Cinematic Soulmates: Raging Bull and Boogie Nights

Obsession is a favorite topic of many filmmakers, and it’s one that you see recur quite often in cinema.  Films as diverse as Sunrise (1927), Amadeus (1984), Zodiac (2007), Jaws (1975) and countless others have all touched upon the subject of obsession in one way or another.  Quite often, the films are about the way in which obsession leads to the downfall of one of the characters (usually the main character, but not always).  For the most part, the obsession is depicted in a choice made by the character, one that eventually takes over his or her life.  The character makes a decision, either conscious or unconscious, to chase after something that is ephemeral and/or unobtainable, and this choice ultimately leaves him or her a broken shell of human being.  Sometimes, though, the character has no choice in the matter.  They are chasing after something not because they want to, but because it is the only option available to them.  Such is the case for the lead characters in the films that are the focus of today’s installment of Cinematic Soulmates.

In director Martin Scorsese’s powerful masterpiece, Raging Bull (1980), Robert De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a self-destructive boxer who is quick to anger and none too bright.  Worse yet, he is prone to fits of paranoia and jealousy.  Inside the ring, Jake demolishes his opponents.  Outside the ring, he is physically and verbally abusive toward his friends and family, most notably his wife and his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci).  La Motta wants nothing more than the love of his family, but, unfortunately, there is something inside him that won’t allow him to accept it unconditionally.  During the summer of 1941, Jake is making quite a name for himself as a middleweight fighter, when he spots a young woman named Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) lounging at a public pool in the Bronx.  Jake becomes obsessed with Vickie, and starts up a relationship with her, despite the fact that he is already married.  As the years go by, Jake starts to fear that Vickie is sleeping around with every guy she meets, including Joey.  This makes him sloppy in the ring, and eventually in his everyday life.  He gains weight, he loses match after match, and finally he retires and opens a swanky nightclub.  Eventually, he runs afoul of the law, and thus begins a downward spiral that leaves Jake lost and alone in a world he cannot comprehend, completely cut off from his friends and family thanks to his uncontrollable rage.  Jake tries to get by, but he finds it difficult, as all he truly understands is violence.

Mark Wahlberg (I’ll have you know that it took everything in my power not to type Marky Mark just then) plays a similar role in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), a period piece that explores the porn scene of the 1970s.  Wahlberg plays the dim but physically gifted Eddie Adams, a kid from the California suburbs who has dropped out of school so he can commute to his job as a dishwasher at a night club in the San Fernando Valley.  Oh, and he also sports a gigantic penis.  One night, Eddie catches the eye of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director who specializes in adult films and exotic entertainment.  Jack wants to cast Eddie in his next porn film, and the star struck youth readily agrees.  Changing his name to Dirk Diggler, Eddie quickly takes the porn world by storm, thanks to his massive member, and in no time he embarks on a meteoric rise to the top.  Surrounded by a band of fellow misfits and outcasts, Adams née Diggler finally has the family he always wanted, one that will replace the abusive mother and weak willed father who never gave him the love and adoration he craved.  However, it’s not long before Dirk’s fame starts to go to his head, and he begins to believe that the rest of the world owes him something.  Things only get worse when Dirk discovers cocaine, and soon his own hubris sends him crashing back to the bottom.  Now Dirk must struggle with the demons inside him, all while trying to claw his way back to the top of the porn world, as it’s the only thing he has ever been any good at.

The main thing that La Motta and Diggler have in common is that they both possess only one real skill, and they are almost totally incapable of doing anything else.  To put it bluntly, neither man is terribly bright, and they each must rely solely on their admittedly incredible physical prowess.  In La Motta’s case, his skill is in beating people up, which serves him well inside the ring, but is less effective when dealing with his friends and family.  Diggler, on the other hand, is blessed with an enormous penis, which thrusts him straight to the top of the porn world.  Were it not for his rather prodigious member, high school dropout Diggler would no doubt spend the rest of his days working as a dishwasher at that sleazy club in the Valley, toiling in obscurity while drinking his cares away.  However, both Diggler and La Motta were just smart enough to realize that they each possessed a singular talent, and both men were able to exploit that talent for all it was worth, even if it was only for a short time.

On the flipside, both men are also responsible for their eventual downfall.  Their rise to fame was much too fast, and neither man could handle it.  Diggler was on top of the world, and began to think he was untouchable.  That is why he so quickly succumbs to the lure of cocaine, which makes him paranoid and angry, causing him to lash out at the people who care about him and helped him become a star in the first place.  This leads to his eventual exile from Jack Horner’s circle, and casts him out on the streets, where he is forced to prostitute himself out to other men just to survive.  Similarly, Jake La Motta finally reaches the top, but his rise is hampered by his fragile ego, which makes him prone to anger and jealousy.  Jake can’t handle the fact that his wife finds his opponents attractive, and he lashes out in the only way he knows how.  He grows increasingly violent, beating his wife and any man who dares to look at her, including his own brother.  Soon, Jake’s family and friends have abandoned him, and he is left alone and adrift, trying to make sense of the world outside the ring but failing miserably.  While La Motta and Diggler were each able to reach the top thanks to their one skill, it was their own insecurities and mental handicaps that sent them crashing back down to the bottom again.

The problem is that both men wanted nothing more than for people to love them, but in the end, they couldn’t handle that love.  Both La Motta and Diggler were trying to create a family, because they each thought that would fill the void that existed inside of them, but they were mistaken.  What they really wanted was to surround themselves with people who would validate their every decision, people who would place them on a pedestal and worship them in the manner they thought they deserved.  When this didn’t happen, both men grew sullen and withdrawn, and ended up alienating everyone they had tried to make love them.  They learned that this only leads to heartbreak, as the people La Motta and Diggler thought they could trust turned their backs on them, and left them right back where they started: scared and alone in a world they were woefully unprepared to navigate.

In addition to the parallels between the main characters, both films touch upon the theme of obsession.  At first, Jake is obsessed with violence, but eventually he turns that obsession towards his young wife, Vickie.  He is constantly asking her where she’s been and who she was with, and his every waking moment is ruled by the fear that she is cheating on him.  Eventually, it becomes so overwhelming that Jake even begins to suspect his own brother is sleeping with Vickie.  This obsession eventually ruins Jake’s life, causing his wife to take the kids and leave, and even driving a wedge between him and Joey.  Similarly, Dirk is obsessed with being famous.  Early in the film, he tells his girlfriend (or at least the girl he is sleeping with) that he’s “gonna be a great big bright, shining star.”  It’s the one thing in his life that holds meaning for him, even more than his relationships with his friends and his family, who he pretty much abandons when he embarks on his career in pornography.  Dirk wants nothing more than to be famous, and for people everywhere to love him.  He even manages to attain this dream for a little while, before screwing it all up by allowing himself to become addicted to drugs.  But even if it weren’t for the cocaine, his own insecurities would have eventually led to his downfall, as there was a part of him that simply felt he wasn’t being loved enough.  The cocaine only intensified that feeling and sped up his fall from grace.  Eventually, Dirk finds himself lying in the gutter, and if he had just looked across the street, he might have caught a glimpse of a broken down prize fighter staring back at him, wiping away his tears with bloody knuckles.

More than that, though, Boogie Nights itself is an act of obsession.  It is a fanatical homage to the films of Martin Scorsese (with a dash of Robert Altman and George Lucas thrown in for good measure).  The film worships at the altar of Goodfellas, from its opening sequence, which unfolds in one nearly four-minute unbroken shot, to its insanely detailed period setting and expert use of music; the film wears its influences on its sleeve.  Sure, director Paul Thomas Anderson was taking the majority of his cues from the porn world of the 1970s (most notably the career of John Holmes), but there is no question he is using his film to pay homage to the work of Martin Scorsese, as Boogie Nights even follows the same sort of rise and fall structure of Raging Bull.  Ultimately, it’s just another case of a filmmaker paying tribute to those who came before him, but it is also an embodiment of one theme that runs through each film, and that is no coincidence.

With both Raging Bull and Boogie Nights, we see characters succumb to their obsessions.  More than that, though, they are films that are made by two directors who are infatuated with the medium, and they are totally informed by this obsession.  It’s this overarching theme that unites both films, and makes them perfect Cinematic Soulmates.

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