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Total Depravity: The Infernal Odyssey of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979)

Though scoffed at by its creator—writer and director Paul Schrader—and eclipsed by his similarly-themed earlier work like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), both of which Schrader scripted, Hardcore (1979) deserves to be remembered as much more than a curio of late ‘70s New Hollywood. A bleak tale of one man’s search for his young daughter through the squalor of California’s pornographic underworld, Hardcore is a fascinating examination of the themes that would obsess Schrader throughout his career: Calvinist suffering, the danger of moral absolutes, toxic masculinity, sexual obsession, unattainable and/or missing women, and the impossibility of redemption. UK label Indicator have recently released Hardcore on Blu-ray and it’s one of my favorites of their eclectic output that ranges from schlocky genre titles and forgotten favorites to classic cinema (with Hardcore ranging somewhere between the latter two). In addition to a fantastic-looking print, the booklet includes a memorable essay from Brad Stevens and a fascinating interview with Schrader, as well as special features like a short documentary on composer Jack Nitzsche, an interview with cinematographer Michael Chapman, and a lengthy interview with Schrader, making up for the fact that his commentary track (from the previous Twilight Time release of Hardcore) was not included.

When the teenager daughter (Ilah Davis) of conservative Michigan businessman Jake Van Dorn (the great George C. Scott) goes missing during a school trip to California, he becomes determined to find her. The police don’t offer much assistance, and instead spout statistics at him about how he will be lucky if his daughter ran away of her own accord; so Jake hires a private detective, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle). Mast soon tracks down a cheap hardcore porn film starring none other than Jake’s daughter. The cynical PI assures Jake that his daughter is likely not there under duress, but as a willing participant. Refusing to believe this, Jake sets out to Los Angeles to track down whomever made the stag film, which takes him on a journey through the city’s underbelly with a peep show girl and porn actress, Niki (Season Hubley), as his bemused guide.

According to Schrader, the original working title was Pilgrim and this is how Peter Boyle’s PI refers to Jake throughout the film. A pilgrim is typically defined as someone who travels to a holy place (though Merriam-Webster allows that it can also simply mean “one who journeys in foreign lands”), but Jake’s odyssey is anything but sacred—at least not on the surface level. Rather than ascending towards a place of worship or divinity, he descends into the bowels of a hellish urban landscape. In the opening of the script, Schrader quoted John Bunyan’s allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which is to Come (1678): “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven.” This descent is reflected in the film’s visual world, as Jake moves from the bland suburbia of Grand Rapids with his white house set against snowy lawns—where he considers a relatively staid new blue design for his office to be too showy—into the candy-colored depravity of Los Angeles’s porn sets, seedy hotel rooms, strip clubs, peep shows, and adult bookstores. The striking visuals—with cinematography from DP Michael Chapman of Taxi Driver and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—provide an interesting contrast to Taxi Driver’s dingy parallel world of New York depravity, where Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is neither pilgrim nor tourist, but is a familiar cinematic landmark, permanently ensconced in the city’s moral mire.

Hardcore’s relationship to Taxi Driver aside, Schrader has spoken of the influence of John Ford’s devastating classic, The Searchers (1956)—long regarded as one of the greatest American films in cinema history and it would not be a stretch to describe Hardcore as a remake of that film. John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Civil War and the Mexican Revolution, whose young niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped by Comanche Indians during a raid. Ethan spends years searching for the girl, with the only lead to go on that she’s being held by a chief named Scar. After several years, he finally comes to find her, but as a teenager living happily as a one of Scar’s wives. She even considers herself a Comanche. In a rage, Ethan tries to kill her, rather than see her live in such a fashion, but he is ultimately able to restore balance: he scalps Scar and takes his niece home.

The Searchers is so devastating because Ethan is one of Ford’s darkest and most tormented characters. Unlike Jake, he is possessed by a destructive passion: he was in love with his brother’s wife, Martha, his niece Debbie’s mother, and there is an intimation that perhaps Debbie is his illegitimate daughter. Whether Debbie is his daughter or just his niece, like Jake’s child her role in the film is tragic in part because she doesn’t represent an individual person, but is a broader symbol: for the nuclear family, a particular value system, a domestic idyll that may not exist in the real world, but has taken firm root in the psyches of both Ethan and Jake. In both films, in a sense, the girls represent Christian civilization itself and their abandonment of those values is a return to chaos and savagery.

Where The Searchers most diverges from Hardcore is in the fact that Ethan is openly violent and tormented with the aforementioned unwholesome sexual impulses. Ethan would rather murder Debbie with his own hands than leave her in domestic contentment with the Comanche. In The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, Arthur M. Eckstein writes,

It is not just Debbie whom Ethan seems somehow driven to annihilate. The film begins with Ethan’s long-delayed return home to the family homestead in Texas after the Civil War—a return that is highly disruptive to family stability because Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him. […] Scar utterly destroys the home of Ethan’s brother, and takes all the women for himself (or destroys them). But in so doing, commentators have suggested, Scar is merely acting as the embittered and violent Ethan’s dark alter ego: he symbolizes Ethan’s own unacceptable jealousies, impulses, hatreds—and he acts as the agent of their fulfillment.”

Jake certainly becomes violent throughout the course of the film, but Hardcore would have quite a different end result if he was—as some of Schrader’s other protagonists—a war veteran or a man who existed within a culture of violence. His deadening sense of self-control and the repression that seems to override all his human interactions gives the film quite a different tone than The Searchers and I have to wonder why Schrader didn’t depict him latently desiring and/or attempting to kill his daughter. Once he finally locates her, like Debbie, she professes to like her new life, which, according to her, is the first time she has felt warmth or affection. Earlier in the film, it’s revealed that her mother, Jake’s wife, is not dead, but has run away never to be heard from again and there is an obvious connection between Jake’s attempts to regain the missing daughter as a stand in for the missing mother. Eckstein writes that in an earlier draft of The Searchers, which didn’t make it to the screen, that similar connection is spelled out quite disturbingly: “Ethan is deeply and frustratedly in love with Debbie’s mother Martha, and in Frank Nugent’s shooting script he explicitly says that the now-teenage Debbie, when finally found, looks exactly like Martha: ‘You sure favor your mother,’ he says softly—as he is about to kill her.” Curiously, in a potential earlier version of Hardcore, where Warren Beatty was slated to play Jake, the missing daughter would be exchanged in the script for a missing wife. In either sense, as with Ethan, Jake’s search for this missing girl can be read as a search for salvation; by saving her, he saves himself.

Jake’s coldness is in fact overcome—even by slight degrees—by a female character, though it is neither a daughter, mother, wife, or lover. During a phase where he pretends to be a potential (or active) porn producer to more convincingly do his own investigative work, he encounters a jaded young actress, Niki (Season Hubley), on a porn set and later working in a peep show both. It’s gradually revealed that she is full of wry humor and even warmth; her blunt, somewhat aggressive attempts to sexually dominate Jake mask an undeniable vulnerability. She’s really looking for a father figure of her own. She’s a more mature version of Jodie Foster’s Iris from Taxi Driver—the reluctant, innocent whore with a heart of gold—but barely. Like Iris, and even more so than Jake’s own daughter, the script may be willing to let her develop into a fully fledged character, but the male figures around her are unwilling to do so, which is ultimately the film’s core tragedy.

Primarily through the relationship between Jake and Niki, which is at times paternal and at times manipulative but never overtly sexual, Hardcore becomes its most cynical. Despite its flaws, it’s a deeply compelling film about a writer/director working through a problem of male sexuality: the obsession with sex, pornography, and the exploitation of bodies. This “problem” is something Schrader teases out but never resolves in many of his films. Here Jake is drawn to this darkness and refuses to turn from the path even though he can barely stomach pornography itself. The film repeatedly asks without ever really verbalizing why Jake won’t simply abandon his daughter and turn from the path. This fixation with the seedy underbelly of sexuality—particularly in the aftermath of the sexual “freedom” of something like the Summer of Love—appears in a number of films in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. This can be read as a backlash to the social and political developments in the late ‘60s, but also to the emergence of porn as a household topic in the early ‘70s with changing censorship laws in North America and Europe.

Films like Deep Throat (1972) and Emmanuelle (1974) led to what became known as porno chic when hardcore entered the mainstream. Generally always ahead of the curve, Roman Polanski was one of the first to tackle the dark side of this new era of sexual permissiveness with Chinatown (1974), where another character named Jake goes on a hellish odyssey to uncover a missing girl and gets far, far more than he bargained for (speaking of mothers and daughters…). Andrzej Zulawski wasn’t far behind with the French film L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), where an exploitation film actress and porn photographer begin a love affair against all odds and despite the emotional, existential horrors to which they are both exposed. But the real year of sexual nihilism—not coincidentally my favorite year in the history of cinema—was 1976, which brought Taxi Driver, Walerian Borowczyk’s La marge, Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, De Palma’s Obsession (penned by Schrader), Miklos Jancso’s Private Vices, Public Virtues, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, and Sean Costello’s hardcore enema rape film Waterpower, among others. In one form or another, these are all films where the explicitly sexual is substituted for emotional intimacy, generating a sort of personal apocalypse. Caligula (1979) and Hardcore followed suit—along with later films like Cruising (1980), New York Ripper (1982), and even Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), which served as a sort of final reminder that sex work and pornography are fundamentally squalid. As in Hardcore, these post-1976 films all depict worlds where sex is dirty or at least fundamentally doomed.

If Taxi Driver is about the madness that comes from revelling in sexual fantasy—and thus human filth—Hardcore is about the violence that occurs when those fantasies are rejected. Jake sees an actual snuff film—that holy grail of filmic perversions—and is seemingly unaffected. His reaction is easy to miss in light of the events that follow, but is horrifying. Unlike Nicholas Cage in the absurd semi-remake, 8MM (1999), Jake’s life isn’t transformed by this viewing; it’s unchanged. He does explode into violence while at a bondage den when confronted with black leather-clad dominatrixes named Hope, Faith, and Charity, but I don’t interpret this as a result of Jake being pushed to his limits emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. Rather, he is finally able to push himself, elbow deep, into that Calvinist notion of “total depravity,” the understanding that man is abominable, a creature of sin. In one of the film’s strangest but most compelling scenes, Jake explains Calvinist doctrine to Niki, quoting, “All my works are as filthy rags in the eyes of the Lord.” This element is curiously autobiographical; the Calvinist beliefs were a part of Schrader’s upbringing, the film opens in his hometown, and his parents allegedly make cameos in the film.

But the film wanders away from these deeply personal elements for its conclusion: it takes on action tropes, such as a fight scene in a bondage den that goes through walls and then down a nauseatingly angled San Francisco street, resulting in a shootout. Schrader was forced to compromise on the ending, in the sense that he first intended Jake’s daughter to die before she is rescued; not in a snuff film, but in an unrelated accident. For my money, the current ending, where she agrees to return home and is placed in the back of a car, is no less bleak. There is no sense that their relationship will change in any fundamental way when they return home. And though the cracks do begin to show in Hardcore’s conclusion (though I’m not nearly as rough on it as other critics seem to be), it’s also where Schrader subtly winds it back towards The Searchers. While Jake implausibly convinces his daughter to return home, he coldly abandons Niki. Cruelty or violence would have been preferable to the half-hearted attempt he makes to thank her, revealing the shallowness of his concern. The full Bunyan quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress, part of which Schrader used, actually reads: “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.” Jake has journeyed from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles to San Diego to San Francisco, but, unsettlingly, even nihilistically, he has remained unchanged. There is a look in his eye just before the closing credits implying that he similarly expects to find his hellish odyssey has been just a dream.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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