then walks to the set, where he is to have sex with Amber. Sensing his nerves, she tells him that he looks great, and this calms him, setting up their odd quasi-mother-son relationship that will define much of each of their lives in the coming years.
They film the scene, but Jack is unable to get the shot he needed, so he thinks all is lost for the rest of the day. However, as per usual in monomyth stories, Dirk says he is able to go again right away, passing the first of many trials, something Campbell says needs to happen for a story to be truly monomythic.
One of the interesting things Anderson does in his telling of this story is blending the various monomyth stages into one scene. This is obvious as Dirk’s first trial involves having sex in his meeting with the “goddess,” Amber. She is older than the rest of the actors and performs that aforementioned mother role because she’s dealing with the loss of her own biological son.
The next relative departure Anderson takes from Campbell’s rules is in his dealing with the “woman as temptress” stage (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 15). As the movie takes place within the pornography industry, women aren’t so much sexual temptresses as they are necessary components in what is required of the genre. This is why Anderson chooses to use other things to tempt Dirk along his journey. This is when he introduces something that tends to be a common thread among newfound celebrities: success leads to many things that may not necessarily be good. The story soon finds Dirk becoming increasingly egotistic as his success as an actor continues to grow, making him rich and providing him a steady stream of drugs.
Anderson’s dealing of the “atonement with the father” (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 16) is also a slight departure from what Campbell wrote. After his mother kicks him out of his house, Dirk never sees his parents again. He instead forms a lasting bond with both Jack and Amber, who perform the roles of parents as best they can. They may not live the most upstanding lives, but they do love Dirk in their own way, and this leads to a catharsis for Dirk. He has the love he needs, and the rest of the film involves him squandering that love and trying to regain it.
The way Boogie Nights portrays apothesis—“[dying] to the self to live in spirit (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 17)”—is by having Dirk completely do away with the Eddie Adams part of his persona. He lives as Dirk, makes sure nobody else calls him Eddie anymore, and even creates another character to perform as in the porn films, Brock Landers. It appears as though he just wants to forget Eddie Adams entirely as he transforms into a much more successful person.
That success is shown as Dirk throws a party at his new house to show it off to the troupe. This is part of Campbell’s ultimate boon, as the house has a lavish bedroom, a display specifically for his “best actor” awards won at porn industry ceremonies, and a huge garage for his brand new 1978 Chevrolet Corvette. A scene at another award show depicts Dirk as moving further from the sweet kid he used to be, as he gives a blasé “thank you” as his entire speech, and walks off the stage.
Monomyth: Return in Boogie Nights
Things start to turn sour for the film’s characters as the 1970s draw to a close. In fact, New Year’s Eve 1979 provides the catalyst for much of the change. This is when Dirk refuses the return to normalcy, as his egotism gets out of control with his first foray into the world of cocaine, when Amber, showing the type of behavior that got her banned from seeing her real son, goads him into snorting with her. This starts a downward spiral for Dirk, as Jack fires him, separating him from the rest of his surrogate family. He decides he wants to get into the music business, and he pours all his money into recording a demo—in a hilarious turn of events, it’s “The Touch,” the theme from the 1980s animated Transformers movie.
When Dirk realizes he does not have the money to pay for his demo, he hatches a plan with Reed and another friend to swindle a rich man by selling him fake cocaine. As this deal goes bad very quickly, a shootout ensues, and Dirk and Reed barely make it out alive, highlighting the magic flight section of Campbell’s monomyth. Dirk realizes the madness surrounding his life and he returns to Jack in tears, broken. Jack acknowledges the insanity that’s invaded Dirk’s life, aiding in his “rescue from without,” which involves “powerful guides and rescuers to bring [the hero] back to everyday life (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 21).”
Dirk’s return to Jack pulls double duty, as it also counts as his crossing of the return threshold. He goes back to the life that made him happiest, which was working with Jack, Amber, and the rest of the troupe, and although he can’t make amends with his real parents, he does his best to gain back the trust of his surrogate family.
As the film draws to a close, Dirk is still working on becoming a master of two worlds. It’s clear, though, that he is working on getting along with everyone again, and he has learned a lot about being good to the important people in his life. The film’s last scene—the one reminiscent to Raging Bull—in which Dirk tries to psyche himself up before his first scene back with the group, ends with him walking out the door, his freedom to live intact.
Boogie Nights. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Perf. Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore,
Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle. New Line Cinema, 1997.
The film follows the story of a young nightclub dishwasher who goes on to become one of the leading stars of the adult entertainment industry. It follows him from 1977 through 1983 and depicts his rise and fall, addictions and faults.
Boogie Nights. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118749/. Retrieved October 10, 2010.
A summary of the film, its cast, awards, and distribution history.
Ebert, R. (October 17, 1997). Boogie Nights. The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/articleAID=/19971017/REVIEWS/710170301/1023
This is simply a review of the film by a critic who I’ve admired for a long time. He praises the film for its direction and stars.
Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth (N/A). The Royal Society of Account Planning. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
This is an in-depth account of each stage in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey theory. It looks at various forms of pop culture that display this storytelling technique and shows its ubiquity.