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Purity and the Profane

Hardcore (1979)

George C. Scott in HARDCORE (1979) | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

The musk of alcohol and sweat escapes the door as Paul Schrader steps foot into George C. Scott’s trailer. Schrader, who just came off the success of penning Taxi Driver and the social drama flop Blue Collar, is offered an ultimatum by the veteran actor. Scott will only return to set if Schrader promises him he’ll never direct again. Maybe it’s the California heat mixing badly with the alcohol, but the demand is clear. Paul Schrader gets on his knees, as if proposing to his leading man, and vows to never direct again.

That was a lie.

Hardcore was Schrader’s sophomoric knockout that marked the end of an era, a final chapter in 1970s auteur cinema and the beginning of the slick, commercialized films that defined much of the palette of 1980s American movies. Brought up by strict Dutch-Calvinist parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader’s own saturnine upbringing takes shape twofold in both the character of Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott), a rigid patriarch, and his seemingly meek and mysterious daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis), who escapes her father’s religious grasp by eloping to Los Angeles to become an actress.

After the Los Angeles Police Department comes up dry without any leads to the location of Kristen, Van Dorn recruits the help of a private detective by the name of Andy Mast (played immaculately by Peter Boyle). Mast, strangely, revels in finding out the dirtiest details of Kristen’s whereabouts. He is all but delighted, then, when he discovers her likeness performing in erotic films on a small strip of Super 8mm.

Jake doesn’t take it as well. The detective tries to counsel him, but the writhing anguish of discovering his innocent baby-turned-sex worker takes him on a vengeful odyssey through Los Angeles, from sex shops to adult cinemas; an oppressive journey for the uber-repressed patriarch.

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Hardcore wasn’t the only time Schrader created a character that seems to be on a quasi-failed mission from God. Reverend Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) search for meaning amidst the polluted culture of corporate corruption in First Reformed; Mishima’s (Ken Ogata) violent insurgence to dethrone the Emperor in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters; or the holy trinity of Blue Collar’s Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) and their war with the auto union in Detroit. In Hardcore, California itself plays as psycho-geography for everything Van Doren resents and despises: a city that capitalizes on the corrosion of youth with its filth and exploitation. And this resentment just might be warranted. Jake is somewhat of an authorial surrogate for Schrader, who swung like a pendulum from the safety of his hometown in Michigan—making films for the working class with the seminal and generally misunderstood Blue Collar—to being thrust into the Los Angeles scene, only to witness cinema being turned into McMovies to be sold to children.

Hardcore is Schrader at his grimiest and possibly most personal. It’s a kind of last gasp for the gritty and violent dramas that cultivated his status in the industry, but also an intersection between the intimate character studies that were borne of the French New Wave and the Post-Nixonian, alienated paranoia that arguably started with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in 1974.

The nature of exploited youth is an idea intimately explored through Jake’s fractured relationship with his daughter. It also hints at the pornography business as metaphor for Hollywood, an industry that tantalizes the audience’s every desire, unconcerned with restraint. Schrader subtly draws parallels to Star Wars by peppering references to it throughout Hardcore; at one point, a porno producer pitches an idea with the sci-fi blockbuster’s billboard right outside, acting as a backdrop.

With cinema as a pure embodiment of the soul, resting helpless on the altar of capital awaiting to be devoured by the masses, the crossroads between money and art couldn’t be more distinct. Hardcore represents a time when the art of selling the idea beat out the art of the idea itself. Today the art of marketing takes top prize and top billing, with headlines proudly reporting Avengers: Endgame’s marketing budget surpassed $200 Million.” So where lies Hardcore in the discourse between the two?

Purity and the profane: Schrader somehow uses one to get to the other. Is Hardcore a personal memoir of Schrader’s pilgrimage into Los Angeles to salvage “pure cinema” from the commercial profanity that was about to explode for decades to come?

Leave it to Paul Schrader to be a cipher between the conservative John Ford idealism of saving the corrupt youth and the radical 1960s cinema that rejected the idea of ever needing saving in the first place. Old Hollywood, meet new Hollywood.

In the United States, Hardcore was critically panned, with Pauline Kael referring to Jake’s character as a “Calvinist John Wayne” and asserting that Schrader himself was “lacking in any spontaneity.” But it did happen to get on the radar of the new wave of German filmmakers and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Five years later, Wim Wenders would pay homage to one of Hardcore’s pivotal scenes in his masterpiece Paris, Texas with a much more refined and stylized approach for his European audiences (the pinks aren’t as ragged and Nastassja Kinski wears much more clothing). Five years upon Paris, Texas receiving the Palme D’Or, Wenders considered Schrader the American Yasujirō Ozu.

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Hardcore is a strange piece, partially because its thick coat of seediness—offering no respite for the audience or for Jake—imbues it with the qualities of an exploitation film. But there are also moments in which Schrader moves with painterly grace: a master class example of cross-coverage between George C. Scott and Peter Boyle at the motel pool, the oppressive and seductive use of neon lights at the nightclubs in downtown LA, and the stilted performances that offer no interiority to his characters, as if to suggest their emotions have no meaning, no value.

Michael Chapman photographed the film sometime between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Though Chapman’s ingenuity is more expressive in Scorsese’s works, in Hardcore his craft is restrained. In a beautiful close-up on Scott as he first discovers his daughter in the porno film, the reflection of the images wash over Scott’s face, creating a blooming red and orange mask that evokes pain and trauma. Chapman later revealed that he achieved this effect by projecting the pornographic film out of focus into a reflective board and bounced the images onto Scott’s face.

New to the directing scene in Hollywood and unwilling to accept his inevitable place in Los Angeles, Hardcore is like Schrader’s infant, primal cry into the light before escaping the cozy chambers of his midwestern womb—the world which it inhabits even more nightmarish than imagined.

To help Jake ease into the warm and pale facade of the Los Angeles adult scene, Niki (Season Hubley), a porn actress who worked with Kristen, acts as a chaperone. It’s Jake’s sincere hope that their relationship will eventually lead him to his daughter. As a means to break ground, Niki establishes a commonality: “We’re just alike. You think sex is so unimportant you don’t do it. I think sex is so unimportant I don’t care who I do it with.”

But Jake doesn’t see the comedy in such commonalities. To him they couldn’t be further apart. Nothing could convince the puritanical patriarch that the sex worker bears any resemblance to him. How could she? Jake refuses the olive branch: “I don’t see why I must justify myself to you. I don’t care about the things you do. I don’t care what’s happening in New York or Los Angeles. I don’t care about movies or TV. I don’t care who’s on Johnny Carson.” 

This moment conveys the clearest sense of Jake’s loneliness and pride. To create a world of insularity predicated on the idea of purity—even if that purity comes in the form of the standard canon of cinema—is to remove oneself from everything and everyone, including God.

Schrader was a devout scholar of the “pure” traditions of European and Japanese cinema, specifically that of Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Yasujirō Ozu. Given the morality of these influences, Schrader no doubt understood the dangers of falling prey to one’s own sense of self-righteousness.

Jake releases himself from his own moral preconceptions by ingratiating himself into those arenas of hell, becoming one with the destitute and cum-stained adult theaters that populate the darkest parts of La La Land. It’s only in the massive metropolis’ artificially lit streets where Jake can experience the final confrontation, his ugliest imaginings made real with a tireless search, which ends with the objectification of his own daughter. Schrader, too, inevitably comes face to face with the sobering reality that film’s trajectory as a medium might inevitably lead to it getting pimped out to death, a sacred art form that is defaced in the name of pleasure and capital. Art becomes porn.

The puritanical mind can be as much of a prison as the pleasure-seeking psyche. Being trapped in one’s own moral appraisal of reality is to evade the spirituality that lurks in the darkest corners of the human experience. As Carl Jung said, the pursuit of God “truly consists of the most extreme opposites; on the one hand he is undoubtedly akin to the godhead, on the other he is found in sewers.” 

The sewers were no stranger to filmmakers like Bresson and Dreyer who often portrayed marginalized figures of society, chartered from the sphere of salvation. With Jake as an alienated figure amidst the hellish atmosphere of Los Angeles, the rationale for this creative decision can be found in Schrader’s own words, where he heralded Dreyer’s disparity technique which features “a character totally estranged from his environment.” Schrader consciously isolates his characters as a means to create suffering, to entangle them in their own torment. Schrader described Dreyer’s “asceticism” as one in which he “never questioned the need for suffering as a means to revelation.”

Schrader would describe Bresson’s work as that which surrounds itself with “questions of freedom and imprisonment,” and that they “concern spiritual release.” Jake experiences this release by imprisoning himself in the fiery hot purgatory that is Los Angeles, confronting that which he despises.

Thus, the conflation between the profane and the divine becomes implicit: Los Angeles is at once a refuge for the damned and the destination of salvation. It isn’t until Jake enters into the belly of the beast that he can experience his own release, just as in Bresson’s Pickpocket, where Michel’s spiritual release “concurs with imprisonment.”

To begin to accept the immutability of these tragic consequences is to hint at a transcendence. Schrader described his admiration for Dreyer as one who “does not make a moral judgment on deviltry; it is not ‘evil’…Dreyer treats [evil] in the same affecting manner he treats sainthood.” Thus, Schrader inscribes a sense of hard-edged tenderness in Hardcore and its “malefic” nature as Jake escapes the moral binaries that held him in bondage. Hardcore may be a rough prophecy with regards to the state of cinema to come; a worst-case scenario for the few still concerned with the twilight years of the medium. But it’s also a hopeful tale that nudges purists to consider the fact that film was never pure in the first place.