How Boogie Nights and Rocky Keep Me on the Right Path
There are a handful of rules that I try to abide by in life as much as possible:
Stand by your convictions, but roll with the changing of the times.
Accept the fact that you’re capable of being wrong.
Always finish what you start.
Never be afraid to ask for help.
I truly believe that if you I this set of guidelines in my head at all times, I can be reasonably sure that things will be okay — that at the very least, I will be operating on an efficient, reasonable, and peaceful level. In my life, that’s really the overall goal. Sure, there are a million different things that I would like to accomplish, but the fact of the matter is that if I can mine out a bit of happiness and peace from the chaos that surrounds us all, life will be a success. It is from this state of peace that I can then have the wherewithal to fulfill my dreams.
But it wasn’t always this way!! Oh no, I used to be a very temperamental person. I used to be genuinely angry solely for the sake of being angry. I used to hate hate hate for no good reason. I used to be confident that I was always right and that everyone else was operating from a place of unfixable informational deficiency. And the real tragedy of it was that I was using up all of my energy on such pointless ego-flexing that I rarely got anything done. It’s not a fun way to live, and I was convinced at the time that it was the only way. Age, wisdom, whatever you want to call it, has thankfully softened my edges and made me a bit more malleable; a bit more productive.
Alas, there are times when my nature threatens to get the better of me, and I resort to the above list to try and reign it in, and when that doesn’t work, me being who I am and all, I have to look toward the two movies which drive these points home for me in a big way: Boogie Nights and Rocky.
Anyone who reads this site knows that Boogie Nights is my all time favorite flick, and that the Rocky movies carry an extremely special place in my heart. But its the thematic adherence to the above rules which has me coming back to these films time and time again. Let’s check them out one by one.
Stand by your convictions, but roll with the changing of the times.
In the case of Boogie Nights, almost every character comes into a crisis of conviction resultant from their inability to roll with the times. In fact, that’s really the main thrust of the entire film. The adult film industry at its center is about to undergo a medium-based overhaul as VHS takes over the market, making adult entertainment accessible at home. Dirk Diggler, who rises to stardom during the plot-heavy, must-go-to-a-theater porno days, struggles to keep up when “Bang Bus” style porno enters the American household. Same goes for director, Jack Horner who, like Dirk, truly believes that his work is high-art, and that industry progress is specifically targeting his craft for destruction.
The same goes for all of the characters in the Horner “family.” In viewing their bread and butter as a stagnant, unflappable force, they all run afoul of their own desires, even as the protections offered by their place in the market degrade around them. Heck, even Little Bill, whose marriage with a porn actress challenges his concept of a proper union, ultimately commits murder-suicide as not just an indicator of his refusal to shift with fluid sexual mores, but as the most gruesome title card imaginable, employed as a garish transition between the freewheeling creativity of the 70s and the mainstream debauchery of the 80s.
In the case of Rocky, this lesson is taught simultaneously by Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. At the outset, Rocky doesn’t see himself as good enough to be anything but a collector for a loan shark (a job that he’s not particularly good at, refusal to break fingers and all), while at the same time refusing to recognize that his locker absolutely deserves to be given to a younger, more promising fighter. Apollo sees himself as the once and always champion, but finds friction in the fact that there’s simply no one left for him to fight. It’s only when Rocky realizes that action, not image, can give him the identity he craves that he begins to adapt his convictions to a new environment. It’s only when he puts in the work that he’s able to find success and love.
Apollo’s arc is in the background mostly, but it’s just as potent. Apollo has admirable convictions - namely, that he cannot be beat under any circumstances (confidence is good), but it’s his inability to accept change that puts him in the position to lose the exhibition with some nobody from South Philly (unchecked ego is bad). Granted, he doesn’t lose, but he is so beat up that he exclaims “ain’t gonna be no rematch!” If I may add a bit of franchise nerdery, it’s ultimate the combination of their abilities which brings them success as a trainer/boxer duo in Rocky III. Apollo gives Rocky confidence (the eye of the tiger, if you will) while Rocky brings with him the knowledge that even in perfect circumstances, he could still lose... and that that’s a garbage reason not to try.
2. Accept the fact that you are capable of being wrong.
As I said above, ego is a killer. It’s a useful tool in the art of self-love, but it can also be the biggest chink in one’s armor if left unchecked. Apollo Creed saw himself as unbeatable, and it almost got him beat. Rocky saw himself as a loser, and had to spend a full movie convincing himself otherwise. Mickey spends a large part of the film reckoning with the ways in which he abandoned Rocky back when he was a young, hungry boxer, as well as figuring out why he’s so alone in the world otherwise. Don’t even get me started on Paulie, one of cinema’s most lovable pieces of absolute shit. Paulie is never ever happy, and it’s because Paulie, in his own booze-addled eyes, is never ever wrong. In the rare moments later in the series, where Paulie softens up on his racism, misogyny, and constant belief that the world is turning to shit and leaving “good” men like him behind, we do see flashes of happiness in his eyes (Kudos to Burt Young for capturing this).
During the 1980s portion of Boogie Nights, it’s the collective belief in infallibility that escalates each character’s downfall. For Dirk and Reed, it’s the notion that their talents are foregone truths, and that their addictions can be ended at any time they please. For Jack Horner it’s the belief that VHS and smut are passing phases, and the illusion that his target audience comes to his films for any reason other than the sex that blinds him from growth. For Roller Girl and Amber Waves, it’s the belief that by demonstratively declaring love, neither need worry about self-care.
3. Always finish what you start.
Starting something is hard. So hard, in fact, that doing so often puts we humans in a position where we believe the work to be done. As such, things don’t get finished. The creatives among us know of that crippling thought that whatever our passion project may be, it’ll never be good enough to merit finishing. We forget that there is no shame in an imperfect product, but there is plenty of shame in one left incomplete.
Tell that to Rocky, who despite being confident that he would not win his big fight, knew that if he tried anyway, he could go the distance. At every chance he had to end the big bout his response was that win or lose, he had to finish it. Even Apollo, whose corner also pressed for him to throw in the towel, demanded that he be allowed to finish. By the end of Rocky, as both men are completing their arcs, they reach the same conclusion I reached when formulating this rule for life: finish what you start. Get it done. You can fix it later if you need to, but until you get it done, there is no value at all.
Boogie Nights features one of my all-time favorite characters, Buck Swope. Buck is an image obsessed adult performer who only sees his job in porno as a means to an end (he is proud of his work, however). What he really wants is to own a electronics store, specializing in hi-fi stereo equipment. A lot of outward forces prevent him from his goal: he works in an alternative profession, he’s black, he’s in an interracial relationship, and he just doesn’t have the startup capital to break free from his circumstances. But he never stops going for his goal, no matter what hurdles are in his way. Most other characters in the film want to “make it” and are fluid as to what the concept of “making it” means to them, but Swope stands true to his one goal, and is the one character in the film who only falls victim to misfortune passively. By the end, when every other character experiences a yet again redefined version of “making it,” Buck has the very thing he set out for from the beginning. It’s also worth noting that it’s only when Swope stops trying to alter who he is to match fashion trends (his Rick James look is pathetic, and he knows it) that he finds true love - in adherence to the first rule.
4. Never be afraid to ask for help.
How does Rocky go the distance? By asking for help from Adrian, Mickey, and the local priest. How does Mickey find redemption for his curmudgeonly ways? By asking Rocky for help and forgiveness. How does Paulie continue to pay his rent? By asking for help (which he ultimately squanders every single time, but that’s neither here nor there).
How does Apollo ultimately end up exiting the series? By not asking for help.
How does everybody in the entire Rocky franchise succeed? Across the board, it’s because they asked for help. How do those who fail manage to do so? By seeing themselves as above it.
In Boogie Nights, perhaps the most powerful moment in the whole film is when Dirk Diggler, after hitting absolute rock bottom, comes back to Horner’s mansion and says “Jack, would you please help me?” over and over, punctuated with apologies. Jack silently hugs him and then returns his apology, fully understanding that he too could use some help. This movement of repentance and forgiveness spreads to the entire cast of characters. Reed asks for a performance slot at a club through which to pursue his passion. Amber and Rollergirl seek rehab for their addictions. Buck accepts a fortuitous acquisition of money which he normally would have refused. The end of the film makes it clear that all of the main ensemble are going to be okay, and almost universally it is because they each attained enough wisdom to cast aside their egos and realize that it’s okay to want and need help. That even those in need of help are capable of providing it. It’s such an advocation of family that it might as well be a Fast movie.
At the end of both films, any of the main characters who have received happy endings have followed the above four rules to the letter. Yes, I know that both Boogie Nights and Rocky both take place in heightened versions of reality, but in my experience, this only serves to highlight the importance of such rules. The movies show us that writ large, these rules have a beneficial effect, so that we at home can apply them to smaller experiences. From there, it all rolls downhill.
So to me, both Boogie Nights and Rocky (the whole franchise, really) are very personal films, not only because they cater to my tastes in entertainment, but because they serve as constant reminders to me that I am imperfect, but capable of growth, and fully deserving of the opportunity to do so... as is everybody else.