Monday, July 02, 2007

Man, I'm Big Dick Blaque.


Hardcore opens promisingly, with a montage of Rockwellian scenes of wintry Grand Rapids that introduces us to businessman Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), his family, and his Calvinist friends and countrymen. As Jake and his guests discuss matters of morality over Christmas dinner, their conversation filled with disdain for the permissive culture perceived as a threat to traditional values, it's unclear whether we should take what we are seeing at face value (Scott's best friend is played by Dick Sargent [?!]). By assuming a detached, Bressonian perspective to these early scenes, writer/director Paul Schrader compels us to question our own moral assumptions; if only the rest of Hardcore provoked the same kind of sickly thrilling ambiguity. Instead, any spell these first scenes weave is quickly broken when VanDorn is shown 8mm evidence of his runaway daughter's disapperance into the world of underground porn. Scott, wails, gnashes his teeth, has an aneurysm and nearly eats his own head while bellowing "THAT'S MY DAUGHTER!" and effectively killing any hope of subtlety or wit. Scott is terrible in Hardcore, and he's a perfect fit for a film that, while born from Schrader's life and personal obsessions, is hamhanded sensationalism masquerading as art.

The plot of Hardcore, Schrader's most thorough appropriation of The Searchers, hinges on the preposterous notion of VanDorn's virginal teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) disappearing from a youth group trip to L.A. and, within days, found in a hardcore loop by a private investigator (Peter Boyle). Jake takes off to L.A. to save his daughter, and soon finds himself caught in an increasingly sordid sex industry, ranging from storefront sex shops to snuff. There's admittedly a kinky sort of fun to be had in noting the way that Schrader recreates the day-glo, semen-stained surfaces of the porn world, and cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also shot Taxi Driver) gives these scenes the right plastic quality. But Schrader gets in his own way - he pushes us towards identifying with Jake's repulsion, yet he also condescends to the character's middle-American naievete throughout. The result is that while the images may shock us, they're never affecting in a meaningful way. This conflict can make Hardcore seem more exploitative than it was probably intended to be; the women in the film, for instance, are underage-looking, and the camera lingers on their flat chests and skinny bodies in a way that, in the absence of meaningful context, comes off as leering and gratuitous. Schrader tries for horror and only succeeds at gross-out.

The most compelling character in the film is Niki (Season Hubley), a more jaded version of Taxi Driver's Iris. In one of Niki's early scenes, she enters a peepshow booth, naked, planting her feet against the glass in a confident spread-eagle. It's the strongest image in the film, Niki's unapologetic sluttiness confronting our own unspoken voyeurism. As Niki helps Jake find his daughter, the two develop a peculiarly honest relationship, each confessing to the ways they are products of their respective backgrounds - the God-fearing and the godless find they have more in common than they might suspect, and Schrader's obsession with predestination (a holdover from his own Calvinist upbringing) becomes a metaphor for social and economic imprisonment.

These ideas would have resonated more deeply had Schrader pushed his character further; many of the film's problems would immediately be solved if Jake had sex with Niki. But the character remains firmly one-dimensional, a stranger in a strange land immune to temptation, and Schrader cannot seem to take his own protagonist seriously, let alone fully humanize him. And the provocative suggestion that Jake's daughter was seriously kinky to begin with (a porn actor tells Jake, "I don't know what kind of shit she was into, but my dick was red and swollen and chewed up for a week") is quickly brushed aside in favor of a slam-bang ending and a forced resolution. One can feel in Hardcore Schrader's desire to make a movie that would genuinely offend his fundamentalist family; unfortunately, the themes he touches upon but never really explores are far more incendiary than gratuitous T&A (he would return to the central concerns of Hardcore with much greater success in films like American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus).

If there's an element of Hardcore that really works, it's the examination of the Calvinist equivalency of popular culture with sin. Visual references to Star Wars are littered throughout the film, culminating in a nudie lightsabre battle set to "Star Wars Disco." Schrader is not only equating the emerging mainstream cinema of sensation with porn, he's also anticipating the 1980s' borderline-narcotic obsession with pretty surfaces. It's a shaky position to take, and also a hypocritical one in view of Hardcore's own tendency towards titillation, but it's still an effective eulogy for the decade when filmmakers were given free reign to be as audacious and self-indulgent as they wanted to be. If Hardcore is a failure, it's at least a fond reminder of a time when filmmakers were able to fail this big.

4 comments:

Paul C. said...

Yeah, this movie's pretty hilarious. I'm not sure that Schrader made this with the specific purpose of shocking his Calvinist family, but it seems that he was so drawn to the idea of having his hero go from one ideological extreme to the other that the movie loses all sense of perspective.

The funny thing about Scott's performance is that it might have worked with better material. Such grandiose performances either soar(think Nick Nolte's sliding-down-the-stairs-while-sobbing moment in LORENZO'S OIL) or they land with a thud. There's really no middle ground.

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"YOU like showing me this, don't you?" snarls Jake VanDorn, the hero of Paul Schrader's brave and chilling "Hardcore." "I hate it," replies the private eye Andy Mast, with conviction. VanDorn is a stern Midwestern businessman, whose teen-age daughter has disappeared, and Mast has been hired to find her.

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