The eternal struggle of the human circumstance is discovering the purpose of one’s life. We spend countless hours in school, working jobs, or deep in thought attempting to ascertain the reason for our existence. For some, they believe that discovering what they are most passionate about, or that for which they have a particular talent will provide their lives with enough meaning to remain fulfilled. Toward the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film, Boogie Nights, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) says, “Everyone is blessed with one special thing.” Eddie’s belief that he would be a star, that he was destined for greatness led him to a life acting in adult films, making an abundant amount of money and being surrounded by beautiful people. For Eddie, who would adopt the stage name Dirk Diggler at the beginning of his career, this belief in his own star power helped him through the struggles of his life’s difficulties.
A troubled relationship with his mother left Dirk with a home base lacking in love, leading him to find both affection and acceptance in those not related to him. Dirk was fortunate and found a surrogate family of people who had also discovered their talents and each other. Even being surrounded by a group of people who remained committed to the abilities they found within themselves, despite public perception, they are still fallible human beings. In one way or another, each person in Dirk’s substitute family brings about their own downfall, a theme that seems prevalent in my fledgling study of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films.
Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), an adult filmmaker who discovers Dirk, is reluctant to adapt within the changing world of his profession. At a point in his life where he is preoccupied with his own mortality, Jack is determined to leave behind a legacy. Jack’s determination is grounded in a longing to prove that he existed, and his life was worth living. When he becomes consumed by his desire to create something that would outlast him, Jack neglects those around him who were also seeking fulfillment and made poor decisions putting the lives of those he cherished at risk. Amber Waves, (Julianne Moore) Jack’s leading female film star is a damaged woman devastated by the separation from her son she endures while going through a messy divorce and custody battle with her ex-husband. Desperate to legitimize herself and her career, Amber gives her all to her work but is left empty during the nights and turns to drugs to fill the void in her life. Amber also forms a close bond with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a young woman who left her life and family behind and found solace with Jack and working in his films. Leaving her family and education behind, Rollergirl often felt alone, notably missing the bond a daughter and mother typically share. Fortunately for Rollergirl, she found such a relationship with Amber, though, she also began using drugs with her. Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), another member of Jack’s employ, feels uncomfortable in his skin when he is away from his fellow adult film workers. Unable to find a place for himself outside of the adult film industry, Buck proves that he will violate his ethical code by stealing to get what he wants out of life. Finally, there is Little Bill (William H. Macy), a crew member who works with Jack on his films.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Boogie Nights, Little Bill created a fascinating character study. Being married to a serial cheater takes its toll on Bill emotionally, especially the lack of remorse his wife shows throughout the many times he caught her with another man. Bill is also clearly conflicted in his work. Bill recognizes that he works in an industry that doesn’t always take sex seriously, as Bill does. Seeing Jack disregard sexual intercourse, at times, and witnessing his wife’s constant sexual exploits against their marriage drives Bill to kill his wife and then himself in a desperate move to escape that which with he cannot cope. Little Bill and Buck Swope share a commonality, they both find themselves at odds with their moral compass and their working life. Buck is using his particular talent to save enough money to achieve his passion, owning and operating his own stereo business. His naivety leaves him surprised when he is unable to secure a loan to start his business because he works in what the bank terms as “pornography.” This realization sends Buck into a tailspin; he feels as though all of his work and compromise was for naught and he fears he will be unable to realize his dream.
The turning point with Buck is when he happens upon an opportunity of sorts, to secure the money for his business. When he happens to be in a donut shop at the time it is robbed, and everyone else in the shop ends up dead, the newly jaded Buck steals the money left behind on the floor. The Buck that existed before he was unfairly denied a loan would have certainly waited for the police to arrive. Often, characters in films are viewed as less than human, and instead projections to be considered differently than ourselves. Paul Thomas Anderson does an exceptional job showing how much people are changed as their relationship or what they know about the world changes, reminding the audience that those depicted in his films are as human as we are.
The endless search for love is beautifully explored throughout Boogie Nights. What we are shown in the film is a collection of characters that are in desperate need of affection. For some, the absence of love brought them into the world of adult filmmaking, for others, it led them to drugs or alcohol to cope with their internal emptiness. A primary tenant of human psychology asserts that we need love to survive, and the characters in Boogie Nights are no different. Paul Thomas Anderson fleshes out this fundamental need for human love in a touching way throughout the film showing both the pursuit and attainment of love. As often is the struggle in life, however, anxieties and feelings of uncertainty arise once someone has attained love or found their talent.
As illustrated in Boogie Nights, the characters often resort to drug use or excessive drinking even after they found their place in the world. These drugs, however, weren’t the reason for each character’s downfall; instead, they were agents used to achieve their destruction. When each character begins using drugs, there is an individual element of self-sabotage being performed, as is often the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters. An event or feeling overwhelms the character, and they then turn to drugs to entirely give into the negative feelings they are experiencing. For instance, inflated by his ego, Dirk walks out during a shoot and tells Jack he quits. Without the security of his surrogate family and the opportunities Jack provides, Dirk realizes that he can never replicate the life he enjoyed. Dirk turns to drugs in what seems like an attempt to reach his rock bottom. Dirk gives in at a point and stops trying to help himself, allowing his emotions to overwhelm his rationality and submitting completely to the drugs.
Many characters in Boogie Nights, in fact, hit a personal rock bottom before returning to their self-professed purpose in life with renewed enthusiasm, validated by their ability to triumph over their trials. The drug use is also depicted as a stand-in for the love they are not getting in their life. Having something to depend on, no matter how damaging it is, provides comfort for some people. Amber is in a state of constant withdrawal of love due to being separated from her son, and her turn to drugs seems to suggest that she felt as though the drugs were what was there for her when she had no one else. The mother-daughter relationship she fostered with Rollergirl, certainly gave her an outlet for her motherly instincts, though the times the pair was closest also involved heavy drug use. Paul Thomas Anderson offers an engrossing narrative on the relationship between drugs and love, or a lack of love, in Boogie Nights, further humanizing the characters within his films.
The hallmark I find most captivating in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, especially in Boogie Nights, is the examination of ego. In each character’s arc, there can be pinpointed a time where their ego was the driving force of their behaviors. Ego led Dirk astray when he began to believe he was the best star Jack could ever have, demanding a crew of people adjust their lives and schedules around his. When Dirk’s ego clashed with the ego of the other’s on-set, especially Jack’s, conflict erupted. The audience can see Dirk submit to his ego completely, which ultimately brings about his downfall. Jack’s ego led him on the futile quest of attempting to build a legacy and gain recognition beyond the confines of his life. Some people craft their legacies for years throughout their life and career in an attempt to prove that they were here and mattered to the world. Mortality is an uncomfortable issue to face, and the most common reaction, once it is confronted, is fear. Typically, panic sets in as we question the existence of an afterlife while desperately trying to avoid the inevitable circumstance of being forgotten. It is only once this ego is released, however, that we can realize that the real prize of existence are the relationships we enjoy throughout our lives. Ego is an impenetrable barrier to break, even for a force as strong as love, and it is ego that often prevents us from living our true selves, allowing love in. Ego can destroy or deter interpersonal relationships and can halt any success we may enjoy in its tracks. Paul Thomas Anderson not only shows how damaging ego is in Boogie Nights but also shows how easy it is to fall victim to.
The technical mastery on display in Boogie Nights is captivating. From the opening of the film we see an active, always moving, yet incredibly controlled camera. As the title is displayed in neon lights outside of one of the clubs, we follow the camera as it enters the lively atmosphere of the dance club and settles on the star of the film, Mark Wahlberg. Through the dynamic movements, the audience perceives not only the energy of the club and the atmosphere of the world the film will build but also the unsettled mind of the subject. We soon learn that Eddie (Dirk) is unhappy in his life and believes he is destined for better things than his current situation would suggest, and the bit of foreshadowing by Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautifully fluid camera movement acts as a poignant invitation into the mind of his principal character. The film is filled with equally as impressive camera mastery proving Paul Thomas Anderson’s gifts abound both in narrative storytelling and moving imagery. Actors in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films reach a peak in their pairings with him that is extraordinary. I’ve never seen Mark Wahlberg perform better in a role than Boogie Nights; he was brooding, angry, heartwarming, and able to span an emotional range unparalleled through his career.
Seeing the potential in each person he casts and bringing that potential to the characters he’s written adds a profundity to Paul Thomas Anderson’s films that devote audiences to him. Brilliant writing, superb acting, and an immense depth in each of his films provide for the audience a rich cinematic offering. Boogie Nights is so much more than a film about the nameless, moralless caricatures often attributed to people that work in the sex industry. Paul Thomas Anderson humanizes his characters and reminds the audience that no matter what we do and where our talents lie, we all possess a uniquely human perspective. We often need to be reminded of the universal quality of human life, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are the perfect vessel to awaken us to our shared human condition.