Today Christian Robshaw from Mediocre Batman joins us to talk about Anderson’s first, rarely discussed film…
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Goodfellas-of-the-porn-world success, Boogie Nights, was years in the making: Anderson conceived of a biographical epic based on a fictionalised version of legendary porn star John Holmes – renaming him “Dirk Diggler” – in the late 1980s when he was just seventeen and a student filmmaker. The project became Anderson’s first film, though few today have seen or heard of it, even fans of Boogie Nights.
Today it’s not at all uncommon for directors to make “proof-of-concept”-style short films intended to be shown to investors to secure funding on the feature – the goal all along – and thus, many films are technically considered remakes of shorts that their directors never really intended to make: examples include The Evil Dead, Sling Blade, Saw, Sin City, and current Oscar contender Whiplash. But The Dirk Diggler Story is a bit different: Anderson went on to direct another short (“Cigarettes & Coffee”, also remade) and another feature before returning to the idea a decade later, and so the transition from “The Dirk Diggler Story” to Boogie Nights is less that of a proof-of-concept to finished project, and more like an accomplished director revisiting his rougher earlier work – more like Hitchcock remaking his own Man Who Knew Too Much. Unlike with The Man Who Knew Too Much, though, there’s no question that Boogie Nights surpasses its original.
“The Dirk Diggler Story” is ultimately a student film and, while it absolutely stands out within its limited field, it is still just a student film. It just doesn’t have the polish or the depth of Boogie Nights. Michael Stein does his best as Dirk Diggler, but he’s not the professional actor Mark Wahlberg is – look out for his cameo in Boogie Nights next time you watch it, though.
The most noticeable difference, of course, between the two films is that, in contrast to the epic structure of Boogie Nights, “The Dirk Diggler Story” uses a mockumentary style – since Goodfellas hadn’t yet been released in ’88, Anderson evidently looked to This is Spin̈al Tap to provide a structure for his film. While it must have made for one Hell of a cost-saving measure, this narrative style doesn’t really work to engage us with the story: the mature Anderson is a master of the use of film itself to tell a story: the framing of a shot; the movement or non-movement of the camera, and so on. By contrast, film seems incidental to “The Dirk Diggler Story”, nothing but a vehicle for an idea Anderson is interested in. It strikes me as something of a lazy approach, and it’s telling that the half-hour it takes to watch this felt longer to me than the two-and-a-half hours of Boogie Nights.
Still, “The Dirk Diggler Story” cannot be fairly compared to Anderson’s later feature films; it is a low-budget, naïve short from a 17-year-old first-time director, and when viewed with those considerations in mind, it’s clearly the work of an emerging talent. While I can’t exactly recommend the film on its own terms, it is a fascinating piece of history for fans of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson or, really, film in general.
Thank you very much to Christian for this contribution – you can find the original at Chris’ blog here.