Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dirk Diggler's Heroic Journey

In both my freshmen and senior English classes, I teach a version of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. It's a good way to get students to start looking for patterns and symbols in stories. For the freshmen, I teach it with Greek Mythology, and with seniors, I teach it with Beowulf, Siddhartha, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I include the last one because the overall point I'm trying to get across with them is that the things that happen in stories reflect what happens in reality.

When teaching it, I have a video that I made that illustrates the various parts of the Hero's Journey. Some movies that come up often are the Star Wars films, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series. Those work well because they're basically patterned after older myths. However, I also include a few scenes from other movies (that remain popular despite their age) like Mean Girls. The kids are often surprised to see the latter in all of that, but when I explain it all, it makes sense to them.

There is one movie that exemplifies the Hero's Journey that, when I made the video with all of the movie clips, I was really attempted to include some scenes from it. There's just one major problem. That movie is Boogie Nights, and that movie's about the porn industry. In other words, somebody's probably going to get offended if I include that, and I'll find myself having a meeting with administration. I suppose that even with that aside, I'd agree that it would be pretty inappropriate for a public school setting.

I give my freshmen a paper where they're allowed to write about any story that they want and relate it to the Hero's Journey. That's essentially what I'm going to attempt here in order to finally get this example out of my system. If you're a former student and you liked that lesson, then enjoy. If you're a current student, keep in mind that I don't promote my blog in class nor have I made it an assignment to read this. In other words - you're choosing to read this on your own. If you like mythology, movies, and/or porn, then you might find yourself enjoying this. But let's get one thing straight - this entry will be discussing porn, however tangentially, so don't keep reading if that sort of a thing offends you.

So, let's get started:

The Hero's Journey of Dirk Diggler - better known as Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights tells the story of a young man from Southern California in the 1970s who adopts the pseudonym "Dirk Diggler" when he joins the porn industry. Gifted with a large penis, he's a natural for the genre; however, his natural charm and ambition pushes him beyond what's expected and he emerges as a superstar of porn. With fame comes temptation and a battle with his own ego, and he begins to alienate his friends (who have become like family) when he overestimates his own importance. After a series of disastrous mistakes, Dirk Diggler eventually rises again, ready to conquer the adult entertainment industry once again.

One can find a lot of basic archetypes in Boogie Nights. Obviously, Dirk is the hero of the story. He meets the archetypal definition as he overcomes overwhelming obstacles. His obstacle includes baring everything, which is a big deal in a society whose mythology is based on the idea that being ashamed of one's nudity is the first realization when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Much like any good mythological hero, Dirk also suffers. He's cast out by his mother, and lacking appropriate role models leads to all sorts of dangerous behaviors (which will be elaborated on later).

Of course, any good hero deserves a mentor, and in this case, it's Jack Horner, a producer of porno films. Jack's goal is to get people to stay in their seats and finish the movie once their done masturbating. In other words, he's looking to transcend the genre, and he sees what he needs in Dirk. Through Jack, Dirk is able to learn the ropes of the business, and his star rises because of Jack's love and support.

There are multiple characters who fit the role of the sidekick, but probably the most obvious example would be Reed Rothchild. He's there from the beginning, and he comes along with Dirk as he rises to the top. He's also there through the bad times, and he's still around at the end. Everybody deserves a friend like Reed.

The character Amber Waves presents an interesting dilemma, as one can find multiple archetypal ideas in her personality. In other words, she's more complex than the sort of characters that you'd find in a myth - especially considering that females have so long been used more as plot devices than fully realized human beings. On one hand, she's the Outcast, as her husband keeps her apart from her son due to her choice of career in the porn industry. She's also a bit of an Earth Mother, as she acts very loving toward Dirk and it's clear that she's looking to him as a replacement for the son she cannot see. Most fitting though is that she's the Platonic Ideal for Dirk. This, of course, sounds strange as the Platonic Ideal usually involves a non-sexual attraction, and Dirk has sex with her shortly after meeting her. However, it's important to note that this sexual encounter is entirely in the context of his job. She's very sweet and motherly to him. And yes, that is a strange, awkward, uncomfortable thing for the audience. This is the porn industry, where if one is looking for normal, healthy relationships, then somebody's doing something terribly wrong.

Dirk's Journey as the hero begins with his extraordinary birth. While not the son of a god, king, or other important figure, he is endowed with an extraordinarily large penis. So, really, who is to say for sure that he's NOT the son of a god, most likely The Dagda of Celtic Mythology, whose penis was so large that it dragged on the ground behind him as he walked. The call to adventure comes when he meets Jack Horner, his helper and mentor, for the first time. Jack discovers Dirk working at a nightclub and asks to see Dirk's "equipment". From that point on, nothing will be the same. By this point in the journey, many heroes are presented with the talisman, a magical object that will help them through their journey. Oftentimes, the talisman comes in the form of a sword. Insert pun about Dirk's penis being his talisman here.

Dirk crosses the threshold when he attends a pool party at Jack's house. Oftentimes in stories, this is a moment that involves a great deal of danger and much confusion. This scene doesn't have that, but it still fits because Dirk is in a completely new world. He's surrounded by people who not only have more money than he did growing up, but they are extremely liberated. Dirk is able to overcome his initial trials and obstacles without any problem, as his large member not only impresses the filmmakers, but his ability to generate multiple ejaculations within a short time frame has everyone's jaw on the floor. With his ability comes fame and awards, and soon his illumination comes when he realizes that he and his pal Reed can star in a series of pornos that feature a recurring detective character named Brock Landers. Dirk realizes that the movies that he's in can be so much more than what people expect from him.

It doesn't take too long into the story to witness Dirk's transformation. With fame comes money, and with that comes a more expensive wardrobe. While Dirk never marries nor returns home to make peace with his parents, his story does fit the atonement with the father, as he has a severe falling out with Jack. Eventually, he returns to his mentor, realizing how important the man was to him and his success.

While Dirk doesn't literally become a king, he still fits this particular part of the Hero's Journey, as he becomes the most popular adult film star - and as was mentioned before, he wins multiple awards. Towards the third act of the film is when one can see how strong Dirk's connection is to the Journey, as the story focuses heavily on his fall from grace. With his fame, Dirk's habits also became more expensive. To be more specific, he developed a cocaine habit. This, in turn, resulted in him losing the ability to attain an erection when needed for a scene. This led to a severe blow to his self esteem, and he started butting heads with Jack, creating a falling out where Dirk and Reed were exiled and went their own way to achieve their fortune. This turns into a real mess, as they pursued a music career, drug dealing, and the worst example, Dirk turned to masturbating in front of strangers for money. 

Here was Dirk Diggler, once the most popular porn star in the business. He had it all. He had friends. He had money. He had the finest shirts made from imported Italian nylon. He had more creative control than any other porn star, with Jack even letting him block his own scenes. All of that, and there he is, jerking off in front of a guy for a lousy ten bucks. To add insult to injury, the guy gets a bunch of friends to beat up Dirk afterward. As though that wasn't bad enough, one of them even shouts at Dirk, who's lying on the ground, beaten and bloody: "You don't do this, donkey dick!"

We never witness the death of Dirk Diggler, but his fall from grace was very much like a death of the hero the audience grows to love. Just like Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus Christ, Dirk rises once again, and no doubt that even long after his physical death, he will be remembered in the porn idustry forever, thereby insuring his immortality.

Boogie Nights might not seem like the most obvious choice when pondering the Hero's Journey, but clearly it fits rather well. It doesn't just work on that level though, and there are a lot of other interesting subplots and characters like: Rollergirl, Buck Swope, Little Bill, Scotty J., and Todd Parker. It certainly deserves to be considered a classic, and hopefully this analysis just adds one more reason to the list of what makes it great.

No comments: