I know all the major websights are covering the San Diego Comic-Con this week. I will not be there in person and never have been but in my opinion there is alot I can cover from home in terms of the city of San Diego. For example I have learned that Paul Schrader’s movie HARDCORE from 1979 has a part that takes place in San Diego. This is an EXCLUSIVE SCOOP for Outlawvern.com or an EXSCLOOPSIVE for short. © 2016 Vern please credit.
Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a single father in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a successful factory owner (“we make rivets for the auto industry”) and devout Calvinist. It’s Christmas time and the family’s all together, Uncle Joe (Paul Marin, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD) being an angry prude about the dancing Santas on the Christmas special the kids are watching.
“I’m sick of watching this television stuff,” he rants after abruptly turning it off. “You know who makes it? All the kids who couldn’t get along here, they go out to California and make television. I didn’t like ’em when they were here and I don’t like them out there.”
Jake is the more laid back grownup who laughs and says “Give the kids a break, it’s Christmas!”
Everything seems nice. Snow on the ground, fire in the hearth, food on the table, old school country tunes playing, and then the older kids, including Jake’s daughter Kristen (one-time actor Ilah Davis), get on a bus for the Youth Calvinist convention in Bellflower, California.
And when they get there, Kristen disappears. Through private eye Mast (Peter Boyle, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE), Jake quickly learns that she’s one of those kids that went out there to California, but not to make television.
It’s not TAKEN. He doesn’t go around breaking bones. He just tries to figure out where exactly she is. The police are nice enough but aren’t much help, and Mast turns out to be sleazier than Jake is comfortable with, so he dives into it himself. Days turn into weeks, maybe months, and the people back home start to worry about him, like he’s a runaway himself. One of his friends even comes looking for him. Jake tells him to go home. He’s sacrificing himself. Doesn’t want any of the other Calvinists to get tainted by this place. Doesn’t even want them to know about it.
I wonder if Jake has some past before he became so religious, or if he’s just good at adapting. He takes on an undercover persona, wearing loud polyester shirts and sunglasses, chewing gum, trying to be comfortable pretending to browse porn…
…and meeting with the scummiest pornographers, pretending to want to invest in a movie.
His quest leads to awkward social situations like screening nasty illegal porn, even what seems to be a snuff film, and trying to act like he’s not disgusted. Whatever success he has with that may be because he already went through the horrible ordeal of Mast bringing him into a porn theater to watch a shitty home movie of his 16 year old daughter in a three way. I’m no prude but the actress is so skinny and young looking that it’s genuinely disturbing even before he’s crying and screaming for it to be turned off.
There’s kind of a descent-into-hell feel to his journey. The first porn set we see is in a hotel room with a bunch of sleazy dudes standing around with unbuttoned shirts showing off their gold necklaces, but they have lights and producers and treat the women like actresses. Jake has to kind of travel down the ladder to smaller and more degrading productions, looking for the people that worked with Kristen. He starts out nervously swallowing as he has to pretend to be a customer inquiring about the 8mm short that his daughter stars in, ends up in disguise in a motel room looking at guy’s dicks for a fake audition.
His disguise kind of shows his opinion of the counterculture. To portray a guy auditioning dudes for “an adult action picture” at the Cinema Hotel he wears a tie-dyed t-shirt and puka shells. But he still wears his wedding ring. The one he wears even though his wife left him.
There’s a good shot of him, after beating information out of a young porn actor in his hotel shower, catching a glimpse of his fake mustache in the mirror, getting disgusted and tearing it off.
The music (score composed by Jack Nitzsche) helps take us on Jake’s journey. Back in Grand Rapids we get the nostalgic country music. During sad scenes there’s sort of a haunting, warped church organ type of music. As he enters the world of sin we get disco and crazy acid rock.
At this point Schrader had already written THE YAKUZA, TAXI DRIVER, OBSESSION, ROLLING THUNDER and his directorial debut BLUE COLLAR. This is more like the earlier ones, focusing on one extreme individual on an obsessive quest in an urban crime subculture that disgusts him. But this time the character draws on Schrader’s own religious background and is portrayed primarily as a good person, though his mission draws out some of his negative qualities and forces him to confront them.
When he catches up with a certain guy he’s been looking for I was surprised to recognize him as Gary Graham, the star of the Alien Nation TV series as well as ROBOTJOX. There’s a great gimmick for the climax where Jake confronts that guy in a weird S&M place with different themed rooms that turn out to be made of flimsy wood like movie sets, so there’s a chase where they smash through walls from a HOSTEL style room to a bedroom with some poor dude tied up in a straight jacket and then a chintzy dungeon with blue lights and painted bricks like it’s part of a carnival spookhouse ride. Kind of a microcosm of Jake’s journey from one perversion to the next.
It’s very Schrader because it reminds me of the assaults at the end of TAXI DRIVER and ROLLING THUNDER, but the use of the stylized sets and colors loosely connects it in my mind to Schrader’s later masterpiece, MISHIMA (another movie about a man with strong objections to the modern world around him).
Of course HARDCORE looks realer, dirtier, slimier than MISHIMA, but it’s good to look at. One thing we learn is that the world of porn and “marital aids” in 1979 is much more visually interesting than today, and worth cataloging for future enjoyment. Schrader made a time capsule of giant gaudy marquees, flashing lights and murals.
There is a heart in this movie – the “of gold” kind, I guess – in the form of Niki (Season Hubley, who played Priscilla in John Carpenter’s ELVIS), a porn star/hooker who becomes Jake’s guide and surrogate daughter. He talks to her in a peep booth and under the guise of “something like” a detective he hires her to help him follow a lead in San Diego. He pays for the hotel and she’s confused when he doesn’t want to do her. For a while he’s distant, like we eventually hear he is with his real daughter. He tries to be nice but obviously looks down on her.
Beliefs are very important to the characters. Even sleazy Mast claims at one point, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend your personal beliefs. I’m a practicioner of mind science myself.” Niki is very earnest and curious, and she gets Jake into a heated conversation about their different approaches to sexuality, and a nicer one about religion. I think my favorite scene is when she asks him about Calvinism at the airport. He starts explaining it, then can’t believe she’s really interested.
“Are you sure you want to hear about this?”
And she really does. He tries to summarize his beliefs. She’s genuinely curious, but candid about saying it’s “fucked up,” which he’s able to laugh about.
“Well, I admit it’s a bit confusing if you look at it from the outside,” he says. “You have to look at it from the inside.”
“But if you look at anything from the inside it makes sense,” she points out, and of course this includes not only Calvinism, not only wrestling, not only The Gathering of the Juggalos, but also the porn world he’s infiltrating.
Schrader certainly doesn’t seem to approve of this world, but he ultimately shows that Jake doesn’t understand it, or his daughter, as well as he assumes he does.
My research told me this took place in San Diego, and I always wanted to see it, so I thought it would be a good Comic-con tie-in. It turns out to take place in Grand Rapids, then Los Angeles, then a very brief stop in San Diego. They go to a bar looking for a guy…
…then go over by some docks and have that conversation about their attitudes toward sex. He brags that he doesn’t care about the movies or TV or “who’s on Johnny Carson” (wonder if he has the “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker.) She pressures him to say “suck him off” to demonstrate his uptightness.
They cross the street in front of the Santa Fe Depot, a station for buses and trolleys. Here it is in the movie:
And here it is earlier this year from Google Street View:
They walk around what is at least portrayed as that area, but I’m not sure if it really is. I only include this next screengrab because I think it’s beautiful. The cinematographer is Michael Chapman (THE LAST DETAIL, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, Michael Jackson’s BAD, SPACE JAM).
Here it is in the movie:
And on Google Street View:
Four decades and some daylight sure add bleakness. You can see the decline in showmanship. It’s sad to face the idea that there might not be a place for “HYPNO-SEX-ISM” in today’s world. I’d like to think there is.
But it’s nice that they left an empty slot on the sign to add “DVD / VIDEO” when it became a thing.
The most recent San Diego Comic-Con before the release of HARDCORE was in July of 1978 at the El Cortez Hotel. Matt Groening was one of the guests, one year into his weekly comic strip Life In Hell. As the first convention after Schrader’s friend George’s movie STAR WARS and the one before ALIEN I’m sure there was some excitement. (In one scene you can see the STAR WARS logo on the Chinese Theater through Jake’s hotel window.)
Here‘s an interview with a woman who attended as an 8 year old girl. Also includes Super-8 footage of famous comics creators performing as Red Sonja and a wizard.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.