50 Movies for 50 States: Week 6 — California (Part 2), Film — Hardcore

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ USA, one film at a time.

The King Kong of U.S. states, California is too gargantuan to be represented by just one film — so I’m making this a two-parter. Last week I looked at the San Francisco-set surveillance thriller The Conversation. Now we head down south to the center of U.S. film production.

Week 6 — California (Part 2)

Hardcore (1979), director Paul Schrader, writer Paul Schrader, with George C. Scott, Peter Boyle

It’s almost — no, it is a cliche. You know this plot: An innocent mid-western girl moves to the big city to try and make it in show biz, but instead of becoming a movie star, is preyed upon by slick and sleazy producers who exploit her and reduce her into a shell of her former self. In the hands of a lesser movie-maker, this type of formulaic storyline is guaranteed cheese (See Showgirls — sorry, Mr. Verhoeven!).

Fortunately, writer and director Paul Schrader is a notch above the average auteur and, as a result, his 1979 movie Hardcore — which concerns a Michigan teen who runs away to Hollywood and winds up in the sex trade — is more than what it could or should be and yet still manages to be slimier than most C-grade exploitation films. That’s not a criticism because, really, could we have it any other way in a movie which is essentially about porn?

Hardcore — with its fucking boss tagline: “Oh my God, that’s my daughter” — is based on Schrader’s experiences growing up in a small mid-western town and coming to Hollywood for the first time, according to Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” the Bible of 1970s film lore. It stars George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove) as Jake VanDorn, a god-fearing conservative Lutheran dad whose teenage daughter goes missing on a church bus trip to Los Angeles. To find his missing daughter, VanDorn hires a private investigator from LA named Andy Mast, played by Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein).

From the start, VanDorn and Mast have a difficult time getting past their differences. Mast and VanDorn meet at a diner and Mast asks VanDorn some questions to get an idea of where to begin his search. Mast asks VanDorn if his daughter Kristen “fucks around,” and VanDorn almost loses it. Mast apologizes and, despite the rough start, VanDorn retains Mast’s services.

It doesn’t take long for Mast to get a good idea as to where Kristen has gone, although it’s not the kind of news any father would want to hear — that the teenager has been spotted running with a crowd which includes actors with names like Big Dick Blaque and Jism Jim. Eek.

It’s kind of weird how Mast breaks the news to VanDorn that his daughter is involved in porn. “Have you ever seen an adult movie?” Mast asks VanDorn. “You mean a stag film?” VanDorn replies. “No.” Nowadays, VanDorn’s answer would be unheard of but is a perfectly believable response given the time period. This was an era before VCRs brought XXX-rated material into the living rooms of middle America, let alone the Internet made porn accessible to anybody with a PC and America Online.

So, in what in most situations would be considered a rather mean prank, Mast takes VanDorn to downtown Grand Rapids to an adult movie theater. The lights dim and a movie begins to play. The film is “Slave of Love” starring — surprise — Kristen VanDorn. The teenager appears on the screen and is soon joined by two men. They remove her bra and — you get the idea. My first response was to think that Mast was just being an asshole, but later I guess I understood why he broke the news in this way. It’s clear so far that, in contemplating what has happened to his daughter, VanDorn has his head very much stuck in the sand. Maybe without seeing his daughter getting plowed by two dudes at once on film, VanDorn wouldn’t believe it could be true.

Then again, maybe Mast is just a douchebag.

So with this nasty reveal comes George C. Scott’s first big chance to show off his acting chops. Remember the David Fincher movie 8MM with Nicholas Cage? There’s a scene in that movie that’s pretty similar to this one, where Cage watches a snuff film and you never see what he’s seeing, just his reaction. (You do see at least the beginning of the pornographic film in Hardcore, but the camera cuts away once things get really dirty.) Anyway, Cage probably took a few pointers from Scott’s performance in Hardcore. Scott’s reaction to watching the stag film is a little hammy — not “Cage hammy” — but a little hammy. Still, Scott is convincing. He squirms and squirms and eventually shouts for Mast to turn off the projector. On a side note, a quick search on YouTube and you’ll see that this scene was a minor Internet meme — I found two versions of the scene. In the first, the video was edited to make it look like Scott was reacting to Rick Astley. (Yes. He was “rickrolled.”) In the other, it was an Osmond Christmas special.

Back to the movie. We flash forward to months later. Not satisfied that he was getting his money’s worth in Mast’s services, after no new news about his daughter’s current whereabouts, VanDorn flies out to California. In a great scene he travels around what I suppose is a red light district in Los Angeles, shielding his eyes from the row after row of porno theaters, massage parlors and adult video stores. Scott plays the scene looks like he’s trying really hard not to throw up but also trying very hard not to show any signs of nausea. Another great bit of acting.

The rest of the movie is VanDorn’s search for his daughter. VanDorn ultimately enlists the help of a call girl named Niki, played by Season Hubley, an actress whose biggest claim to fame appears to be a past marriage to Kurt Russell, as well as an 8-episode stint on All My Children. During his journey, VanDorn encounters all elements of sleaze and, ultimately there’s a snuff film angle that works its way into the plot. I’ll leave it a mystery whether he ever finds his daughter and, if he does, what condition she is in. I will say that the ending of the film was somewhat confusing and seemed to send mixed messages and … yeah. That’s about all I can say.

I’ve liked George C. Scott ever since seeing him in Dr. Strangelove. He’s been nominated for an Academy Award for acting four times. I have not seen Patton, the role for which he won Best Actor, but intend to check it out. The rest of the cast is pretty good. Peter Boyle’s role was the closest the movie came to having any sort of comedic relief, even if his character is as slimy as anyone else in the movie. Meanwhile, Season Hubley — who I suppose has the third largest role in the movie — is nothing special. She takes her clothes off, if you’re into that sort of thing, but even that is pretty “eh….”

I suppose this is a good time to mention there’s a decent amount of nudity in this movie for you perverts out there. Most of it is the natural 1970s-type nudity too, which is refreshing.

So what is the theme of this movie? Is it a parent’s unwavering love for their child or a parent’s refusal to accept the truth about their kin? Just where is that line drawn? Without spoiling the ending of the movie, I guess that was the tough thing for me after this movie was over — trying to get a handle on what it was Schrader was attempting to convey. I thought about the scene where Mast warns VanDorn that, when he finds his daughter, he might not like what she has become. “A lot of strange things happen in this world. Things you don’t know about in Grand Rapids. Things you don’t want to know about. Doors that shouldn’t be opened,” Mast tells VanDorn. When you take this movie together with a film he would make a few decades later, Auto-Focus, you get the impression that Schrader is not a fan of pornography. Still,  I don’t think — and I think most people would agree — that Schrader is defending the attitude of people who choose to live their lives ignoring the darker elements of life that exist, like VanDorn is portrayed. Schrader does not focus solely on VanDorn but shows VanDorn’s attitude as being the result of an overly-conservative element that pervades middle-America. In the opening scenes, shot in Grand Rapids, we observe a family gathering at VanDorn’s home. It’s Christmas and the Rockettes or some other “pagan” holiday group are performing on television. The children are gathered around the television set when an older relative snaps at them and yells at them to change the channel. “Jesus is the reason for the season!” he exclaims. Okay, I made that last part up — but he might as well have said that.

I suppose if this movie has any message, it’s this: You can turn the sound on mute. You can change the channel. But these things that bother you — they’re not going away. If you pretend they don’t exist, they’ll come because they know you’re not looking. When they do, they’ll take something away from you.

Next week, Colorado and a film from the 1990s!

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