Tag Archives: Film

McConaughey, Through the Wormhole

Per Deadline, Matthew McConaughey, whose surging career has led him to such recent critically acclaimed films as Magic MikeThe Lincoln Lawyer, and Killer Joe (although he mostly played second fiddle to Clarence Carter in that) is in negotiations to lead Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science fiction movie, Interstellar.

If he were to accept the role, that might be one of the only pieces of information we get about the film until a trailer hits, given Nolan’s borderline compulsive propensity for secrecy.

But the premise of the suddenly-not-half-assing-his-way-through-romantic-comedies McConaughey toplining a wormhole adventure story is an exciting one.  With Nolan’s pedigree and the space trappings, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons will likely abound, but hopefully the Inception director will subvert our expectations and reveal his real plans: Melba Toast in Space.


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Schoolwork Repurposed: German Film Essays

The lags in productivity on this blog are almost always caused by school work.  This semester, though, I am enrolled in my final two film studies classes to complete my minor (and graduate in May, thankfully).  So when I have to write things for these classes, Contemporary German Cinema and Latin American History at the Movies, I’ll simply post them here for your perusal/approval.  This is my midterm take-home essay exam for German Cinema.  The prompt was as follows:

Owen Evans points to the popularity, among international audiences, of German films that “represent the totalitarian past” and argues that such films might “comprise a specific genre that proves very attractive to cinema goers: the German totalitarian thriller, we could perhaps calls it” (New Directions 58-59). Using Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days as sources of evidence and examples, create your own description of “the German totalitarian thriller.”  What are its characteristics?  Is that label too reductive, or does it get at important psychological components of these films?  Feel free to draw upon the class texts as well as the movies.

Is there such a thing as a “German totalitarian thriller,” as suggested by Owen Evans in New Directions in German Cinema?  The answer to that is not definite.  Rather, the most confident reply one could have to that question is, “Partially.”  Films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days feature elements inherent in thrillers of all stripes—seemingly constant peril awaiting the characters at every turn, central characters who represent a semblance of “the common (wo)man,” a strong focus on the psychological impacts of the characters’ predicaments, among others—but these two movies lack the fictional plot thrust, the action-adventure qualities common in more traditional thrillers in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.  These examples are character studies not quite masquerading as thrillers, given the features listed above, but still they fail to reach thriller status all the same.

To enter that Hitchcock mold, one must first understand the fundamentally artificial idea that is suspense.  This is not to say being artificial or contrived is necessarily bad, but simply put, it must be created.  To paraphrase Hitchcock himself, suspense is the audience knowing a bomb is hidden, ticking away underneath a table while the characters onscreen remain oblivious.  The suspense lies in the waiting, the moments of not knowing how the characters in whom the audience has conceivably placed their empathy will get out of the situation.

Both Downfall and Sophie Scholl run into a severe problem here: History.  Even (especially?) foreign audiences know that Hitler spent his last days hiding in a bunker before ultimately committing suicide.  Perhaps a little more obscure, but still widely available knowledge is the fact that Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance movement were captured and put to death as traitors to the German state.  Without the element of surprise—“What will happen to them?”—provided by fictional plots, suspense in the traditional sense is nearly impossible to achieve in these films.

What make these movies “thrilling” are their introspective looks at the ways these characters deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Downfall does not have much plot, per se, as most of the typical rise-and-fall story structure happens before the start of the film.  From the film’s beginning, the audience—and most Nazi members—knows Hitler is finished; the Allies are practically knocking on the bunker door.  What follows is a character study in self delusion.  Seeing Hitler not only appear almost fatherly to Traudl, his secretary, but have moments of weakness is engrossing.  It’s an intimate look at someone who has reached mythical status in the eyes of so many.  In its own way, its sense of discovery, of tearing away the artificial, terrorizing cloud that surrounds the man is thrilling.  But it is not suspenseful.  It has no way to be.  There is no way for Hitler to get out of the situation—furthermore, nobody would want him to avoid his fate—and the first moments of the film show an elderly version of the empathetic Traudl reflecting on her time serving the Fuhrer, so the audience knows she survived the downfall of the film’s title.  Because of the historical restraints, there can be no gripping, “What will happen next?” moments like the attempted-assassination-by-airplane in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or the classic sewer showdown in Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive.  The only scenes to approximate a similar “pulse pounding” nature in Downfall all exist in the quieter moments, when Hitler allows himself time to think critically, to contemplate his inevitable defeat.  The wait for him to snap back into howling denial is frightening, to be sure, but it exists as an internal character trait, not a plot-driven moment; for the context of the film, this is better than an external event, but it still avoids what makes a thriller, well, a thriller.

Sophie Scholl succeeds to a larger degree than Downfall in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller, but those are quickly spent in the film’s inciting incident: The anti-Nazi flyer distribution at a college that leads to the arrest of Sophie and her brother.  Once the siblings have placed what would be a sufficient amount of flyers at strategic spots in the university’s main hall, they are left with a couple stacks of leftovers.  The decision to go back and push the remaining papers from a balcony is the film’s only true “thriller” moment, an instance of cinematic contrivance: A plot device included to heighten the drama.  From there, the film falls into a similar character study style as Downfall, in which director Marc Rothemund shows Sophie’s youthful courage—some might say stupidity—in standing up for her beliefs against the totalitarian regime in which Evans situates his argument.  It peels away layers of the Nazi ideology through Sophie’s arguments with her captors, and that is more important than artificially stimulating the audience with thriller trappings anyway.  But again, it lacks what is classically understood as filmic suspense.

For there to be a true “German totalitarian thriller,” filmmakers would need to worry less about historical figures, biopics, and the like, and focus on the themes and lessons present during the reign of the Third Reich.  These rhetorical screenwriters and directors should conjure their own characters, fill them with their own personal obsessions—much like in any imaginary story—and plug those people into the Nazi era, free to do whatever they want with those characters.  That way, the storytellers can concentrate on crafting a yarn, inviting the audience to participate in the more “fun” aspects of filmmaking by scaring them, making them laugh, and awing them with the exploits of someone they do not know.  This would provide the taste and texture of the more staid productions mentioned in this essay, but without the restrictions of adhering to the truth of history.  Historically accurate films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl cannot accomplish that because they are not free to play with true-life figures the way a filmmaker would with a created character.

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Read My Friend’s Project, 365 Movies in a Year

My friend Josh is probably the only person in the world with whom I can talk movies for hours.  The passion he and I share for cinema — something most people would call an unhealthy (or worse, boring) obsession — has led to plenty of great, sometimes drunken conversations about all manner of film topics (an example of our measured, reasonable dialogues: Josh: “I don’t think David Fincher is very good.” Me: “Well, I think you’re an asshole.”).  We have developed a mutual desire to push each other to be better filmgoers and appreciators.  After a year or more of suggesting he start writing regularly about them due to his deep knowledge (at least, it’s vastly superior to mine) of movies and film history, he vowed to watch a movie a day this year and write about each.  He launched his blog, 365 Movies in a Year, today, with a post for each movie so far.  So go read it, comment, and start a discussion.  It’s always fun to learn what bounces around this self-proclaimed “pop culture sponge”‘s head.

On a side note, I know I haven’t been around here for a while.  For that, I’m sorry.  But hey, I had to quit my job due to my upcoming semester’s class schedule (hello, one more straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back student loan).  That job, along with my nerd school, family strife, and a couple fiction side projects all coalesced into a break from this place the last couple months.  It may not be a regular column again until I graduate in May, but I hope to pound out at least a few more “I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School” entries in the coming months.  If you want to see more, remember that guilt is always a great motivator, and complain about how I’m depriving you.

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Can’t Wait: Julia Dyer’s ‘The Playroom’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

This week’s edition is a little bit of cheating, as I saw The Playroom this weekend while I volunteered at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.  A period piece about a seventies family falling apart, the movie is highlighted by great, pained performances, especially from John Hawkes and his Deadwood costar Molly Parker as a feuding and drunken married couple (serves them right for going behind Seth Bullock’s back in a betrayal of epic proportions), and Olivia Harris as their eldest daughter; however, Dyer gets phenomenal work out of all the young actors.  A claustrophobic, one-house setting turns up the familial tension to uncomfortable levels.  It may not be a happy crowd pleaser, but it’s a well done film that the director, Julia Dyer, said will be available on Netflix, VOD, and other streaming services this February.  See it and help a talented independent filmmaker get the clout needed to continue her career; we need more people with a knack for working with actors in such a masterful way.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: A Formalist Essay on ‘Citizen Kane’

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 can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Formalist analysis is not something I have spent much time doing on this website.  I understand a large portion of it and I often care more about story, theme, and character.  I’ve often looked down on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, probably to my own detriment.  Due this past Monday in my film class was a formalist analysis of a scene of my choice from Citizen Kane.  I knew I could do it and it would not have been a taxing thing on me, but I didn’t think doing so would expand my appreciation of the film to such a degree that I would now list it among a favorite — as opposed to simply being on the “greatest films I’ve ever seen” list.  Going shot by shot through this sequence opened my eyes, and I had a blast doing it.  In the future, I want to integrate more of this style in my posts.


 This sequence, which lasts three minutes and four seconds over 19 shots, covers the time in Charles Foster Kane’s life when he runs for governor of New York.  This is a time of immense optimism, which will be shattered by Kane’s own hubris and womanizing.  It largely focuses on a rousing speech given by Kane to a crowd of supporters.  Shot durations are listed in parentheses after each shot description.

Shot 1  There is a long shot of man speaking on ramshackle podium clearly built in haste.  He is elevated above the crowd, the focus of their attention.  The crowd members, many of whom appear to be of the blue-collar variety in plain jackets and hats, all look up at him, hanging on his every word.  A street light burns bright next to the speaker, a Kane supporter, which can be an indication that Kane is the bright hope for the state.  “Kane For Governor” signs are pasted all over the walls of what appear to be an alley where this rally is taking place; this indicates the Kane campaign is willing to go anywhere and everywhere to get their message to the people.  The camera, which is on a crane, mimics the feeling of a dolly-in on the speaker as he talks about Kane being a “fighting liberal,” among other things.

(16 seconds)

Shot 2  There is a cut from the middle of the speaker’s speech to a long shot of a huge poster of Kane’s face and Kane’s voice continues the sentiments of the street speaker.  The camera does a slight pan left and tilts downward to show Kane at a podium giving a fiery speech.  Various men in nice suits sit behind him in a slight arc, staring at him; he is clearly the most important man in the room and perhaps the world.

(11 seconds)

Shot 3  Cut to an extreme long shot of a matte shot to imply Kane is speaking to a massive gathered crowd in an auditorium.  This kind of shot would become a favorite of Stanley Kubrick in later years, as it is one-point perspective.  That is, the stage is perfectly centered in the shot, and it performs as the sole vanishing point.  This further enhances the sense that Kane is the only person who matters.  The camera pushes in as we…

(4 seconds)

Shot 4  Dissolve to a long shot of Kane, again directly centered, continuing his speech.  CAM pushes in as Kane gestures grandly, his hands spread wide.  The camera continues its dolly-in and eventually approaches from a slightly left-of-center (perhaps in relation to Kane being the “fighting liberal”?) perspective; as it gets closer, it tilts up, again displaying Kane’s power and importance.

(22 seconds)

Shot 5  Cut to Kane’s son and wife, Emily, in a tight medium shot.  His son is standing, excitedly watching his father.  Emily appears both nervous and blasé about what’s happening before her eyes; she couldn’t care less about the speech, but she doesn’t want her son to be an embarrassment.  Emily tells the boy to sit, and he dutifully does, but his eyes remain wide with pride in his father.  In the background are a few visible bodies to imply Kane’s family is among a huge crowd, when in fact this is a small set.  Behind those headless bodies is emptiness, not more people; a trick of scale Welles uses multiple times through the rest of the sequence.

(6 seconds)

Shot 6  Cut to low angle of Kane, this time from the right-hand side of the stage.

(4 seconds)

Shot 7  Cut to a medium shot of Kane from the same side of the stage, but this time in a straight-on-to-slightly-high angle.  He gives a cocky but gregarious vibe, the type of politician that usually wins (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

(8 seconds)

Shot 8  Cut to high-angle shot of Emily and their son.  She looks on with dead eyes while he waves excitedly.

(2 seconds)

Shot 9  Cut to Kane sending a quick salute to his son (a faulty eyeline match because Kane should salute to the other side of the stage).

(4 seconds)

Shot 10  Cut to Jedediah, Kane’s business partner, lit brighter than the extras next to him (he is important and they are not) looking on at his friend quietly.

(7 seconds)

Shot 11  Cut to that same highish, to-the-right angle of Kane at the podium.  He walks to the side of the podium and the camera pans right to follow him.

(11 seconds)

Shot 12  Cut to Mr. Bernstein, another Kane friend and business partner, in the crowd (again with more light hitting him than the extras, and placed in the center to draw the viewer’s attention) clapping his appreciation and support for his boss and friend.  Again, like the shots of Kane’s wife and son and the one with Jedediah, there are actually few people in the shot, but with enough cutting and sound amplification of the audience’s applause, the speech appears to be happening in a much larger space than it really is: A Hollywood soundstage.

(3 seconds)

Shot 13  Cut to Kane’s son and Emily, again in a medium shot, and a much more straight-on angle than before, sitting and watching.  The boy asks if his “pop [is] governor yet,” and his mother reassures him, “not yet,” in a way that implies he will be.

(5 seconds)

Shot 14  Cut to Kane again at the podium.  His joke, “I would make my promises now if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them,” makes the audience burst into confident laughter.

(9 seconds)

Shot 15  Cut to Jedediah clapping and laughing at the joke.

(4 seconds)

Shot 16  Cut to high-angle shot of Kane at the podium in a long shot and oriented to the right.  The pulling away of the camera implies Kane is being watched carefully while making threats to Boss Jim Gettys, his chief political foe.  The camera zooms on Kane as he promises to convict Gettys of his political crimes.

(23 seconds)

Shot 17  Cut to a man in trench coat watching from a faraway balcony at a matte shot of the crowd cheering Kane onstage, foreshadowing that Kane’s promises will not be kept.  The man puts on his hat and walks away while Kane’s speech ends and music begins to play amid loud cheers and applause from the crowd.

(8 seconds)

Shot 18  Low angle from the left of Kane shaking hands with his supporters.  They are clearly important, upper crust men, as shown by their top hats and tails.  The camera dollies left as Kane moves across the stage, shaking more hands as he goes.  The camera dollies back slightly as he descends the stairs from the stage to meet the press, and a flashbulb goes off.

(15 seconds)

Shot 19  Dissolve to a straight shot of Kane again in the center, walking toward the camera, which does a reverse dolly track through a crowded hall of supporters and well wishers.  His son rushes toward him and Kane takes him in his arms.  Emily meets the two of them as the camera stops tracking and another flashbulb goes off.

(17 seconds)

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Can’t Wait: ‘Stand Up Guys’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Elmore Leonard’s influence, be it direct or otherwise, is always something I value in a movie.  Fast talking lowlifes, quippy small time crooks, and lounge bars are the cornerstones of Leonard’s work, and things that never fail to interest me.  And when Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin are playing elderly versions of those lowlifes, as they do in the upcoming Stand Up Guys, you can count at least one ticket punched.

Will Stand Up Guys be any good?  Who knows?  It’s slated for a January release, which is never a good sign for a film’s quality prospects.  However, that cast, including the aforementioned legends, also features Julianna Margulies and Mark Margolis (Tio!), which is exciting.  Pacino in particular looks like he’s stretching some of those early-career restraint muscles which have gone dormant for decades.  All three of Pacino, Walken, and Arkin have a jaded, beaten, and good-humored take on those Leonard scuzzy criminals, which is alone worth $10 to get out of the January cold.


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Can’t Wait: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

[Oh hey, let’s make fun of the dork who forgot to schedule yesterday’s post.  Anyway, here’s the “Can’t Wait” I owe you.]

I’ve been slow to appreciate Terrence Malick’s work.  Last spring I saw the trailer for The Tree of Life and couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It looked so mysterious and abstract that I felt it necessary to study his filmography.  I watched his four previous movies — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World — and only truly enjoyed The Thin Red Line.  The voiceover use bordering on excess and the lingering shots of nature were intriguing if difficult to connect to.  Then last week I was able to see Tree of Life on a big screen — the first time I saw it was on a small TV in the afternoon, much like the rest of his movies (not exactly a prime viewing situation) — and everything clicked in that greater medium.  When immersed, the poetry of the voiceovers doesn’t feel abstract; it enhances the beautiful imagery washing over the screen.

And with Malick’s late-career surge of productivity, he has showcased To The Wonder on the film festival circuit the last couple months to gain a distributor.  It may not have received the warmest of reactions, and I have only the vaguest of understandings as to what kind of thematic or plot ground the film covers, but if I have the opportunity to see another Malick on a big screen, I’m going to do it.  Now, someone pick it up and release it.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

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 can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Pan’s Labyrinth is, in a way, a schizophrenic film.  It is a story about the power of fantasy, wonder, and mystery, and also a depiction of the harsh realities of fascism and war.  It is not entirely successful in both measures; or, perhaps, it would be more successful if they served each other in a way other than pure juxtaposition.  If Guillermo del Toro had doubled down on one or the other, the film would not feel so disjointed.  Instead, he indecisively keeps a foot firmly planted in each, and the startling violence of the “reality” is weakened.  This is because del Toro fails the “give the audience only what they need” test.  The overt precision of the violence – the Captain’s brutal and uncaring murder of a hunter and his son, Mercedes’ slashing of the Captain’s mouth, etc. – has no mystery to it; a viewer sees exactly the effects of the violence, or rather they see del Toro’s vision for what the effects should be.  This leaves them without the option of filling in the blanks with their own nightmarish imagery (see Howard Hawks’s Red River, when John Wayne’s character murders a Native American beneath dark water; an act the audience cannot explicitly see).  Now, shocking and extreme violence has its place in the proper context (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Refn’s Drive), but in a film that also places so much emphasis on mystery, trickery, and sleight-of-hand in its fantastical moments, Pan’s Labyrinth would be better served to employ some of those slyer elements into its harsher, more “realistic” segments.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Hints of Joseph Campbell in ‘Boogie Nights’?

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.

Literature Review

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.


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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: John Sayles’ ‘Matewan’

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: Last semester, I took a class about American history as seen through cinema.  Our bi-weekly essays were supposed to give a lengthy plot description and the specific film’s historical accuracy.  This is one of the pieces that made me feel pretty good.  It’s not great, but it’s nice to see one’s progression as a writer.  As for when I’ll generate new content, I’m working on it; school is difficult and I do not handle it well.  I apologize again.]

Work is hard; it always has been.  What people tend to forget is, work has grown significantly easier over the last hundred years.  After a “grueling” eight-hour day, we go home, complain about our bosses, coworkers, and any other annoyances that meet us at our places of business (when dealing with the public, some of these complaints can be warranted).  The coal miners in Matewan, West Virginia, were not so lucky.  In fact, it is due to their—and others like them—sacrifices, that people today can work reasonable jobs.

Those miners, as portrayed in director John Sayles’ Matewan, decided they had had enough of working endless hours for miniscule wages, especially when combined with the coal company’s refusal to reduce any of the dangers associated with the job.  When Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a pro-union man, arrives in town, his ideas about workers’ rights catch on with the miners.  They struggle to organize, provoking lethal action from the powerful and ruthless men atop the Baldwin-Felts coal mining company, fueling a literal rich-keeping-the-lower-classes-down powder keg.

At the film’s outset, Kenehan rides a train bound for the small West Virginian town.  Also aboard are a group of black workers from Alabama.  The train stops well before reaching the Matewan station, and the black men are ordered off the train.  A group of angry white men ambush them, brawling over their perception of the blacks as “scabs.”

Kenehan watches the fight from the train and the realization sets in he’s in for a tough go of it.  When he reaches Matewan, he moves into a boarding house run by a miner’s widow named Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) and her teenage son, Danny (Will Oldham), a child laborer at the mine and also a promising preacher.

That first night, Danny preaches at the local church about the need for a union and is shuffled off the altar by the head minister, an anti-union man played by Sayles himself.  During this, Kenehan meets with a collection of miners who had loosely been trying to organize.  While there, one of the new black men, Few Clothes (James Earl Jones), enters, wishing to be a part of the union.  Despite the vehement antipathy shown toward Few Clothes by the white miners, Kenehan convinces them they will need everyone to stand up to coal company.  Without workers, he explains, the company cannot excavate its product.

Kenehan meets with the black miners and also the recently arrived Italian immigrants to persuade them to join with the other men.  The men are unsure of what to do.  Later, when the white miners learn of the blacks and Italians working night shifts behind their backs, they confront them on the hill.  Ready for a fight, the white miners are then met with Baldwin-Felts men aiming rifles at them.  To diffuse the situation, the night shift workers throw down their shovels and join the striking white miners.

The next day, Hickey and Griggs, company men hired as muscle, arrive in town.  They take up residence at the Radnor boarding house, displacing Kenehan, who graciously vacates his room to avoid any unnecessary fighting.

Hickey and Griggs begin to break the union by evicting miners from company-owned houses.  However, Police Chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) refuses to allow such strong-armed tactics without any eviction notices, and deputizes each Matewan man to enforce his will against the company men.

The striking union men move their families to a camp in the woods outside of town.  Hickey and Griggs, along with other hired men, take shots at the camp at night, injuring some of the miners.  The next day, they further try breaking the strikers by demanding all company-owned goods and food be returned.  However, some hill people arrive in the camp.  Saying they are unhappy with the noise the company men made the night before, they draw their weapons on Hickey, Griggs, and their lackeys and force them to leave.

C.E. Lively, a company infiltrator, tries to drive a divide between Kenehan and the strikers by getting a local widow to accuse Kenehan of sexual assault.  This greatly angers the men, who decide to kill Kenehan.  After drawing the short straw, Few Clothes is elected to perform the duty.  After bonding with him over a campfire, Few Clothes is conflicted and unsure of how Kenehan could have done such a thing.  Just as Few Clothes builds the resolve to carry out his order, another miner enters the camp with the truth about Kenehan’s innocence, strengthening Joe’s message.

After the Baldwin-Felts men murder a young miner, the powder keg is ready go blow.  As company reinforcements arrive to fulfill the promise of evictions, Chief Hatfield begins shooting at the men.  Kenehan rushes to try to stop the fight, wanting to prove the union’s goals can be accomplished peacefully, but is unsuccessful.  The Baldwin-Felts men are all killed, as are several miners and townspeople.  Danny and Mrs. Radnor find Kenehan at the train tracks, dead of a gunshot wound.  In voiceover, an elderly Danny reveals the strikers never beat the company, and he worked the rest of his life in the mines.

Matewan is a powerful film, especially given its historical relevance.  In the years preceding the events of the movie, unions struggled to give workers around the nation some security and safety.

According to America: A Narrative History, “[o]n May 12 [1902], some 150,000 members of the United Mine Workers (UMW) walked off the job in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  They demanded a 20 percent wage increase, a reduction in daily working hours from ten to nine, and formal recognition of their union by management (723).”

However, the animosity between the upper and lower classes burned brightly in those times.  “The operators dug in their heels and shut down the mines in an effort to starve out the miners, many of whom were immigrants from eastern Europe,” just like many of the men depicted in Sayles’ film.  A key example of this utter disregard was one of the mine owners, who said, “The miners don’t suffer—why, they can’t even speak English (723).”

Moving beyond historical accuracy, Matewan more than holds its own as a work of art.  The acting, from the top billed Cooper on down, is phenomenal.  Cooper’s turn as Kenehan feels like a classic film hero, but filtered through a nervous dread of impending collapse.  Oldham, who in real life is a singer-songwriter who tours under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, uses his stage presence to great degree when delivering his sermons; his convictions would sway even the most pessimistic of audiences.

You feel for these people as these injustices are performed against them, but Sayles does a great job of pulling back to expose their own prejudices and infighting with the immigrants and black workers.  The fight outside the train at the film’s beginning prepares the audience to not give themselves over wholly to the strikers.  However, as the film progresses, you begin to understand their feelings toward the black men are less about racism and more about their own lack of security in their positions in their jobs and world around them.

And that understanding is the lesson that one should take from Matewan.  Everyone deserves a fair shake, and if those in power refuse to give that fair shake, there can be grave consequences.

Work Cited

Tindall, George B., and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. Print.

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