March 11, 2013

Documenting Porn's Path to Becoming Mainstream

I've already gone down a less-virtuous trail when I addressed drinking in my post entitled "The Bitter Story of How America's Beer Was Destroyed (or was it?)" (or see http://goo.gl/5nI31) so today's topic fits right in with that general direction.

Today, I'm discussing several serious documentaries, including perhaps most notably, 2005's very successful movie "Inside Deep Throat" (see the "official site" at http://goo.gl/Uc881) from Universal Pictures by Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer.  The other was a 2002 movie in the same genre about the pursuit of the former porn "actress" known as Seka (it seems a bit odd to call having sex on camera "acting", but I guess if the people performing these acts aren't exactly attracted to one another, it's acting) entitled "Desperately Seeking Seka" (obviously the filmmakers saw one of Madonna's only hit films from the 1980s "Desperately Seeking Susan" and liked the title).  Both films fill a historical void in a part of American pop culture that some would prefer not be known about, but deserves to be told.

The trailer for the R-Rated version of "Inside Deep Throat" is below, or watch it by visiting http://youtu.be/FygIyEdRF4A:



Yes, "Inside Deep Throat" and "Desperately Seeking Seka" were both rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), notably for explicit sexual content (namely, explicit sexual excerpts from the original films), but "Inside Deep Throat" also happened to be the first NC-17 film deemed appropriate enough to show on HBO because it was not just about salacious sex, but told a story about how that groundbreaking, 1972 film which the U.S. Government didn't want Americans to see (but many, many saw it anyway) changed the U.S. cultural landscape permanently.  That film not only generated a lot of buzz, but also got some justifiable critical acclaim for it's role in documenting a darker side of American pop culture.  It's definitely worth a look if you haven't already seen it, as it's probably a tad more intellectual and mainstream than "Desperately Seeking Seka", but not by much, and only because the filmmaker had mainstream distributors at Universal behind it.

On the other hand, "Desperately Seeking Seka" documents a Swedish journalist Stefan Nylén along with his collaborators Christian Hallman and Mangus Paulsson in their search for an elusive former porn star, as they also offer a glimpse of the American porn industry of the day just as it was becoming mainstream, by talking to a number of people who knew and worked with Seka when she was one of porn's biggest stars.  Some critics were let down at the real Seka, who was a native from Virginia and got into porn mainly because she worked in a porn shop.  However, she really made the film worth watching, but not for the reason you might suspect.

As one writer wrote, "When viewed through old film footage, Seka is a vision of vital, smoldering sexuality."  In 2002 (then age 47) when the filmmakers interviewed her, "... she was puffier" and fully acclimated to her new life, which, in the words of Pop Matters reviewer Bill Gibron (see http://bit.ly/UdtPeE).  The reviewer described her "as a sort of Bible belt battleaxe" then living in Chicago, adding "she's a nice sharp pin ready to pop the balloon of ballyhoo surrounding her mythology."  Now, in the film, there was no denying her weight.  But to call her a Bible belt battleaxe was a bit unfair.  She never denied her role in the industry, nor did she try to run from it, unlike Linda Lovelace.

History of the Darker Side of American Pop Culture

In 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on, but the 1960s were clearly over, bringing with it the death of the hippie utopian dream.  Making matters worse, President Nixon (a Republican) was in power.  The religious right was gathering behind him and wanted Nixon's support to advance it's own socially-conservative agenda.  The 1960s revolt was seen by some as an act worthy of punishment – and it seemed that America's movement in that direction was going to result in McCarthyism-styled lock-down.

Then, a little movie called "Deep Throat" was made, with the help of some borrowed mob-money, for about $25,000, and that little film went on to earn $600 million, unprecedented in success and that success may never again be replicated.  That meant that the mob wanted more from it's investment – and suddenly, porn theaters were getting torched (porn theaters were literally being firebombed by the mob).  Interestingly, the male lead in the film was replaced at the last minute by production assistant whom the filmmakers gave the screen name Harry Reems.  For his role, Mr. Reems was prosecuted for obscenity under America's byzantine federal legal system; and Linda Lovelace was left to slowly destroy herself. The film went on to get shut down in a number of cities by court-order; only to pop up in nearby towns (much like the Whac-A-Mole arcade game where moles pop up from their holes and players use a mallet to force the moles back into their holes, only to see another mole pop up someplace else).

There were also a few other films from the same era sometimes called "The Golden Age of Porn", including the "The Devil in Miss Jones" and "Behind the Green Door", and later, "Debbie Does Dallas", but we all know that even the most successful porn stars don't work forever.

While "Inside Deep Throat" was a good picture, my main gripe about that film was that the filmmakers kind of depicted Linda Lovelace (nee Linda Boreman) as a victim of a dark world of people taking advantage of her, and she did later speak out about her experience, which opponents used to try and criminalize pornography.  Was she a victim of a mob-produced and merchandised film?  Maybe, but she was also an adult who had to live with her own decisions, and to a large extent, she was just as manipulated by those who wanted to use her for their own cause of outlawing porn.  Just because "Deep Throat" made a ton of money and she didn't doesn't mean she was innocent.  She gave fellatio on camera and she WAS paid for her role.  Where it gets a bit muddy is that the film "Deep Throat" did far better than anyone imagined.

Harry Reems (born as Herbert Streicher) was also a victim to some extent, having been arrested on a number of federal charges of conspiracy to distribute obscenity across state lines, but after many lengthy (and costly) legal battles, thanks to attorney Alan Dershowitz and funding from the media industry, he was later vindicated.  But after losing out on more legitimate acting roles including roles in Broadway shows like "Grease", he spiralled into drug abuse like so many others.  In 1989, then married and converted to Christianity, unlike some, he told an interviewer that he doesn't proclaim himself to be "born again" or "evangelical", instead saying "I am not religious. I'm spiritual, 100%." He also does not try to run and hide from his past role and still uses the name Harry Reems, even though the producers of "Deep Throat" gave him that screen name.

"Deep Throat" was such an important movie even if it wasn't all that entertaining.  "Deep Throat" became a huge hit in the early 1970s.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s played a huge role in getting mainstream audiences to see the film, with including everyone from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy-Onasis to Martin Scorsese, Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson and Johnny Carson, most having admitted to having seen the film in an actual theater.  Even stuffy Barbara Walters mentions having seen "Deep Throat" in her own autobiography, "Audition: A Memoir".  You might call it the democratization of porno.  Critics called it the mainstreaming of smut.

The reality is a bit more complicated.

Yes, Linda Lovelace was a naïve young girl taken to Florida to film a dirty movie, which is why I think "Desperately Seeking Seka" was so much more enjoyable as a documentary.  Seka never saw herself as a victim, she knew exactly what she was doing and she never made any apologies whatsoever for her career, saying that she enjoyed her work and would do it all over again if she were younger.  By comparison, although now-deceased Linda Lovelace claimed to have been victimized by her role in "Deep Throat", the reality was that she was manipulated by both the adult film industry (and it's mafia backers), as well as those seeking to criminalize it.

The truth is most likely somewhere in between those extremes.

With that as a historical backdrop, the filmmakers behind "Inside Deep Throat" understood that depicting that context was important, hence the film tells the story of the little porno that changed the world.  Of course, the irony is that "Deep Throat" went on to be much more than it ever wanted to be.

The documentary let's you avoid having to watch the original film, although you do get to see the [in]famous act in archival footage, hence it was given the NCAA's "NC-17" rating, although an R-rated version of that movie was also distributed by Universal sans the sex scenes from the original.

But the story told in the film "Inside Deep Throat" is really kind of a bummer.  The other documentary in the same genre which I already noted called "Desperately Seeking Seka" came out around the same time but paints a decidedly more positive story.

Technology's Role

By the 1980s, following the advent of the video cassette recorder (VCR) as a mass market, must-have electronic device, pornography evolved from something that was shown only in seedy movie theaters in red light districts with unsavory patrons to something that was consumed at home.  Thanks to video (followed by the Internet), many of those once-dicey areas would disappear, ranging from what used to be known as Boston's "Combat Zone" near downtown crossing (see http://goo.gl/TyqZa), Times Square in New York prior to its gentrification and subsequent conversion to what could best be described as a shopping mall [complete with it's own "Forever 21" store which now sits right next to the location where "Deep Throat" once showed], the 400 block of East Baltimore Street in Baltimore, the old North Loop in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, what was left of San Antonio's once infamous "Sporting District" as the biggest such district in Texas, the old Sunset Boulevard in LA which has also largely been gentrified, to San Francisco's Tenderloin district which persists, although it gets progressively smaller (see http://goo.gl/pqeod) all the time as the activities which once thrived in the area increasingly move elsewhere, notably online, with classified ad giant Craig's List also being based in San Francisco.

But with the advent of home video, porn moved from those red light districts to home viewing, a trend that's only accelerated with the Internet (hence the song "The Internet is for Porn" (http://youtu.be/T-TA57L0kuc) from the Broadway musical "Avenue Q").  As a side note, for those readers who might be curious about the actual content shown back in those days, a Seattle-based company known as "Something Weird Video" (http://www.somethingweird.com/) has a rather extensive collection of vintage videos ranging from everything from classic stag films, burlesque, "classic" porn from the 1970s, to vintage children's toy ads which aired on TV during the 1950s and 1960s which might be worth exploring.

In any event, anyone who saw any porn during the 1980s (or as critics like to claim, were corrupted by it) has likely heard of some of the era's biggest "actresses", including rival stars Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn, Veronica Hart, and Nina Hartley as well as porn pioneer Al Goldstein (who published a magazine called "Screw" back in the day).  As I mentioned, one of the biggest stars in adult films during that era was an actress with the stage name of "Seka" (nee Dorothea Patton).  Seka was a hot, platinum blonde and appeared in dozens of very successful movies for Swedish Erotica (which include "Dracula Sucks", "Blondes Have More Fun", "Between the Sheets", "Blonde Heat", "Inside Seka", "Seka's Fantasies" and "Turbo Sex" to name a few).

During the early 1990s, Seka left the adult film business and basically dropped out of sight.

Seka Leaves Porn … For A While

Seka also knew when her time on-screen was over, and she did bow out gracefully and for perfectly valid reasons, unlike many mainstream actresses who seem to hold on well past their prime.  She was indeed a bit heavier in the documentary, but in 2005, she'd moved from Chicago to Kansas City (see her interview with the Pitch, an alternative weekly newspaper in the Kansas City [Missouri] area at http://bit.ly/WsPGRY), and in 2006, she appeared at at the AVN [Adult Video News] awards in Las Vegas looking much better (the "puffiness" had disappeared!), and she'd returned to porn at age 52, but she said mostly in response to requests from her fans, and where else was she doing it?

Online.

Seka's official website, for the record, can be found at http://www.seka.com/.

She told the Pitch she'd left the porn business because wasn't getting paid what she wanted to get paid to do pornographic movies, and she said she wasn't going to do it for nothing, adding "I was being paid a lot more [than the average performer], but it's not enough."  But she also admits to using Photoshop on her website!

However, in 2007, the Pitch did ask if she had plans to retire, asking if she wasn't pushing things at age 52, to which she responded: "I don't think I'm pushing it now. Of course, there's going to be a time when I can't do it. I've got a mirror that I see myself in every morning. Will I ever be out of the business completely? I doubt it."

But notice how carefully she worded her response.

This woman is not naïve enough to think that buyers will be lining up for her in geriatric porn.  Her response suggests she'll likely stick around in some capacity, but that doesn't mean she'll necessarily be on-screen.  She was already running her own website (designed by some people in Colorado) on her own terms (meaning she was pocketing virtually everything), and that was 5 years ago, but she's not likely to be looking much younger today.  Everyone ages, even porn stars, and the market for 55 or 60 year old stars is likely not that big, although with the Baby Boom now firmly senior citizens and more entering that age group every day, one never knows!

Not too long after I posted this, on October 20, 2013, The Rialto Report, which is a blog dedicated to chronicling the birth of the porn industry in NYC during the 1970s and 1980s named after the Rialto Theatre, which was once New York's oldest continually operating porn theater until it was torn down in 2002 for a new development.  In any event, The Rialto also had a fascinating and interesting podcast with the actress known as Seka at http://bit.ly/1Q4bnnn, where you can listen for free and she talks all about her life, how she got into the business of porn and more.  Incidentally, for people who follows Seka on social media have heard the star mention she is thinking about retiring in Panama, where money goes much further, but details have been few.

Major Porn Star's Thoughts on How Porn Has Evolved

She also had some interesting thoughts on what porn industry had become.

Keep in mind, she actually LIKED what she was doing back in the late 1970s and 1980s, but she also felt that porn had become something where people in the movies are now viewed as disposable commodities whose careers now last a few years.  She told them "The adult industry is a billion-dollar-a-year business, and they go through men and women like it's nothing. The longevity is maybe three years. And I've been in for 30."

In all, I was impressed with how grounded this woman is, and how she seems to be realistic about what the porn industry has become.  As a veteran in an industry known for destroying people, she also has a unique perspective.

Not everyone celebrates what Seka does for a living, and I do think some people would prefer to take the U.S. to a place where the Government can mandate what people do in their bedrooms, while letting businesses get away with murder and getting a tax break from that same government for doing it, but it's always interesting to do, as Lou Reed sang in his 1972 song in which he sings rather unapologetically "Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side"! (listen below, or buy the tune at https://youtu.be/oG6fayQBm9w)

Some of the porn pioneers of like Seka couldn't agree more, but weren't willing to do it for free.

Today, porn buyers (even older buyers) don't want to see fellow geriatrics having sex, they usually want to see vital 20-to-30-somethings, so middle-aged porn stars tend to disappear, sometimes in a state of self-destruction fueled by drug and alcohol addiction (as depicted in the mainstream film "Boogie Nights") and those stories are a dime a dozen.  However, others have gone on to appear in reality TV shows (ranging from Ron Jeremy, Traci Lords, Jenna Jameson to Colton Ford), but the alternative is that they go on to live seemingly "normal" lives.

Other Movies in the Genre

"Inside Deep Throat" and "Desperately Seeking Seka" weren't the only films in this genre, but they were among the better films.  There were a few others, including "Pornstar - The Legend Of Ron Jeremy" from 2001, and an even earlier film from 1981 named "Exhausted: John C. Holmes, the Real Story".  Neither of those movies are films one can learn much from unless they want to know about the personal lives of those actors, and let's face it, they really weren't all that interesting.  By comparison, "Inside Deep Throat" and "Desperately Seeking Seka" are a bit more intellectual, containing history of porn films' impact on American culture and porno going mainstream, but paint two very different pictures of the actresses involved.  In my opinion, Seka was the more enjoyable of the two films, although Linda Lovelace passed away, hence we must hear about her and her career from third-parties, there's no doubt she's portrayed as a victim of a corrupt industry.  Maybe she was victimized, but we shouldn't overlook the fact that opponents of pornography also used her, too.

In the end, that's why I found "Desperately Seeking Seka" the more enjoyable of these two documentaries, but both fill an important void in American pop culture history.

Author P.S., August 9, 2013:  NPR's "The Takeaway" featured a nice overview of the new American biographical film about the original porn star, Linda Lovelace. The film was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, written by Andy Bellin and stars Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Adam Brody and Juno Temple.  The story reflects her story.  We know she never set out to be a star, but her back story was much more complicated, with an abusive husband (and self-declared manager) named Chuck Traynor, who used all means possible to persuade her to comply with his demands.  Listen to that story by visiting http://bit.ly/2bUCbsb.

Author P.S., January 11, 2016:  The Rialto Report, a blog that chronicles the history of the NYC porn industry in its early years (including the blockbuster Deep Throat which grossed more than any film in history, which was actually filmed in South Florida), has an interesting report [visit http://bit.ly/20PzXtK for the actual post] about that film which takes viewers through that movie and the various locations in South Florida (or what replaced them) which was kind of interesting.  Naturally, in the years that followed, much has changed, but the locations remain even if the original buildings are now history.

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