I watched 2 films that had characters getting involved with the pornography industry. Both of them revealed the inner workings of that industry as far as possible, and both of them used the subject as a way in to more general moral questions.
Hardcore (1979) was scripted by Paul Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Blue Collar and other landmarks of 70s Hollywood. We start at Christmas time in Grand Rapids, and country rock plays along as we see everyone having a jolly old time getting ready for family celebrations.
Religion runs through this film, but a very specific theology is involved. George C.Scott plays Jake Van Dorn, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. We see early on some old guys talking God whilst a young boy looks stupefied.
According to Schrader’s original Shooting Script:
The final version is filled out with a bit more detail, which suggests input from real conversations on these topics:
WILLEM: If one has committed the unpardonable sin I still say that he must realise that he has.
JOHN: Just the opposite, Willem. That is the error of the Pelagians. Now, the unpardonable sin is the rejection of the Holy Spirit.
WILLEM: Well you can talk theology, John, but I go back to the Bible. Just look at Hebrews 10:28 and 10:29 or Romans 3:23 to 25.
Of course Willem is being rather naive in assuming he can “go back to the Bible” without any theological precepts, especially if his Bible has been translated into modern vernacular by men who held particular views that would influence their choice of verbs and qualifiers. I’m not sure which translation the Dutch Reformed Church accept, but the KJV is very popular amongst American non-Catholics, so let’s use that to see what John might be thinking about. Hebrews 10:28-29:
We have a full statement of what this Church holds to later on when Jake Van Dorn explains it all to the Californian porn actress Niki:
Rona Barrett was a gossip columnist, it seems that Niki is excited at hearing an insider gossip about how things really work on the inside, with the Elect and the Damned outsiders.
Such is the background of Van Dorn and his world. What upsets it is that his daughter Kristen goes to a Youth Calvinist Conference in California and then absconds. After the cops fail to locate her, he takes their advice to hire a local detective, Andy Mast.
Jake isn’t too impressed by this Californian low-rent character, who is the first of many he encounters who doesn’t even follow a traditional church, and has succumbed to whatever mumbo jumbo is fashionable in this part of LA. Mast meanwhile doesn’t think much of Grand Rapids, having previously had business in that town.
Soon he has to face the terrible truth Mast uncovers: Kristen has appeared in a cheap hardcore porn movie Slave Of Love, having sex with 2 guys somewhere. These films are sold off in stores with no clue where they were made or who made them. Unimpressed by the lack of further progress, Van Dorn goes out to LA to make his own inquiries, but has no luck simply asking random degenerates in sex shops and peep shows, and gets thrown around by a bouncer.
A puzzle about the character of Van Dorn: exactly how naive is he? He says late on that he has never been in so many motels in his life as he has been since coming out to California, and he spent most of the last few years within Grand Rapids minding his successful business making wooden furniture. But he’s old enough to have been drafted in the US Army and seen some of scenes that GIs are involved in on leave from base. He is not set against change or progress, his business employs long-haired young people and seems to be using the latest machine tools. The Van Dorn family and their friends are not cut off from modern popular culture, they watch TV and Kristen has a Star Wars calendar as well as posters of pop stars. Star Wars appears many times in the background, showing this film is definitely set when it was made. In one comic moment we even see 2 strippers in one of the sleazy venues performing a half naked version of the light sabre duel between Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. The soundtrack is also up to date, and once we’re on the West Coast it includes new electronic beats as well as sharp distorted guitar breaks.
Having failed by asking honest direct questions, Jake wises up very quickly and adopts a new strategy, trying to infiltrate the world of these scumbags. He starts wearing shades and denim and loud shirts and acting like some business guy looking to make a bit of spare cash investing in another line.
We get to see the big fancy offices where these cheap little hustlers listen to accountants reeling off the returns from across the different markets.
Unfortunately he can’t get in as an investor because the business is so huge these days they don’t need his money. But it does suggest a better plan: setting up and advertising as a new independent, so he can then see if any of the other cast members of Slave Of Love come to the auditions. We have a few semi-comic moments as Van Dorn, with a fake moustache and hairpiece and tie-dye shirt, runs through some dud candidates, including an angry black guy. But when he finally sees Kristen’s co-star he quickly moves to violence in order to get some leads out of him. One of those is to Niki, whom he’d met already – this is a small world. As well as listening to his exposition of Calvinism, Niki also explains that the porn industry isn’t a great career for women, the men take their earnings and run the show. She also gets him to admit that Kristen’s mum isn’t dead, she moved out earlier last year, a detail that wasn’t made clear in the polite awkwardness of the family Christmas at the start. Niki also foretells that Kristen might not chose to return.
We’re now on a trail that will lead to a rather dangerous operator called “Rattan” and Mast comes back to warn Van Dorn he might be getting out of his depth. But he can’t feel too much fear when confronted with cheap little creeps like Tod, the guy who made the film with his daughter.
The action becomes rather melodramatic as we move to the climax. An excursion to an S&M dungeon in a suburban house leads to Van Dorn chasing Tod and crashing through the paper-thin walls between the different fantasy chambers, some of which seem to be banal every day scenarios such as offices. This human garbage gets his deserved beating rolling down hill through piles of garbage left in the street. In the end Rattan gets killed in a remarkable piece of marksmanship, shot in the back whilst running away in a busy main street at night and about 50 yards from the fumbling shooter; he finally collapses outside a porn theatre advertising some sort of show based on “the Garden Of Eden”, tying us back to the nature of God, sin, grace and redemption. Niki was correct in appraising that Kristen may not wish to be rescued by the White Knight, nor that the latter would be too bothered to save her along the way.
Although it was mentioned in Grand Rapids that the Reformed Church has missionaries around the world, Van Dorn has little interest in evangelising his faith to Americans who lack it; even when describing it to Niki he is satisfied to fall back on the line that only insiders know how it feels to know you are an insider. But is being an insider the same as knowing you are in the Elect? At several key moments in this film we see Van Dorn and others reflected in mirrors, a view from outside or elsewhere available to them but unnoticed. Perhaps that is alluding to his awareness, or self-awareness, as being “in a glass darkly”. That comes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which precedes the declaration at 13:13; “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” are the names of the 3 women working at the S&M dungeon.
Van Dorn comes to see himself as committing the sin of pride, perhaps he means taking pride in being a Mid Westerner completely detached from the Babylons of New York and Los Angeles. However there is little here to suggest he is deeply committed to what we now call “culture war”, as noted already the Van Dorns and their friends are not cutting themselves off the culture around them. What this film is registering is that there are genuine differences between the various denominations, and their attitudes toward questions of grace and salvation are real alternatives aside from the moral alternatives humans face in the world. The differences will not be made explicit on screen after 1979 but they are still present in the high-prestige TV drama that tried to follow after New Hollywood. The Sopranos was a Catholic saga that believed Man needs reconciliation and communion with a True Church that is not compromising on its message of sin, penitence and redemption; The Wire was for liberal Protestants who think Man will become better if we can fix the inner city school system.
Whether or not one’s theology has a place for “free will”, or how it is characterised, it still has to work in a world where nobody gets to set the terms of engagement with material reality, except God. Maybe God only writes a shooting script and we get to chose whether to fill out our lines with extra references to Pelagianism and so on; in the mean time we have more immediate concerns, such as determining who are our worldly friends and enemies.
Pleasure (2021) is a different world to Hardcore, though they still have many things in common. The opening music sounds like angelic voices, but it soon turns into hip hop. A young Swedish woman calling herself Bella Cherry is arriving in California, and when asked whether she is here for business or pleasure, she states the title.
This story has no White Knight and no religion. Bella’s reasons for leaving Sweden have nothing to do with the Reformation. She says she found her life there boring and wanted more excitement or fulfillment. The one time we hear her on the phone to her mum it seems she’s told her she’s doing some sort of internship, which in a sense she is. She has already been building up a following on the internet with her own photos and videos, and that’s what you need to get a connection in to the industry and then an agent who will arrange and cover for the film deals. Every recording session is preceded with a formality of paperwork and assurances about rights and entitlements. When she works on a bondage movie there is an extensive discussion of appropriate language to be used in her abuse, and the safe words and signals to exit from it.
This film features several cast members who work in the porn industry to give extra authenticity to the scenes in which we see fat, middle-aged men directing Bella to perform sex acts with them, and the visuals go as far as they can without this becoming an actual porn film itself. Now that films can be made with handheld cameras or just phones, the technical side of film-making has been simplified and made possible for bald, beardy overweight losers with even less ability than Paul Schrader gave to their 70s predecessors. Everything has the sketchy narrative and characters of Slave Of Love but in colour and with digital higher resolution. A black porn star explains to her that double standards and racism still exist in the industry. At a fancy party at a rich guy’s house one of the young male studs dismisses the girls as “trailer trash”.
Bella is soon living in a houseshare with some other models and being interviewed in plush offices belonging to the creepy old men who run the industry. It looks as if these old guys sit around listening to their accountants most of the day, just like in the 70s, except now they don’t care about cinema attendances, the metrics are on-line views. After initial wariness she begins to bond with her housemates as they realise they’re all getting ripped off, much like Niki was, and that the smart move would be for the stars to take control and work solely for themselves, which should be achievable as the means of production are now truly available to everyone.
As she tries to progress in her career Bella needs to network and make connections with influential men. There is a quite conventional plot, about the price of ambition and the emptiness of success and so on, filmed in a conventional visual style so the audience cannot make any mistake between story and reality. Bella does not express any interest in this new world beyond her work, on a trip to visit the HOLLYWOOD sign she bails out as she doesn’t care enough. She refuses to carry on working on a film where 2 guys verbally and physically abuse her in a simulation of domestic violence, not a ritualised game of torture; this puts her career in jeopardy as they throw her off set for wasting their time. Her agent is also unforgiving – she knew what was going for, didn’t she? Didn’t she check the website, what those guys are about? Didn’t she think to call him? And so she has to work even harder to make a success in this vaudeville for gawking creeps.
Personal autonomy is always limited and we may chose to just not use the knowledge available, through design or carelessness. A new value here that was never considered in Van Dorn’s world is solidarity – nothing to do with belonging to the Elect or not, and not the patrimony of the mentor/manipulator who has “got your back”. Bella faces a moral problem, whether to support her friend or protect the reputation of her agent, and of course chooses the wrong path. She is thrown out of the houseshare – expulsion from a communal Eden where several Eves lived happily with full knowledge of what Adam is like, but the Fall is for one of them to act like him.
At the very end, after Bella acts out violence on another performer, she asks for forgiveness. “I’m sorry”. “What for?” The one time she acted out her real feelings on camera is the only time she was taken to be acting.
Rescue fantasies for performers trapped in films have occurred several times since Hardcore. The Nic Cage film 8mm moved in a similar universe, while the recent Censor had a similar narrative but with horror rather than porn as the genre of “exploitation movie”. The spirit of those old 70s Paul Schrader movies lives on in Vengeance, even if Paul himself might not recognise it.