[30 March 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Swedish journalist Stefan Nylén found a hardcore holy grail in Linda Grasser, a.k.a. Seka. The blond bombshell of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s became one of the adult industry’s most recognizable superstars. Seka was a rarity in the world of pornography, making the leap from big screen stardom to small screen sensation when video more or less wiped out the XXX film business.
Incidentally, she also made an impact on the adolescent Nylén. Recently, he made it his goal as a reporter and fan to track down the now-retired diva, to learn all he could about why she entered the business. The result is a mesmerizing documentary called Desperately Seeking Seka. New to DVD from that bastion of free speech, the Disinformation Company, this road pic, directed by Nylén’s friends Magnus Paulsson and Christian Hallman, is less sensational than you might anticipate. Indeed, it offers a surprisingly tame look at pornography—then and now.
As Nylén travels from Stockholm to Las Vegas (to attend the annual Adult Video News Convention) and then onto the San Fernando Valley (home base for almost all pornography production companies), he interviews several of the industry’s past and present players, from Peter North to Randy West. Both actress-turned-filmmaker Jane Hamilton and Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein lament the loss of an era when hardcore had stories and characters and production values. Others bewail the introduction of VHS (and now DVD), as it deluges the public with an overwhelming amount of “awful” product. Time and time again, Nylén’s subjects carp about the business that still pays their bills, nostalgic for the good old days.
When Paulsson and Hallman stick with this story, Desperately Seeking Seka is quite enthralling. It’s refreshing to hear old-timers knock the “new” aesthetic of modern erotica. And clips from classic porn films function as bumpers between ideas and conversations. The problem is, this comparison is not the film’s ostensible point. It’s supposed to all be about Seka, Nylén’s white-haired honey.
But really, Desperately Seeking Seka is less about her than the idea of her, what she represented all those years ago, and what that meant in the grand scheme of porn’s move into the mainstream. And so, Seka herself is kind of a letdown. When viewed through the scrim of old film footage, she’s a vision of vital, smoldering sexuality (even with her flat, Midwestern bleat). In 2002, a few pounds puffier and fully acclimated to life as a sort of Bible belt battleaxe, she’s a nice sharp pin ready to pop the balloon of ballyhoo surrounding her mythology.
Occasionally coming across like a long-haul trucker sharing a few stories about her past, this once dazzling icon of a burgeoning, billion dollar dynasty now seems tired.
For the most part, Seka tells the same old cautionary tales we’ve heard before. She experienced an assault by an unethical director. She ended up with a suitcase pimp (read: overly obsessed boyfriend) who made her life on and off camera eventually unbearable. She enjoyed hardcore performing and never once thought of breaking into the mainstream (“I’m not an actress,” the legend chimes over and over again). As she describes the stalker who wrote her heartfelt epistles filled with love/hate histrionics, or mourns the fact that age and agility led to her untimely exit from porn, we feel both relieved and a little ripped off by the non-story here.
Seka claims to have gotten into the business when she was invited to do a photo shoot for a distributor whose product was carried by the adult bookstores she ran (now there‘s a story). She had no drug habit, no failed marriages or onscreen meltdowns. This is a woman who traded on her incredible good looks to make a megaton name for herself in an insular world, and that’s about it. Once 83 minutes long, the movie on DVD has been further pared down to 58, and even then, the Seka material only takes up about half the running time (and after watching all the deleted and bonus footage cut from the film, you realize it was only about a 1/3 to begin with). The Swedes have such a sensational story here—the death of actual filmmaking in the adult industry—that the Seka saga seems like a spoiler.
While no one expects an hour-long look at a once famous XXX film star to cover the entire course of pornography (the mind boggles at what a Ken Burns could cook up, given the time, money, and creative freedom to examine the history of pornography in America), one does hope that Seka’s story will somehow connect to or mirror the documentary’s other elements. While all interviewees admire her, they’ve also moved on, accepting the industry’s current “wham-bam, thank you, ma’am” parameters.
Perhaps the most revealing comments on the industry come from Seka herself, when she argues there is no “individuality” left in porn. In her time, she argues, everyone looked different. Now, every adult film star is a fake-titted bimbette, subscribing to a formulaic look. Ironically, most of these misses are trying to look like Seka or Jenna Jameson. Seka’s legacy is written across the face and features of every doe-eyed, platinum-tressed actress working in the business today. While she may no longer rule the risqué roost, there is still a lot of Seka in the world of smut.