Goodfellas and Boogie Nights are more similar than you might think. These videos take a deep dive.
Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights were arguably two of the most stylistically influential Hollywood films of the '90s. Two new videos from Daniel Netzel (AKA Film Radar) and Entertain the Elk examine different aspects of the relationship between the two films. For Scorsese, Goodfellas was considered a triumphant return to form after a decade that started with the triumph of Raging Bull and then meandered through quirky one-offs like After Hours (which is, for the record, superb), his first Hollywood hit, The Color of Money, and the controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ.
In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson (a massive Scorsese fan), Boogie Nights was just his second feature film, (following the low-key brilliance of Hard Eight/Sydney) but it would be his first hit. The strange trip through the world of 1970's adult filmmaking has spiritual antecedents ranging from Robert Altman's 1975 ensemble Nashville, to Truffaut's Day for Night (1973), a wonderful film about people who make films that aren't particularly, well, 'good,' but invest them with their full humanity, nevertheless. Anderson's movie is also full of homages to Scorsese, particularly Raging Bull and Goodfellas, two films from which he quotes liberally (though when this is done well, and it is, no one complains.)
As Netzel says, both films, "follow the rise and fall of two young and ambitious men who find themselves a sense of belonging within a surrogate family, and whose greed and ego ultimately lead to their own self-destruction." Each film follows a working-class young man who escapes the shabby unhappiness of his childhood, casting fate to the wind in a bid for success in a world he's never known.
Now, of course, the preceding paragraph, with a few pronouns and adjectives changed up, describes untold numbers of stories. It's the classic journey, the narrative that mirrors our own life experience: we all leave our childhood worlds behind, and we all venture forth into the wider one, meeting in the process a colorful cast of characters, some who will help us, and some who will not. That said, in both Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, the main characters have distinct similarities of nation and era, and both end up members of subcultures on the fringes of "respectable society." In both films, we are given a panoramic (yet granular) introduction to these subcultures and their denizens, mores, and customs.
How many of the films' similarities come down to good narrative practice, and how much is conscious imitative patterning?
Both films have similar structures, with Anderson aping the epic arc of Goodfellas to a certain extent, though some of the similarity arises, one suspects, from the fact that both films happen to make use of good storytelling, with apposite foreshadowing, and appropriate narrative crests and valleys. To attempt, then, to tease out who got what from where is an interesting game, but ultimately an unimportant one. That is, there are only so many stories in the world, and these movies tell a variation of one of them (according to The Seven Basic Plots, a door-stopper of a book by Christopher Booker, these two would probably qualify for the category known as "Rags to Riches-Dark Variation.")
There's the introduction to the world, and dizzying success, in act one, leading to a dizzying height that, inevitably, peaks and crashes after the middle, as the "karmic debt" that the heroes have accrued begins to come due. In both films, life begins to go south around the same time (New Year's Eve gunshots in Boogie Nights herald the blood-dimmed tide of the 1980s, and the first year of the Reagan decade is no better for Henry Hill in Goodfellas, particularly May 11 of that year, which marks his last day as a gangster.)
It is fascinating to see how much the narratives echo each other, and to wonder (as per the thought experiment mentioned above) how much of this comes down to good narrative practice, and how much is conscious imitative patterning. For instance, in both films, (though perhaps inevitably given their time and place) drugs are major antagonists, leading to the dissolution of the characters and hastening their falls (while simultaneously blinding them to the precipitous heights from which they are dangling). Drugs, and drug deals, form the crux of the crises that befall both Dirk and Henry, when they find themselves alone in a world that had once opened every door to them and now shuts them out. Netzel notes how both films feature pathetic, hat-in-hand visits to patriarchs (Burt Reynolds and Paul Sorvino, respectively). Only in Nights does the father welcome the prodigal son home, giving us our happy (though ironic) ending; in Goodfellas, Henry is rejected and forced into the arms of the government, committing the worst sort of treason for a member of his adoptive family.
In Elk's video, the focus is more on the style of the two films, as he examines two pivotal scenes (the "Last Day" segment of Goodfellas, and the drug-deal-gone-wrong sequence from Boogie Nights.) Elk focuses on the idea of what he calls "visual literacy," which is, I suppose, a way of saying cinematic style. It's the concept, "that directors use the camera in order to communicate a deeper story idea or motion to the audience. Instead of words the vocabulary and grammar of this hidden language is expressed within the frame through angles, movement, lighting and colours."
In this case, the interest is in how both directors, during their similar third acts, use the elements at their disposal. In Boogie Nights, Dirk and his friends, desperate for money and drugs, have set up a scam that is pathetically ill-conceived, the product of addled minds that have never, even under the best of circumstances, come up with exemplary decisions. And though dramatic irony lets us in on the joke, which is that there are no drugs to be sold at all, we wouldn't have to know this in order to know that there is nothing but trouble within this ranch house on a quiet Los Angeles street. Anderson and his longtime editor, Dylan Tichenor (about whom I wrote last year) work to create an environment of unbearable tension, and what's really exemplary is how they motivate the tension: the sound of the firecrackers set off by Cosmo prefigure gunfire, and the music on the tape deck (which calls out to the VHS tapes that are ruining Jack's empire) starts, and stops, in imitation of Alfred Molina's lethally scattered basehead's attention span.
In Scorsese's sequence, the camera and editing (courtesy of Thelma Schoonmaker) are relentless, jumpy, frantic, as edgy as the come-down jangle of Henry's nerves, the cold sweat brow that earns the (appropriately Catholic) mercy of Valium from his brother's doctor. The image is restless, and so is the frame: even when the camera doesn't cut, it can't stay still. We are inside of Henry's head, and this sequence of the film is, like the robbery in Boogie Nights, a singular experience within the film, when the narrative's guiding principle is abandoned in favor of something else entirely.
The jump to erratic subjectivity is more intense in Goodfellas, but during these climatic sequences, each becomes relentlessly laser focused; the filmmaking mimics fear in the form of the drugs the characters are on—drugs that promote fear, hypervigilance, paranoia. An irony is that these drugs, the drugs that will "turn your mind to mush," as Robert De Niro's tells Ray Liotta, are completely correct in their assessment of the situation: the alarm bells they sound are very real.
The American Dream?
Both these movies are, more than anything, American films, focused on uniquely American heroes who believe in a particular variety of the American Dream, a dream that comes to bite them, and then, depending on the film, release them from its jaws. In Boogie Nights, it's hard to escape the idea that Dirk has been spared only to find himself in something like the blandness of a suburban existence he tried to escape at the beginning of the film. In Goodfellas, suburbia and its blandness are exactly where Henry Hill ends up, living "like a schnook" with his "egg noodles and ketchup," though a post-script tells us that he made a break for it, after getting a divorce and leaving the Witness Protection Program.
Aside from providing thought-provoking insights, these videos remind us that Boogie Nights and Goodfellas are both excellent movies, and so if you haven't recently, watch these essays, then go watch the films again. Or not. After all, if these two films teach us nothing else, it's that America is a country where you're free: to succeed, or fail, and spectacularly, to the best of your natural abilities.