November 13, 2023

Thoughts on Hardcore (1979) by Schrader: Manic Pixie Dream Girls, thriller vs. action "rescue" movies, and complex / useful vs. simple / superfluous violence and nudity

I wrote another post in the comments section on an unrelated topic, which I'll copy-paste into a new post, because search engines don't see comments, only the main body of posts. In case someone is looking for insights into this movie.

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Hardcore by Paul Schrader has a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in it. A quirky, corporeal, free spirit with an earthly guardian angel role to play vis-a-vis the protagonist, who is a down-on-his-luck sad sack (divorced dad of a daughter who's run away). They form an odd-couple partnership.

She nurses him back to health, keeps him sane, guides him through hell, and keeps him on the right track to achieve his loftiest goals, including winning over or winning back a girl -- not the MPDG herself, who as usual does not end up with him in the end, nor even a romantic interest (i.e. his estranged ex-wife). But *does* help unite him with his daughter.

The movie came out in 1979, during the restless phase of the 15-year excitement cycle ('75-'79 in this case), when the MPDG type proper comes out.

The character, Niki, is played by an actress (Season Hubley) who was born in the manic phase of the cycle (1951, during the '50-'54 manic phase), like most other MPDGs. As shown in her topless scenes, she is a butt girl rather than a boob girl, just like most other MPDGs. Height varies a lot among the type, and she's 5'5 fwiw.

I knew while watching the movie that she'd be born in a manic phase, and I was right!

Sidebar: there's a "doomed MPDG" type in Frenzy by Hitchcock, recalling this post about Michelle from Frantic by Polanski. That post also contains links to earlier entries in my MPDG series, which began in 2019, tying it into my series on the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, which I began in 2017 (and has its own category tag in the blog's sidebar, unlike MPDG's).

Frenzy was made in '72, during the vulnerable phase of '70-'74, like Frantic ('88, during the '85-89 vulnerable phase). So she doesn't quite get to play the full guardian angel role for the down-on-his-luck sad-sack protag.

In fact (spoilers), she winds up getting killed in the process of trying to help the protag realize his lofty goals.

Still, I knew that like Emmanuelle Seigner, she must've been born during a manic phase -- at least that much of this type stays true to the proper MPDG role that comes out during a restless phase. And sure enough, the actress who plays Babs (Anna Massey) was born in 1937, during the '35-39 manic phase.

Niki, the MPDG, is the stand-out character in Hardcore. Still thinking about her the day after viewing, she made a real impression, and without a theatrical or melodramatic performance either.

George C. Scott's character, the father in search of his teenage runaway daughter, is too literally Puritan to give the audience much of an emotional opening to connect and empathize with. He bottles everything up for 99% of the time, and lets it explode during the other 1% -- but unless you're also a Dutch Calvinist Midwesterner, for whom this is normal and expected behavior, it can be hard to connect with.

Contrast with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader just a few years earlier. His extensive monologue voiceovers open up his mind to the audience, not to mention his more "tell it like it is, nothing held back, no BS" back-East behavior, which lets him pour his thoughts and feelings out even in the presence of other characters, whether socially appropriate or not. It may feel like wincingly tip-toe-ing through a seedy motel entrance, but it's still an opening for the audience to connect with his mind.

That's where the MPDG comes to the rescue in Hardcore. This type is always on a rescue mission of some kind, but here it's not just within the narrative, helping him achieve his goals and rise out of the depths he's currently in -- it's to chip away at his Puritan exterior on behalf of the audience, who can finally see what's really going on inside and connect.

Only the earthy prostitute and occasional porno actress can get him to drop his guard -- her sharing of her good-vibes hippie-dippie Venusian religion prompts him to explain the tenets of his Calvinist religion, in a way that he'd never opened up about before. He and his religion come off more sympathetically after this, since he's not thundering down a sermon to her, just matter-of-factly explaining it to her like he's a Sunday School teacher and she's a new student. She (and we) may not resonate with it, but it's not off-putting either.

Her playful teasing gets him to use sexually profane slang ("sucking off"), contrary to his buttoned-up usual speech.

But most of all, she's the only one whose attentive and nurturing behavior gets him to open up about where his wife is in the whole family picture. (Before he simply lied and said she was dead, not estranged / divorced and living in some God-forsaken place back East.) It's a nice small-scale cathartic moment for him, to have a sympathetic shoulder to lean on, so that he doesn't keep bottling everything up until it explodes in an aimless counter-productive rage.

Nice spin on the typical MPDG formula of coaxing a wary sad sack out of his shell, to liven up his lifestyle. Usually it means the guy leads a boring ho-hum routine, but still in a relatable way and allowing us to empathize with him (the security of routine, can't get hurt if you don't risk much exposure, etc.). But in Hardcore, he's so bottled-up and seething that her coaxing him out of his shell is necessary to make him relatable to the audience.

Great attention to detail in the costume design, too, where she's wearing a t-shirt that simply has the word "SniFF" printed on it. Believable as a novelty t-shirt, but emphasizing that she's an earthy / sensual type, not necessarily a smell fetishist (in which case the shirt would be a deep inhaling "SNIFFFFF") -- just curious and exploring the world through the corporeal senses, rather than intellect and reason and logic and argument. Sniff, sniff, sniff...

Not something a Puritan would have printed on their shirt. The right small detail can go a long way toward cementing their odd-couple relationship, and her corporeality vs. his cerebral / spiritual approach.

Season Hubley gives a nice physical performance in her poses as well. At first, she's shown as a typical stripper / prostitute, casually taking off her top and spreading her legs akimbo, high-heeled shoes kicking right up against the glass partition in the peep-show booth. Meant to be salacious and provocative, like anyone who sells sex for a living -- emotionally checked-out from the situation, not like a trusted confidante.

But by the time they form their unlikely partnership and have bonded somewhat, her pose changes completely. Head bowed somewhat in humility, cocked to the side in curiosity, leg raised on one side while sitting down to convey an air of opened-up, informal relaxation -- the right tone for a confidante to create, if she wants the other side to let their guard down -- rather than stiff, stern judgement that he'd be used to in a setting where he's confessing about what's gone wrong in his life.

More images here.

Reminder that in Taxi Driver, the MPDG is not Jodie Foster's character Iris -- she represents the lofty goal that the down-in-the-dumps protag is striving to reach (saving her from a life on the streets).

And she's not born during a manic phase, but a restless phase, which produces the wild-child type (1962, during the '60-'64 restless phase). True to that type, she comes across as numb and glib about her wild-child teen runaway prostitute lifestyle. She does wear a boho costume, but that just shows that the MPDG is not about costume, but the role she plays in the narrative.

She does provoke the ho-hum protag -- but more for the sake of provocation, shocking a square, to convince herself that she's cool and hip, unlike him. Not to chip away at his exterior, to get him to drop his guard, so she can nurture him and rescue him from the depths, so that he can achieve his goals in life.

Rather, the MPDG is Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, who naturally enough was born during a manic phase (1950). She's not a wild-child who provokes for the fun of it all. She views him as an intriguing social-emotional rehab project for her to work on, nurture, and encourage, so that he can walk on his own again and accomplish greater things than what he's currently mired in.

She's the one who the protag literally describes as an angel descending, the one who inspires him to let his guard down, take a chance on opening up and connecting to other people (including women), even if he takes that too far due to his rusty social skills from having been isolated and alienated for so long.

But by the end of the movie, when she rides in his cab again, they clearly have no hard feelings, and in fact smile knowingly at each other, as though she were the one who started him off on his quest toward rescuing Iris and cleaning up the scum from the city in his own humble way. Very tender and endearing final moment, even if (as usual) the MPDG and the protag do not wind up as a couple. Her rehab project has turned out a success, and the guy who recuperated due to her intervention is grateful for her support and encouragement that began the process of rising out of the depths.

And of course Taxi Driver came out during a restless phase, 1976.

Last thought on Niki from Hardcore. Her getting the protag to drop his guard and open up serves a further narrative purpose -- turns out, the daughter ran away and joined the seedy porno world on her own, because she felt her father was too emotionally distant, cold, judgemental, and driving her friends away as potential bad influences. She ran away to find someone who would befriend her, however parasitically.

When he finally tracks her down, she's reluctant to go back to the same family environment that repulsed her in the first place. So the father has to open up, be vulnerable, and show that he's at least aware that his bottled-up Puritan behavior was responsible, while still asking her to understand that he does love her but never felt comfortable showing it.

He's been changed by the MPDG's rehab process, and he's now able to prove that to the girl that represents his lofty goals (rescuing his daughter from the streets at least, ideally bringing her back home). She wouldn't have believed him if he'd shown up thundering a Puritanical sermon against her, or coldly listing the consequences of her actions, etc. That would've been more of the same, and she wouldn't have decided there was anything worth returning to.

But now able to open up, confess in a sympathetic way, ask for forgiveness again in a sympathetic way, showing a positive catharsis -- not merely on a blind revenge mission against the men she hooked up with -- he convinces her that life will be different, more socially and emotionally supportive, connected, and warm back home. So she decides to go back with him after all, thanks to the MPDG's decision to take him as an intriguing rehab project, acting as his earthly guardian angel when institutions (the church, the police, his own family) could not save him.

Heh, Peter Boyle's character in Hardcore is similar to an MPDG, although from the male camaraderie angle, not the female nurturer angle.

He's a bit boho and unconventional himself, earthy and sensory-based (as well as logical, being a P.I.). Opens up, holds nothing back, no-BS, hoping some of that attitude will rub off on the bottled-up Puritan protag, who he refers to as "pilgrim" -- not just referencing his Puritanical religion, but conveying his awareness that the protag is on a kind of quest or journey, and needing a guide such as himself.

And he doesn't take on the father's case just for the money -- it's also to protect the protag, like a surrogate patriarch (whereas the MPDG is more maternal and nurturing). He guides him along the way to achieve his lofty goals, steering him through the hellish depths so he doesn't remain mired there forever.

He plays a similar role toward Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as the supportive, concerned, and advice-giving Wizard. Not as central in the narrative, nor as helpful, but still in the same mold.

And sure enough, Peter Boyle was born during a manic phase (1935). The suite of traits that females pick up from imprinting on such a phase, are also picked up by their male cohorts -- they just get expressed in a more masculine instead of feminine manner. But still very similar to each other.


Noirish thrillers like Hardcore and Frantic create more narrative tension than action-oriented takes on the "rescue a family member" story like Commando and Taken.

In the action movies, the main theme is revenge, and we know from the outset that the family member will be rescued, in good health, and the rescuer will survive as well. The tension is not put into the narrative, but into the overcoming of various obstacles in the protag's way -- we know he's going to overcome them, but who specifically are they, what settings are they located in, how exactly does he eliminate one or the other threat, the precise way in which he's going to execute the main villain.

In the thriller movies, we don't even know if he's going to find the family member, let alone will they be alive and in good health or want to return with him. We don't know whether their fate remains undisclosed, and if the protag is going to resign himself to losing her after an ultimately fruitless search, maybe taking revenge on the most likely culprits or maybe just calling it quits altogether in order to maintain some sanity. He's not an unstoppable juggernaut, which is more relatable to the audience, whereas the action revenge movies are more about a fantasy of power.

Having to sift through masses of people, rather than quickly narrowing down who the abductors are, adds to the narrative tension, setting up a sense of hopelessness -- and that opens the door to the role of a guide for the protag, which is not really crucial in the action movies, where he's a one-man army. Maybe the guide is a surrogate patriarch, or an MPDG proper, or a doomed MPDG. But some kind of earthly guardian angel to guide the protag through the depths of hell, in order for him to rise above it and achieve his goals.

So it's not just more tension in the plot, but also in the character dynamics, for the thrillers.

Thrillers do feature violence, sex, action, and sometimes vindication or revenge -- but they all serve a purpose for the plot, sense of place, and characterization. Whereas in an action movie, we know roughly how it ends from the beginning, and they strike us as more superfluous and just giving us what we want to indulge in as a guilty pleasure.

For example, there's a totally pointless T&A scene in Commando (it was the '80s), where the protag chases one of the bad guys into a motel, and in their struggle they break into the room of a nude couple that had been bumping uglies, unaware of the plot of the movie.

In Taken, the kidnapped daughter is shown in her underwear and then topless, while she's on display in a white slavery market by the villains. That may anger the audience, but not the protag, who isn't witnessing any of it.

In Hardcore, the porno that the daughter appears in is witnessed by the protag (after being tracked down by the P.I.), causing him to break down, and add to his determination to save his daughter. It makes the nude scene more poignant and gut-wrenching and anti-pornographic, rather than voyeuristic (which is how the scene in Taken comes off).

There are seductive nude scenes in Hardcore, however, like when the protag first converses with Niki in the peep-show booth. Not the most erotic performance of all time, but still titillating and a bit sensual, rather than enraging or depressing and anti-pornographic. It adds to the complexity of tone in a thriller rather than a straightforward action movie.

Hardcore also uses nudity in portraying the making of porno movies, whereby it all comes off as choreographed, orchestrated, mechanical, and therefore artificial, fake, and not sensual and seductive.

It's not enraging or depressing like the ones where the runaway daughter is performing and being witnessed by the father after the fact. Nor is it titillating like Niki's bantering peep-show booth performance. Maybe not *anti*-pornographic -- merely not pornographic. Showing the behind-the-scenes process of shooting the scene, dispelling the fantasy, conveying a tone of hollowness or numbness.

Complex tone.

November 8, 2023

After non-Halloween October, skipping right to New Year's Eve, eliminating Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Christmas, as American imperial collapse wipes out its major holidays

It snowed a bit on Halloween (i.e. Oct 31, not "The Saturday Before Oct 31"), and the workers in the thrift store at the time broke out with "Are you kidding me???" and even a reference to it already being Christmas. I thought that was jumping the gun a bit -- don't we still have Thanksgiving and/or Black Friday in the way?

But that proved to be symptomatic of a larger trend this year, in which people are paying no mind, and presumably no effort or activity, to Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or even the once-mighty Christmas. As far as they're concerned, after Halloween the next milestone holiday is New Year's Eve.

I noticed both Mumei and Irys independently speaking this way during some of their recent streams, off-handedly mentioning "Wow, I can't believe the year is almost over / It's almost 2024". I assume others are as well, but these are two I tune into frequently enough to hear what's on their mind.

So I used google to search reddit for the phrase "almost 2024," and indeed there are lots of comments to that effect, with the vast majority from October (and now into November). Curiously, they didn't all hit after The Saturday Before Halloween, when the energy for that holiday would've begun dissipating. There are plenty from earlier in the month, as though they were ignoring Halloween as well, and heading straight for New Year's Eve.

Well, that ignoring of Halloween manifested all over the place this year, as I described in a series of comments to the last post, beginning here. Halloween spirit was dead throughout the entire month, in radical contrast to just a few years ago when all the stuff would've gone up at the start of the month or earlier.

Now that we've seen Halloween not-happen, we can also easily see that Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Christmas will not-happen this year either.

Thanksgiving has become weakened and parasitized by Black Friday since the 2000s, to the point where Thanksgiving had become debased into Black Friday Eve, and the real excitement and emotional investment was for the anti-social shopping free-for-all on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I covered that over the 2010s.

I also commented in the past few years how even Black Friday has died. When you think of those videos or Drudge live-blogging the chaos, that was only from the late 2000s and 2010s. When the vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle had set in, from 2015-'19, it was already pretty tame compared to the previous manic phase, 2010-'14, when most of those intense Black Fridays occurred.

But by now, the holiday is completely dead, and it is not restoring any energy back to Thanksgiving -- everything is being wiped out together.

But surely Christmas will still stand! Nope. I remember how non-eventful it was last year, possibly the least emotional Christmas in world history. It will pass with even less activity this year, with a rising number of people ignoring it altogether to build up suspense for New Year's Eve instead.

In a series of comments beginning here, I explained the point behind celebrating holidays on fixed calendar days, rather than wimping out and celebrating them only on weekends. Weekends are expected times for cutting loose, whereas major holidays require turning over the usual order of things -- for a brief time -- and that includes celebrating them on weekdays, when people usually go to school or work.

I noted that only New Year's Eve has a built-in defense against the Millennial anti-American culture-destroyers who canceled Halloween in favor of The Saturday Before Halloween. The suspense leading up to a holiday is even more relevant to New Year's Eve because there's a literal countdown on that night until the new calendar year begins.

It's difficult to shift all that suspense and excitement to some night before New Year's Eve, since the contradiction is too glaring between celebrating a new year and everyone knowing the actual countdown is still days away.

Likewise if they tried to shift it to some night after, the suspense will already have dissipated. So, its celebration is much more sticky to its calendar date, despite lamewad Millennials who would love nothing more than to celebrate it on The Saturday Before New Year's Eve.

Labor Day and Memorial Day stopped being real holidays awhile ago. July Fourth keeps getting weaker and ho-hum. Easter might as well not exist, and ditto for Valentine's Day. With the elimination only beginning now of Halloween, Thanksgiving / Black Friday, and Christmas, that leaves New Year's Eve as the only holiday that Americans will celebrate as a major, big deal, FOMO kind of holiday.

In no previous year did we start getting itchy to discuss the wrapping up of the year, the beginning of a new year, how crazy time flies, what we're going to resolve to do differently, etc. -- in October. That literally began in 2023.

But it has all the hallmarks of the earlier destruction of holidays. Remember when Christmas stuff, energy, thoughts, feelings, etc., began happening before Thanksgiving / Black Friday, eventually going up at the start of November?

Which is what happened this year as well, right after Oct 31, the Halloween candy got replaced -- and not by autumnal or harvest or Thanksgiving-related things like candy corn, caramel apples, or pumpkin-themed stuff (indeed, pumpkin spice latte coffee has already been dumped into the clearance section in the supermarkets). Rather, it got immediately replaced with Christmas candy.

If only New Year's Eve had some sweets associated with it, *that* would have gone up on Nov 1 this year, bypassing Christmas candy entirely. But then, maybe that's the direction our moribund culture is headed toward, repurposing all sweets from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which are scarcely celebrated anymore, into a New Year's Eve smorgasbord of sweets.

The new rationale will be similar to Carnival / Mardi Gras -- one final binge on stuff that's bad for you, before purging and purifying and rebuilding in the new year, tying it into the existing tradition of New Year's resolutions (which is similar to giving things up for Lent -- and people adhere to them just as long).

Maybe we will fold the trick-or-treating / masquerade tradition back into the New Year holiday, which is where it ultimately began, before American culture shifted it to Halloween, to distinguish ourselves from our European -- and even Indo-European -- relatives.

Who can say what precise form these changes will take? All I know is our culture is evaporating right before our very eyes, as the social cohesion that upheld our mega-society has entered terminal decline, now that its raison d'etre -- uniting against a common meta-ethnic nemesis (mainly the Indians and later Mexicans) -- has unraveled.