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American Hardcore

Prescott Gilbert

American Hardcore

In 1979, Paul Schrader released his sophomore directorial effort Hardcore. George C. Scott plays a devout Calvinist, Jack Van Dorn, whose daughter runs off from a youth-convention trip and ends up working in the hardcore pornography industry of California. The film follows his efforts to locate and rescue his daughter from this seedy world.

Upon release the film was met with largely negative reviews. It’s been somewhat reappraised in recent years. Schrader himself is highly critical of the final product, specifically with the compromised “happy” ending, which we’ll get on to. But this film is more prescient of modern America than many would realize. What, on the surface, may seem like a snapshot of a specific time and place is oddly prophetic about where the country as a whole was headed.

The film begins with a look at the life lived by the Calvinist community of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their home is peaceful and isolated. Unconcerned with the morals and attitudes of metropolitan areas such as New York or L.A., they live their lives conservatively and ignore the changing social attitudes of the country around them. They believe the outside world can change but their community will not. They will live their life their way regardless of the world around them. This community is basically a stand-in for any conservative white middle-class community in America.

Van Dorn is the portrait of white middle class masculinity: tough, reserved—and out of shape. He is repeatedly called “Pilgrim” by Peter Boyle’s private detective character. This nickname has two meanings. One is a reference to his religious beliefs and the other is a reference to his old-school John Wayne-style conservatism. The film is something of a loose retelling of John Ford’s The Searchers starring Wayne, in which a man attempts to locate his niece, who has been kidnapped by the Comanche, only to find that she has become accustomed to the Comanche’s way of life. Swap out the old west for 1979 and the Comanche for the seedy porn inhabitants and it’s essentially the same story. Many inhabitants of today’s shrinking white middle class still cling to this kind of old-school conservatism, harkening back to the era of Wayne, and believe that one day the country will return to this brand of thinking. They refuse to acknowledge that it’s actually part of the problem.

Van Dorn and his community do not approve of the morals of the outside world but do nothing to prevent it. They choose to isolate themselves from the outside world. They believe this is enough to keep them safe. They believe the world outside their home will remain outside and that they will remain untouched by it. But this, of course, is a delusion: the outside always gets in. It’s just a matter of time.

Van Dorn is forced to confront the outside world head on when he is made to watch a porno film starring his daughter and two men. He screams in agony as the private detective he’s hired plays it for him, insisting that he needs to see it. Suddenly, he cannot isolate himself away from the amoral world. He is forced to confront this world because his daughter is now a part of it. It has infected his life directly.

In attempting to locate his daughter  Van Dorn like any conservative man first attempts to use the police, the system, with all their official rules and red tape. It isn’t until the system has proven it is incapable of helping that he takes matters into his own hands. At first he is unsuccessful. He wanders the red light area of L.A. with a picture of his daughter from the porno. He aimlessly enters porno-book stores, massage parlors, sex shops, and porno theaters asking questions that get him nowhere and ultimately only lead to him getting beat up and thrown out of one establishment. He attempts to be reasonable and forward in an unreasonable and backwards environment. When this approach fails to get him any closer to his daughter he realizes he must change his tactics, he swaps his clothing from his traditional and modest suit to something that reflects the attire of the people making up this new world he now must inhabit. Van Dorn hatches a new plan to find his daughter.

To force his way into a world he has always chosen to ignore, Van Dorn adopts a way of operating that clashes with the attitudes of the community he left back home. An attitude that more closely resembles that of this new amoral world. He sheds his “pilgrim” ideals. This allows him to get one foot in the door, but it doesn’t get him all the way in. At this point in the film he has accepted force as a necessary tactic to battle immorality, a notion that scares the white middle class of today, but he has yet to embrace the true method of solving his problem: violence.

Violence allows him to enter this new world completely. Van Dorn first becomes acquainted with the use of violence when he beats information out of one of the men who appear in the porn film with his daughter. Initially Van Dorn’s use of violence is only an emotional reaction to the way the man speaks about his daughter. A sudden burst of anger as he smashes a lamp across the man’s face. But after this first act he uses it as a means of getting what he wants, which is information.

Van Dorn’s new approach gets him even deeper into the world immorality. He hires a prostitute to help him find his daughter and they seek out a producer of snuff films. Fearing his daughter may become, or may already be, a victim of one of these films, Van Dorn views one such film. Although this time it is not by force, but by choice. He actively seeks it out, now armed with the capacity for violence, knowing he must have it in order to avert a greater evil. He has now, by choice, journeyed into the darkest depths of a world he never would have acknowledged without his daughter’s disappearance. Van Dorn uses violence yet again on the prostitute he’s hired when she refuses to give him valuable information that could lead him to his daughter.  Van Dorn slaps the prostitute and threatens her with his fist until she gives him what he wants. He uses physical force, and again he gets his desired result. A result that would otherwise have been beyond his grasp.

There is a scene late in the film that perfectly illustrates Van Dorn’s change and acceptance of violence as a means to an end. In this scene Van Dorn is attempting to get a hold of a man with the intention of beating information out of him.  Van Dorn acts like an uncompromising wild animal, snarling and smashing through walls allowing nothing to prevent him from getting to his target.  Van Dorn now utilizes violence with ease as it is the method he knows is his only hope for finding his daughter. This is the method that ultimately leads him to her.

The white middle class in America is scared to use violence as a means to an end. They have repeatedly been told it’s bad by the groups who use it regularly themselves and never fail to defend those on their side who do. Conservative middle class Americans today still tell themselves they are above it or that it’s wrong because that’s what they do. This attitude is self destructive and will ultimately lead to them losing everything they hold dear: home, family, and way of life—just like Van Dorn does in the film.

The film’s biggest flaw is the cop-out “happy” ending. In the film,  Van Dorn’s daughter sees the error of her choices and decides to come back home with her father. The viewer is supposed to believe this. Father and daughter reunited, and maybe after a bit of an adjustment period, they live happily ever after. In reality this is rarely, if ever, the case. How many girls from the porn world come back to their fathers? A more realistic ending for the film would have been Van Dorn realizing his daughter is gone and that he failed her because of choices he made, whether he knew he was making them or not. Instead, Van Dorn would go home alone and contemplate his failure in misery until the day he dies, asking himself, again and again, how he could have prevented the loss of his daughter.

In the film Van Dorn remarks on how every aspect of American society is based around sex. Music, TV, fashion, advertising—everything. It was true in 1979. It’s even more true today. The main difference is that it used to be more subtle, more subliminal. It was still at a remove from daily life. Beyond the suggestion, you had to seek it out to get your hands on it. Today it’s right there, on the surface, everywhere you look. Much of what is shown in the film, however shocking it was in 1979, would seem tame compared to what you’d find online today. Today the threat is inside every home with an internet connection. That is the America we now live in, the America Hardcore tried to warn us about, even if it could never have predicted the rise of the internet or Pornhub and OnlyFans.

Hardcore is not a perfect film, nor is it Schrader’s best, that would be 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, but it is an important film. It’s message rings loud and clear, more loudly and clearly than ever. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is tolerance. In fact, maybe it’s more than that. Maybe ignorance is even encouragement. Jack Van Dorn found out the hard way.

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