The story of X may have been three years early, but the video revolution — driven, as all technology is, by sex — changed the world of pornography, moving it from the fleshpots of 42nd Street and dirty book stores into suburban living rooms. In 1982, there was still the glimmer of hope that the Golden Age of Porn — that starts with Bill Osco’s Mona and ends sometime around 1984 or so with The Dark Brothers’ 1984 mind-twisting New Wave Hookers — would find new life, better budgets and a more appreciative audience.
Yet videotape would open up adult for everyone and by the 90s, few films had a storyline, instead given to gonzo explorations of “can you top this” madness with few exceptions, such as the output of John Stagliano (who may have popularized gonzo, but could also create a coherent and interesting narrative film like Buda), the glossy Michael Ninn glamour movies, Andrew Blake’s Night Trips, Phillip Mond’s Zazel, John Leslie’s Chameleons and Curse of the Cat Woman, the aforementioned Dark Brothers and ridiculous parodies of existing films.
Yet in 1982, a movie could be made that transcends its adult origins and uses them to make you as the viewer complicit in the action on screen.
Stephen Sayadian only made seven adult films (this film, as well as two sequels to Nightdreams, two Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West and two Party Doll-a-Go-Go films which take the staccato editing and weird dialogue to its absurd limit on sets that had to cost absolutely nothing yet with a cast of all-stars such as Raven, Madison Stone, Patricia Kennedy, Bionca, Jeanna Fine, Nikki Wilde and Tianna Collins and yes, I wrote that from memory) as well as the somewhat spiritual sequel — or at least next steo — to this movie, the mainstream — yet still delightfully insane — Dr. Caligari. A veteran of advertising and design — he worked on the posters for The Fog, The Funhouse, Ms. 45 and Dressed To Kill which took inspiration from the iconic The Graduate poser — Sayadian used the alter ego of Rinse Dream to make his films, much as Gregory Dark would adopt a new name for his porn changing efforts.
The script — yes, adult movies can have a script — was written by Herbert W. Day, who is really Pittsburgh native Jerry Stahl, the son of a coal miner who later became Pennsylvania attorney general and a federal judge. He found that he had a talent for writing short stories, was the humor editor for Hustler and also discovered a love of hardcore drugs. To fuel that, he started writing for TV shows like Moonlighting, Twin Peaks, Thirtysomething, Northern Exposure and, perhaps most intriguingly, ALF. He’s also written ten episodes of CSI which have been the most aberrant examples of that show to middle America, which is wild as he introduced viewers of the grandparent network CBS to furries, infantilism, a measured story about transgendered people and introduced Lady Heather, the potential bad girl love interest of lead Gil Grissom, who was played by Return of the Living Dead III star Melinda Clarke. His autobiographical novel Permanent Midnight was a success and made into a movie starring Ben Stiller.
Years after a nuclear war, nearly every survivor is a Negative, often shambling zombie-like humans who become vomitous if they attempt to copulate. To attempt any hope at remembering what human contact was like, they come to Café Flesh, a place where Positives make love while they watch, often engaging in surrealist scenes that defy the ability of the viewer to become titillated.
That’s the point. Where the goal of nearly all pornography is to get the viewer off, Cafe Flésh casts you as a Negative, stuck at home with no one next to you, as far from true warmth and, well, flesh as the puking crowd — Richard Beltzer is one of them — gathered to watch and watch and watch.
It also feels like the vaudevillian stage of the men’s club gone to Hell, as Max Melodramatic (Andy Nichols, who also played the doctor in Nightdreams) introduces live sex acts with people dressed as rats or milkmen surrounded by men dressed as demonic babies. Even the typical jerk-off scenario of a female oil tycoon lies with a gigantic pencil while her secretary repeatedly intones, “Do you want me to type a memo?”
Is the film making light of the fact that male performers had often become interchangeable, their faces are obscured for most of the movie?
Angel (Marie Sharp) came from Wyoming, where they found that she was Positive and she’s been forced into the slavery of the club, performing with each man that they bring on stage. However, one of the audience members, Lana (Michele Bauer, using her Pia Snow name here before she would go on to appear in so many horror movies like Demonwarp, Evil Toons, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Jess Franco’s Lust for Frankenstein and Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula In Eigtht Legs to Love You) has been keeping have Positive diagnosis a secret as she doesn’t want to hurt her boyfriend Nick. Yet as she watches the famous Positive Johnny Rico (Kevin James, who speaking of nuclear war is also in the porn parody Dr. Strange Sex) — someone liked Robert Heinlein — go through his motions with Angel, her frustrations take hold and she takes the stage.
Screen Slate has an amazing article that details the music of this movie, which Sayadian describes as “…like an Elmer Bernstein score from the ’50s, only played with the most modern synthesizers available at the time. I thought: old vibe, new technology.” There’s a lot to learn about composer Mitchell Froom — and the rest of the film’s creators — at that site.
By the way — Sayadian didn’t direct Rockwell’s “Someone’s Watching Me” video. That would be Francis Delia, who directed Nightdreams as F.X. Pope. Seeing as how Stahl and Sayadian wrote that movie, I can see how some may make the mistake. Delia was a producer on this film as well as the director of photography.
Café Flesh isn’t for someone who is looking to get off. I can’t even imagine those that were confronted by it in adult theaters, as it punches you in the face with its AIDS allegory while daring you to find a single erotic thing in it. Strangely enough, I’d always heard that an R-rated edit was made so that mainstream audiences would see it at midnight shows, but Sayadian stated — in the above linked Screen Slate piece — that the movie was an “R-rated movie, funded by X-rated people” and that he was forced to add the sex scenes by the money men behind the budget.
He said, “I got financing from three guys — two were hardcore producers and one was a Harvard business grad who somehow got lost in the porno world.” After adding in the adult scenes, he told Froom, “I want you to extend some of these pieces because we may have to put porn in there. And all I can say is, I want the music to be as disturbing as possible. I don’t want it to be hot or sexy or anything like that.”
That said, the moans of joy that came from this movie show up in a place that many have heard them, White Zombie’s Blade Runner quoting — “Yeah I am the nexus one I want more life” — “More Human than Human.”