The disjointed relationship that men have with pornography lies at the heart of Hardcore, Paul Schrader’s film about a man’s journey down the illicit rabbit hole of the sex industry. With a pulsing soundtrack and a riveting performance by George C. Scott, the film tackles the struggles of masculinity in an age of redefining sexual norms. Rooted in an insecurity tied to women’s growing empowerment over the preceding decade, it becomes quickly apparent that Jake (George C. Scott) has been holding onto a dying way of life. An old school conservative businessman who worries that his newly painted blue office might be too ostentatious, Jake goes on an obsessive quest to find his daughter when she apparently goes missing on the West Coast. From Michigan to California, Jake becomes faced with the world he no longer recognizes and one in which he only has a tenuous place.
Pornography lies at the heart of this journey as the subject and symbol of redefined values. In Taxi Driver (written by Schrader), pornography represents a step on the ladder into complete social isolation for Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. By the time he brings Betsy (Cybill Shepard) to an erotic film on a date, Travis has already crossed a boundary separating the real world from the fantasy. He loses parts of himself to the screen, with his alienation mapped onto the anonymous broken up bodies of the performers. Schrader doesn’t commit to the evils of pornography in spite of representing them as potentially morally destructive, even reveling in the pink-tinted aesthetics and neon signage that proliferate the various red-light districts that feature in both films. He does nonetheless suggest a connection between an outsider already on the brink of social outcasting and their obsession with the dehumanizing films they watch as representing misplaced and violent fantasies.
Male insecurity has proliferated as value systems have shifted away from a man’s ability to create a family to one in which his worth lies in the sheer power of his ejaculate. When Jake holds auditions and a series of young men hope to be featured in his non-existent adult feature, they not only measure their worth by their girth and endurance, but reveal (by way of their quivering voices) a desperate need to belong. Rejection not only means a continued fight to survive, but a serious ego blow. The vicious cycle of insecurity fuels the whole industry, as the fantasy of willing and eager women transcends sexual need. Paying for sex means an escape from the pressures men face in dealing with women who have been empowered to say “no.”
As Jake quests for his daughter, he does it under the guise of being the symbol of the ideal American father; he lies to himself and the world about the true nature of his ability to fulfill that role. Emotionally stilted and heartbroken, he can’t even listen to the people around when they open up their hearts, as the pressure of their emotional connection seems too much for him to handle. Jake’s quest reveals the broken and modern world, but also the failure of the old values that empower men to face themselves as they are, rather than as they should be.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.