In my review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights from a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how obviously influence it had been by Martin Scorsese’s style, and, in particular, his masterpiece GoodFellas. Anderson lists his two biggest filmmaking influences as Jonathan Demme and Scorsese, and Robert Altman and Scorsese as the biggest specific influences on Boogie Nights. The blog ‘Smart in Name Only’ accurately summarises Anderson’s film as ‘The GoodFellas of porn’, and here I’ll attempt to tackle just what makes the films so similar, both in stylistic, and narrative/ thematic terms, as well as looking at some of the very similar scenes.
Both Boogie Nights and GoodFellas are excellent examples of using an eclectic range of music to imbue scenes with meaning and to set the mood. I use the word eclectic with good reason, as GoodFellas features everything from the melodic tones of Tony Bennett to Sid Vicious’s cover of the Frank Sinatra tune ‘My Way’, and Boogie Nights journeys from the sickly sweet ‘Lord Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys to the downright pornographic ‘Jungle Fever’ by Chakachas.
Both Boogie Nights and GoodFellas feature highly distinctive camerawork, with the camera rarely staying put for more than a few seconds, as well as shots repeating and constant motivated zooms. Whilst both these films feature these techniques throughout, there are two particularly famous examples to illustrate my point: the ‘Copa shot’ in Scorsese’s film, and the very opening shot in Anderson’s.
Both films share several common traits across their editing. Both utilise editing to dictate their pace and overall feel, with the earlier sections where the lives of the characters are generally on the up characterised by long, uncut shots and minimal editing, and the latter portions being dominated by extremely quick cuts in order to lend a hectic, out of control feel to the proceedings.
As with the editing, both Boogie Nights and GoodFellas utilise the idea of time in order to set the tone of different periods. In both films, the early, affluent stages of the characters are met with loose, undefined time markers, with scenes skipping years, even decades, demonstrating the ease and fluidity of the characters’ lifestyles, and also the speed with which time passes (time flies when you’re having fun guys!). In contrast, the latter stages are marked by a shrinking of these time lapses, until eventually the viewer is being told that scenes longer than those afforded to entire years early on are taking place on a single day. Examples include the characters’ of Boogie Nights lowest ebb, which takes place on a single night, as Dirk desperately scrounges for money and is attacked, Jack and Rollergirl desperately try to cling on to their former glories, and Buck is reduced to stealing money from a botched hold up in order to get his business off the ground. A hugely disproportionate section of GoodFellas is taken up recounting Henry’s last single day of freedom, demonstrating his paranoia and the relentless strain placed upon him by his everyday activities.
In addition, both films make a new decade their major tonal crux, by which I mean when the tone shifts dramatically from the better to the worse. For GoodFellas, this is the start of the 1970s, when Billy Batts is murdered, and for Boogie Nights, the event occurs literally seconds after the advent of the ‘80s, when Little Bill murders his wife and her lover, before turning the gun on himself. In this sense, both can be seen as treatises on the decline on America during these eras (see the ‘The Two Industries’ section below).
Narrative/ Thematic similarities
The Rise and Fall
Perhaps the clearest similarity between the two narratives is their take on one of the most classic narrative trajectories, that of the rise and fall. Both Henry (GoodFellas) and Eddie/ Dirk (Boogie Nights) start out in modest surroundings, dreaming of greater things. Henry then works his way in to the local Mafioso, whilst Dirk is discovered by Jack and becomes a star. Both then enjoy their success for several years, before things gradually unravel (in both cases largely due to drugs and the changing face of the respective industries). The major divergence between these two narratives occurs at their very ends, where Dirk gets himself back on track, whilst Henry is denied even an honourable gangster death and condemned to a life as a ‘nobody’.
Whilst there is no denying that both GoodFellas and Boogie Nights are stories of one man, they also feature various side narratives that help enhance the overall messages of the collapse of the characters’ lines of business and America as a whole. Be it Buck’s attempts to extract himself from the pornography industry in order to pursue his dream of selling Hi-Fi’s, or Jimmy’s transformation from the suave gangster archetype to a paranoid psychopath, both films enrich their messages through their development of secondary characters.
Both films employ a mentor character that (unsurprisingly) mentors the main character initially, before the main character crosses them. In Boogie Nights, this role is filled by Jack, the film director, who makes Dirk a star and who eventually fires him when his drug use spirals out of control. In GoodFellas, this role is shared between Paulie, who acts as Henry’s boss, and Jimmy, who shows Henry the ropes and eventually becomes his partner. Henry eventually betrays both men in order to gain witness protection status. By giving character’s mentors who they can turn against, it makes their demise all the more dramatic.
The Two Industries
It’s fair to say that neither the pornography or organised crime industries conform to your conventional business models, but both are quintessentially American in their design; anyone can be successful in them, regardless of their beginnings (depending on their entrepreneurial nous or how well, ahem, endowed they are); essentially, they both represent the old adage of the American Dream. Both industries see a substantial decline in the second halves of the respective films, as both GoodFellas and Boogie Nights comment on the destructive excesses of the ‘80s and the effect they had on the ideologies that had prevailed for the best part of two centuries in America.
The “House Introduction” Scene
The camera follows both Dirk and Karen as they introduce others to their new homes, both complete with custom made sofas.
The “Help me out” Scene
Both films feature a scene in which one character (Maurice in Boogie Nights, Tommy in GoodFellas) asks another for a hand, and both contain very similar dialogue.
The “Jilted Mentor” Scene
Both films feature as part of their climax a tearful meeting between the protégé and master, with both Henry and Dirk begging for forgiveness. One is granted it, the other is not.