When Judge Russell Engbretson joined the Verdict staff, he little guessed we'd be sending him into the underbelly of the porn industry. But he's back with the tale...uh, that is, the story.
There was a time when adult entertainment meant going to the movies.
Pornographic movies were illegal to film in California until 1988, although perfectly legal to view (go figure). Porn movies from the '70s and most of the '80s—the period considered to be the golden age of film pornography by adult entertainment aficionados—were commonly shot in glorious 35mm, and boasted at least minimal plots. Desperately Seeking Seka is a documentary that investigates that time, mainly through interviews, in an easygoing, nonjudgmental manner.
Facts of the Case
Swedish journalist Stefan Nylén, who was smitten by the '80s porn star Seka during his hormone-saturated adolescence, embarks on a search in 2002 for the retired sex performer. With the help of directors Christian Hallman and Magnus Paulsson, Nylén conducts interviews with several movers and shakers in the hardcore sex film industry, especially those who had some acquaintance with Seka and whose history reached back to the late '70s. Kayla D. Keyser provides narration for the completed film. The filmmakers begin their interviews in Las Vegas, continue on to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, and fly to Chicago for the journey's end and their final interview with Seka herself (Dorthea Hundley Patton).
People who should avoid this DVD include the following: moralists seeking tormented confessions of regret from the interviewees; porn hounds looking for hot video action; kids; evangelicals; and others I undoubtedly missed, but you know who you are. However, knowledge of the porn industry or its stars is not a prerequisite to enjoying Desperately Seeking Seka. I'm not a pornography fan, so I didn't recognize any of these people except for John Holmes. I knew about him because he was the basis for Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights and the central character in the harrowing Wonderland, about the brutal L.A. murders in 1981 that Holmes (portrayed by Val Kilmer) was somehow involved in. I still found this film to be an entertaining ride.
There are many interesting undercurrents in this documentary, such as the strong affection that Nina Hartley displays for Seka, and the different approaches porn workers use to separate what they do in front of a camera from their personal relationships—that is, how they cope with jealousy. Also intriguing is the fact that Seka's parents were factory workers, and several of the interviewees appear to have pursued a porn career to escape the drudgery of a working-class life.
The filmmakers begin their documentary at the 2002 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. Adult Video News (AVN), the official trade association of the adult film industry, sponsors the expo. Nina Hartley (whose one mainstream role is Little Bill's wife in Boogie Nights) is the first person interviewed. She worked as a nude dancer to help pay her way through college, and eventually earned a four-year degree in nursing. She is intelligent, articulate, and completely aware of her unusual combination of personality traits—exhibitionism, bisexuality, and turbo-charged libido—that propelled her into hardcore movies. She imparts several interesting tidbits about the adult film industry. Her observations on why there are so few male porn stars, for instance, are humorous and insightful.
An extensive interview with Jane Hamilton (stage name Veronica Hart) is one of the highlights of the film. She is interviewed once in Las Vegas and again at the VGA Studio in Los Angeles. Hamilton started as a sex performer and is now a director and producer of adult films. She displays a deep affection and respect for Seka, as well as confessing to a few earthier sentiments that I can't report here. She views the industry pragmatically, as a business, and says there are good porn films as well as horribly degrading ones. Hamilton expresses nothing but gratitude to the adult film industry for the opportunities it has afforded her.
Representing the male perspective is an interview with distributor and producer Bob Burge; he compares the adult film industry of today with the industry in the 1970s and '80s and gives his opinions on the reasons for Seka's continuing popularity. There is also an interview with Al Goldstein, publisher of a well-known pornographic magazine that dates from 1968, who helps to balance the documentary by presenting the sleazier side of the porn industry. One of the directors in the commentary called Goldstein a "caricature of himself," and that sums him up quite well. His comments are entertaining in a repulsive sort of way, but of little value other than as an advertisement for himself and his (now defunct) magazine.
The meeting in Seka's home is a perfect capstone to the documentary. The interview begins as she serves the filmmakers home-cooked pasta marinara. One of her hobbies is cooking, and she says that she loves to eat, so her once lush figure has succumbed to middle-age spread. She says it was wonderful to leave behind the grueling regimen of daily exercise required to stay trim when she performed. She laughs when the interviewer asks about her acting: She says she was never an actress, never claimed to be one, and never aspired to be anything on screen other than a sex performer. She tells a story about turning down the part of Melanie Griffith's body double in director Brian De Palma's (yes, you guessed it) Body Double because Brian De Palma would not pay her what she considered a reasonable fee. She has several choice comments about mainstream directors who feel adult entertainers can be had on the cheap. She is also very clear on the distinction between sex performers and prostitutes, a distinction evidently lost on some mainstream movie producers and directors. Seka delivers a very informative and entertaining interview full of personal anecdotes, frank views concerning the pornography industry, and interesting gossip about many people in the business, past and present. Her comments are forthright, but never spiteful or mean-spirited.
If you enjoy her commentary, there is more to hear—plenty more—in the extended and deleted scenes. In fact, the extra material weighs in at three hours, not including the commentary track. The extras include outtakes, production notes, a Seka filmography, a photo gallery, publicity material, and notes on the filmmakers. It's fairly standard fare, but nicely presented and informative. However, the really meaty portion of extras is contained in the deleted scenes, deleted interviews, and extended interviews. The deleted scenes and interviews restore material cut from the original 83-minute version of Desperately Seeking Seka, about half an hour of interviews and film clips. You can view them all at once or choose individual interviews or scenes. Eight of the interviews feature Seka on various topics, including Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, John Leslie, her mainstream career, drugs, fans and fame, the club magazine, and individuality.
There are nine interviews in the extended interviews section, and they clock in at 132 minutes. Two of the interviewees—Scott Taylor and John Leslie—were not included in the finished documentary. The remaining interviews are with Seka, Al Goldstein, Peter North, Jane Hamilton, Nina Hartley, Serenity, and Ashlyn Gere. There is some compelling material here. It's sometimes tacky or vulgar, often funny, occasionally downright crude, but if you have read this far, I'm sure you are man or woman enough to handle all those naughty bits (so to speak).
If you still want more, there is a laid-back commentary from directors Christian Hallman and Magnus Paulsson, delivered in either Swedish or English. One thing they mention is the huge job of tracking down all the films they needed clips from, and then obtaining rights to include the clips in the documentary. They spent a lot of time putting the film together and doing the final edit, often working on the documentary project in between their commercial commitments.
Though this documentary was shot on a shoestring budget, the picture is decent enough. It's par for the course for a low-budget documentary. The sound is remarkably clear, considering a few of the environments they had to shoot in, such as the AVN Expo or an office with fax machines running in the background. Picture and sound are serviceable, and for this kind of film, that is all that's needed. With its throbbing bass, chick-a-boom guitar, horns, and Ian Anderson–style flute, Antonio Tublén's brief film score provides a fetching recreation of late 1970s and early '80s pop music.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The interview with Serenity plays too much like an advertisement for her sex toy business. According to the commentary, the directors had originally planned on using her segment after the end credits as a sort of bonus, but they decided her scene worked better cut up and interspersed throughout the movie. Her appearances were passably entertaining, but there is other deleted material that I believe would have better served the film.
Since Nina Hartley mentions that some porn stars hate sex, a more rounded documentary might have included an interview or two with disaffected porn workers. That's a weak complaint, though, because the directors specifically state that their intent was to compare the "golden age" of porn to today's more sexually graphic, non-story-based film experience. The argument that the older movies were story driven is somewhat undercut by excerpts from classic porn movies such as Dracula Sucks and Ultraflesh. They are hilariously inept and silly. Yet there is a strangely endearing quality present in those clips, a sense of fun not present in the raw, cut-to-the-chase style of modern porn films.
One enjoyable aspect of the film is its presentation of trivia that appears as pop-up comments throughout the documentary. For instance, we learn that in 2001 there were 665 million adult film rentals in the U.S. alone; between 3,000 and 5,000 people work in the adult entertainment business in just the San Fernando Valley; in the mid-1980s there were about 1,500 adult films produced annually, and by the year 2001 that number had climbed to 3,000 films.
Beyond the trivia, though, is (dare I say it? What the hell) an oral history of the pornographic film industry that has been captured while these people are still here to tell their tales. There is a strong, but mostly hidden, intersection between the porn film industry and the mainstream film industry of Hollywood, and a small portion of that hidden history is revealed in this documentary. Also, there is an abundance of archival material here for future film scholars and lovers of film history in general. The finished film is a true labor of love, and it shows.
We find the accused not guilty, despite lewd and lascivious behavior and flagrant public exposure. The plaintiff is herewith advised to remove his bluenose from the defendants' business.
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