essays

Apr 1, 1979

Hard Core, Soft Core

On any given night, Americans everywhere now watch soft-core films or scenes on the television. “That ought to set the Birchers’ teeth on edge.”

LET US CONSIDER SKIN in flicks, and skin flicks, and what is called “pornography” by people who like the sound of the word, though it defines nothing objectively and refers only to (subjective) states of mind. The pioneer libertarian theorist and activist Theodore Schroeder, whose frustrated life, hard times and voluminous writings I came to know when writing my doctoral dissertation a few years ago, likened “pornography” to witchcraft: neither exists, but both have been pursued with a vengeance by those who believe(d) they exist(ed); both—and this our contemporary, Dr. Thomas Szasz, has also stressed—are fictions of some people’s imagination. Which has not kept the clergy, the legislators, and the moralists from crusading, legislating, and bleating about them. While we accept nowadays that witchcraft is fantasy, we are continually warned against “pornography,” most specifically in magazines and films and books.

That pornography doesn’t exist is not sufficient reason to believe that there are no films that can in common chatter be called “pornographic.” The term has a life beyond logic, and rather than clutter the page with quotation marks we had just as well use it as it is commonly used and try to understand what is meant by it. This, because of the appearance recently of an important and in some ways fine movie called Hardcore, of which more in due course.

We are not here discussing the movies that are rated in the so-called subterranean press XXX, and which play in very small, usually overheated or undercooled buildings in big cities, entrance to which is gained by passing a five dollar bill to somebody seated behind a smudged glass window and yourself through a turnstyle; these are the movies that go by a couple of dozen names in a couple of dozen cities, that change names every time they reappear, and that usually contain only minimal dialogue, this generally of the “ooh, oh, ah, ah, AH, oh, yes, yes, yes, baby, BABY, do it, do it, do it” variety; and that are accompanied by lousy (usually disco) music and concentrate on a minimal amount of foreplay and maximum display of orgasm. Some other time, perhaps, but not just now. We are looking this month at major, successful, expensively produced movies designed for the general public and advertised proudly in the mainstream press.

Certain patterns emerge. The X rating, which was once slapped on almost any movie that contained nudity except among infants, is now reserved almost exclusively for movies that show erections or actual penetration. Female nudity, both frontal and dorsal, is now so common that R suffices for the rating, and male back nudity is no longer rare, nor, in fleeting glances, is male frontal nudity. The naked adult human body and, for that matter, a certain degree of what passes as sexual intercourse—the writhings about, the gruntings and groanings, the pained and then satisfied facial expressions without depicted genital contact: all that is now commonplace in regular commercial movies and is very often called “soft core” by people who feel they have to call it something and who reserve the term “hard core” for the nitty gritty.

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“Today Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, which dwells on a whore house in New Orleans, circa 1917, bears an “R” rating; a few years ago it couldn’t have been shown in any major American theatre.”

Consider some recent movies that give us just enough flesh to qualify in some ways as “soft core,” including a few movies that throw in a bit of superfluous flesh to satisfy the perceived cravings of the American movie audience today. Remember also that the American movie audience today is young, primarily urban and suburban, self-congratulatorily “sophisticated,” and slightly more affluent than the population at large. The elderly do not patronize the movies in any great numbers, nor, except for an occasional “family movie,” is the cinema much patronized by those considered lower-middle in class or “conservative” in politics. A standard feature of the reflexive conservative press, in fact, is an increasingly hysterical alarmism about the state of the popular media. While almost any bit of sanctimonious drivel will pass muster in such organs, so long as it is “wholesome,” the presence of a bared buttock or pubic hair, or, for that matter, the common language of the street, is enough to send the purveyers of Middle American mythology into fits.

Herewith, then, a brief mention of several films that can in some important way be considered “soft core,” at least in part. Most of these films appeared last year, and most are still being shown here and there across the land. Bread and Chocolate, made by the Italian Franco Brusati, contained a scene of exquisite sensuality, in which the protagonist, an Italian failing miserably at finding a decent living in Switzerland, sees, in the company of a family of nearly dehumanized chicken farmers, also Italians, a group of gorgeous Swiss blond teenagers swimming nude in a stream. The girls and the boys are perfect physically, and stand in the film for the comfort and ease that the Italian worker aliens in Switzerland find unattainable. Coming about three-fourths of the way into the film, the scene provides the ideal contrast to the squalor and stolidness that has been depicted up to that point. The movie carries a prestigious award from a major Italian Catholic organization: it does not, therefore, contain any genitalia, only the undeniable hint of genitalia, and it is a scene that is more erotic than most far more explicit movies.

Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby occasioned a brief flurry of protests, and was banned in Canada, because it dwelt on a whore house in New Orleans, circa 1917, where the leading prostitute raises her just barely pubescent daughter. Susan Sarandon played the mother; Keith Carradine, the photographer and repressed sensualist; and the budding sensation, Brooke Shields, the little girl. The prostitutes are seen now and again in understandable states of undress, the men never, and at one crucial point the little girl is served up to the highest bidder, a certified virgin. Here it was not just a glimpses of flesh but the forbidden aspects of what is cutely called “kiddie porn” that infuriated the moralists. The movie bears an R rating; a few years ago it couldn’t have been shown in any major American theatre.

Eyes of Laura Mars used Faye Dunaway better than most of her recent films have, and though it was marred by a wholly gratuitous dollop of ESPism, it made for a fairly good thriller. The title character is a photographer who not only uses her eyes against her will as a camera seeing into the future, always the grim, fatal future of her models, but also to photograph women in advertising such as we see more and more often these days: the advertising that peddles some item of wearing apparel by showing a woman in some state of subjugation. The advertising is exploitative, to be sure; it is also a staple nowadays in even the more respected women’s magazines, not to mention the magazines that carry respectable authors in and around the photographs of naked ladies. The implied message of this film is that Laura Mars incites the killer to his slaughters by photographing women in a way that is guaranteed to bring out the sadistic tendencies in men. Again, the rating is R, the nudity is fleeting and not total, but the movie is patently arousing. It keeps its males fully clothed, its females frequently in a twilight zone between the acceptable and the pornographic.

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, one of the most delectable of the 1978 foreign films, sets up this premise: a beautiful lady (Carol Laure) is a dutiful but bored wife, properly submissive to her husband (Gérard Depardieu), but clearly uninterested in his advances. Hubby brings a second man (Patrick Dewaere) into the ménage, hoping to arouse his wife thereby, but winding up only with a good buddy, with whom he alternates nights abed with the wife. Only the accidental enterance into their lives of a horny, precocious 13-year-old boy satisfies the lady. As the kid says, when he makes his proposal to the lady one night in her room, “if you don’t let me, I may have to wait five, six years for another chance like this.” Good thinking, kid; and sure enough, he gets his way, she comes out of her shell, the husband and his pal are eased out of the picutre, and the older woman (say, 25) and her very lucky young lover live happily ever after. Of course the movie inspired vigorous protests from the morality-in-media crackpots: we did, after all, see lots of skin, and even worse, we had “child molesting.” Actually we had a child seducing an adult, but the facts need never intrude in such discussions, need they?

A couple of the soppier movies of 1978, designed, in fact, for the widest possible audience of all but infants, displayed a more recent ingredient of the mainstream cinema: a greater concentration on unclothed men than on unclothed women. In Oliver’s Story, the nauseating sequel to Love Story, Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) spends an inordinate amount of time lingering in the sheets, mooning; and in Ice Castles, the story of a great young skier who falls and suffers blindness, the athlete’s boyfriend, played by the likeliest current candidate for the Eternal Teenager, Robby Benson, is shown in one scene talking to his sweetheart on the ’phone. She’s fully clothed; he, for no reason other than the moviemakers’ desire to give the movie’s presumed audience what it wants, which is Robby undressed (sporting a beautiful California tan, which he somehow maintains throughout the Minnesota winter), is whispering sweet nothings to his beloved while modeling jockey shorts. The moment is a harmless interlude in a harmless tear-jerker, but it is there for one reason only, obvious to anyone who understands what the soft-core cinema is about.

Warriors, which became a cause célèbre in February and March owing to the riots, large and small, that occurred after various groups had seen the movie (and the few killings of young people by other young people who had just come from the movie), contains no total nudity at all, nor any language beyond that routinely heard in the hip-vulgar flicks of our time. But while the women function solely as props on which to hang a few silly sequences, the gang known as the Warriors is made up of a half-dozen exceptionally well-built young men whose gang costume is snug trousers and sleeveless leather vests worn, usually, over nothing but what Mother Nature gave them. The movie is by no means intended for the “gay” audience, any more than Ice Castles is so intended: it is aimed at youths. Why does it dwell so lovingly on appealing male flesh?

Midnight Express, one of the most popular and most respected movies of 1978, is set primarily in a hideous Turkish prison, and sets out to tell, in a somewhat expurgated version, the true story of a smartass young American, Billy Haves, who thought he could smuggle a large quantity of hashish out of Turkey and found that he could not. In his book of the same name, Hayes describes the love affair he shared with another inmate, a Swede. In the movie this is reduced to a brief exercise scene, a demure refusal in the showers, and then on to the more serious business of the film, which is graphic depiction of the horrors of a sadistic prison system and the idiocy of restrictive drug laws. But while the movie accurately reproduces Billy Hayes’s primary emotional relationship (to a woman), the flesh scenes are all male: first, Hayes (Brad Davis) from the rear, being interrogated by the Turkish authorities, and then the coy (and beautifully suggestive) gymnastic and near-coital shower scene with the Swede. Again, of course, an R rating. And again, a useful example of contemporary soft-core cinema.

In Praise of Older Women is a recent Canadian film starring Tom Berenson (the killer in Looking for Mr. Goodbar), who is extremely attractive but who, for some reason, suffers rejection from girls his own age, though older women (Karen Black, Susan Strasberg, Helen Shaver, Marilyn Lightstone, and others) rescue him from his loneliness and happily show him the nocturnal ropes. Berenson spends most of the movie naked, fleetingly frontally so, but most often just rippling from the waist up and humping overhead. The women are as often naked, but there are more of them and just the one of him, so we get some variety in the ladies, each of whom is made of a perfect pattern, and each of whom shows us everything. The movie is an inconsequential trifle, awkward in exposition, embarrassing in dialogue, rather slapdash in narrative, but designed obviously to give the viewer a couple hours of pretty images of very pretty people. Rated R—that in itself ample evidence that XX is reserved for depicted penetration or at least tumescence.

And along comes Hardcore, starring George C. Scott as a splendidly upright Midwestern furniture manufacturer, a Calvinist, a smugly content Upright Citizen, whose daughter goes off to California with a group of her friends for some sort of evangelical youth conference, and promptly disappears. A private detective (Peter Boyle) eventually reports back with a hard-core porno flick, starring guess who. Daddy embarks then on a valiant crusade to find his daughter, resorting even to disguises and ruses to worm his way into the porno world so that he can locate the missing 17-year-old daughter. A whore (Season Hubley) helps him, and in due course he comes upon his daughter, who screams that he’s never loved her enough, to which he protests that he loves her dearly, and to which she responds ok, I’ll come home with you daddy. Weep. Embrace. Curtain.

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“The Warriors has become a cause celebre because of the riots, large and small, and the few killings that occurred after various groups had seen the movie.”

In Hardcore, again rated R, we see only brief glimpses of what is presented to us as actual hard-core film. We see some naked men, fleetingly, we see the daughter topless and making faces, and then we see Scott’s head blanking out the rest of the scene. A powerful moment, indeed, and everyone who watches TV has seen the ad for it: “Oh My God, that’s my daughter!” At one point Scott, masquerading as a producer of hard-core flicks in order to find one of the men shown in the blue movie with his daughter, interviews a series of males. All but one remains clothed to our eyes, and the one who strips down part way is the one the father is looking for. The lad gets a nasty bashing by the outraged father, a little casual dose of queerbaiting is tossed in for good measure, and the story moves on.

Now what has been made is a soft-core movie which purports to show what it’s really like out there in the bad old world of hard-core movies, of the hard-core life. What comes most vividly across, however, is the holier-than-thou insufferability of the world of the father, one at least some young people might reasonably be expected to abhor, and from which, surely, an occasional refugee has found sanctuary of a sort in the diametric opposite life: that of the utterly depraved. The movie is in some ways a test one can give oneself: does it make the “clean-cut” or the “slimy” world seem more repulsive? It rather excludes the middle, a fallacy in logic, albeit a commonplace in pop culture. And even though the ending cops out, the bulk of the film is intelligently acted, intriguing visually, and probably fairly accurate in its descriptions of the sex shop-sex flick-sex emporium “scene” of many big American cities, in this case, Los Angeles and briefly, San Francisco. The ironies of this film are these: it serves more to disparage the world it ostensibly glorifies, that of the goodly Christian moralists, than that which it tries to portray in such hideous images—at least some viewers, this one included, saw it that way. And despite its title and its theme it is, in fact, far less arousing than all of the other movies mentioned above; at least they will arouse some large portion of their intended audiences. Finally, to whatever extent the sort of thing that may for purposes of discussion be considered “hard core” is fairly depicted here, “hard core” is at once less sexy than what is usually considered “soft core,” and obviously the latter is by now so easy to present to the American moviegoing public as accepted material, that those who rant about “hard core pornography” might well redirect their futile energies to the “ “soft core” arena, where, really, the big commercial films have hit pay dirt. Hard-core stuff will always be made, shown, enjoyed, and derided; but on any night in America more people are seeing a newly accepted soft-core film, or a soft-core movie scene in some widely popular movie, than will see all the hardcore movies produced in this country during the entire year. That ought to set the Birchers’ teeth on edge. It ought also to awaken in less paranoid folks’ heads a few interesting reflections. 

LR’s film critic is also critic-at-large on WNAC-TV (CBS) in Boston.