Hardcore (1979)

After watching 8MM, I learned that a very similiar movie was made twenty years earlier written and directed by the same guy who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, so naturally I had to watch that immediately after. It feels a bit redundant to write on it since a lot of my thoughts on it are similar to what I said in the 8MM review: The movie both engages with the problem of women and girls being trafficked through the porn industry, something which was no doubt far worse in the 70s when it was in much more of a legal grey area, but also unsurprisingly trades that for the other side of the coin when it comes to the repression of women’s sexualities. There are after all two forms that this takes: sex negative or sex positive. Women’s sexuality is overcoded by patriarchy as either being the Madonna or the whore; women are expected to either be extremely chaste (in more conservative societies) or make their bodies extremely available to men (in progressive ones).

The movie takes place in and was filmed right at the tail end of the 60s/70s counterculture, the moment when things began to shift in the US from sexual repression to sexual “liberation”. If it’s not obvious from this blog, I would align myself more with sex negative than sex positive feminism. I see these shifts from repression to liberation as being essentially the same logic that leads to liberalism giving rights to marginalized groups over the state exercising explicit violence against them. The situation in more conservative societies where the violence is explicit is obviously brutal and immiserating, but the situation in liberal societies where all desire for anything else becomes suppressed by sophisticated control apparatuses that make people believe their desires are liberating rather than directly working within the logic of the same fundamentally oppressive power structures is more insidious than the former situation. And it only makes the marginalized unprepared for when another crisis is triggered and history resets itself back to the stage of outright violence.1

What’s interesting though about this movie is that it exists in this moment of transition between the two forms patriarchy takes. There’s a line in the movie that mentions how “hardcore” porn at that point in history had just been legalized, yet the majority of the sex work establishments that the protagonist played by George C. Scott goes through in search of his missing daughter are still operating in the old style of “adult bookshops” and “adult theaters” where all sex work and pornographic material had to conceal itself in its own language of euphemisms and innuendos. And this serves to frustrate the protagonist, who is constantly trying to navigate through an underworld of sex work that has historically had to adapt to vice detectives by concealing everything in this language and being a very insular world where if you don’t implicate yourself in it in some way by paying for sex or porn, you’re going to be suspected of being a cop.

What’s interesting then about this is that the movie shows both how sexually repressive societies create these insular underworlds where no one asks questions and that people can very easily disappear in, but also how sexually “liberatory” progressive societies essentially groom women and girls into thinking that it’s rebellious and empowering to take part in these exploitative industries. Like with 8MM, the arc of the narrative goes down the proverbial Congo River into the heart of darkness, eventually finding literal snuff at the end of it. And like 8MM, the movie doesn’t treat this as being a systemic problem in which women are forced into either a conservative Christian society (which in the movie the midwest that the protagonist and his family are from is used as that foil to the depraved liberal Los Angeles) or a liberal progressive one where, in either case, their desires and bodies exist only to be available to one man or another. They either are the property of their fathers and future husbands, or they are the property of whichever man has the money at that particular moment; it’s really only a difference in questions of scale. Ultimately, the movie ends up seeming to choose the former as the protagonist’s daughter decides to reconcile with her father and come back home, but to the movie’s credit, there’s far more to it in terms of being a character study about a very conservative Christian (a Calvinist no less, the most Christian of Christians) businessman from the midwest being confronted with an existential crisis of sorts about the modern world moving far too quickly past the quaint little world of his that is becoming irrelevant.

I’ve ended up talking more about things that are unrelated to the movie this time than I would have liked, but I also shouldn’t need to say that the movie is highly recommended anyways and really good. You can’t go wrong with George C. Scott and Paul Schrader. As similar as this and 8MM are on the surface though, they feel like they’re also very different, owing to the very different points in history they take place. This makes me want to see someone try to do this sort of “girl disappears into the underworld of the porn industry” plot again, but this time set in the modern world where the internet has made porn pretty universally accessible and somewhat destigmatized, and where it’s even more so started to become seen as legitimate thanks to sites like OnlyFans. That’s the sort of setting where some really interesting sex negative feminist analysis could come about.



This is of course not to say that I think the former situation is preferable and that I would argue for some kind of vulgar accelerationism where we need to make things worse to make them better. Sex negative feminism feels far more relevant to me than it would to people in more conservative societies and cultures, but ultimately I also think that sex negative gets more to the heart of the problem as opposed to being a kind of reformism for a situation that is unacceptably brutal.

Created: 2022-10-14 Fri 17:40