“Café Flesh”: Rinse Dream’s ’80s Postmodern Parable Porn Flick

By on March 19, 2015

We thought we’d take a look back at one of the most bizarre and interesting porn films to come out of the early ’80s, Café Flesh, a prescient post-apocalyptic dystopian sex-satire, directed by someone named Rinse Dream (more about that later), that blends both hardcore pornography — yes, actual X-rated penetrating stuff — with performance art.

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Imagine a perverted twist on a popular ’80s cult subgenre: post-apocalyptic movies like the Mad Max trilogy, Escape from New York, Blade Runner or many other cult and/or mainstream classics (Mad Max had been released three years earlier, but Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released to theaters in the U.S. on June 25, 1982). Now imagine if those films had graphic sex scenes that were highly stylized and choreographed, and further imagine some kind mutant universe spinning off of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — that’s Café Flesh.

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The premise, as outlined in the opening narration, paints this as being the usual sort of post-apocalyptic bleak future world. We’re five years removed from some kind of nuclear apocalpyse, after the fallout from a “Nuclear Kiss” has rendered 99% of the population unable to have sex, which, one presumes, means they are also sterile. They are known as Sex Negatives, and what this means is that no matter how much they want to have sex, they are physically sickened by any sort of intimate contact. To them, even touching another is enough to become violently ill. In addition to being impotent, they seem rather physiologically disinclined to having sex with their significant others.

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In this bleak, grit-filled existence, the survivors appear to be merely going through the motions of living, but the government, an authoritarian police state, coerces those who are Sex Positive to perform strange and explicit carnal acts, which are dressed up like performance art pieces in the film, for audiences of Sex Negatives, perhaps in order to keep them satisfied with their lives on same level. In fact, they are more than coerced — they are required by law to have sex, which brings us to the locale of all this sordid stuff, a notorious sex club, located off a dingy back alley entrance: Café Flesh.

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The club itself — there are no exterior scenes in the film, giving it a suffocating, theatrical feeling — is a kind of pretentious psychotropic art house. Virtually the entire movie takes place inside the titular club where jaded patrons sit, watching impotently, while the various sex vignettes unfold. The Positives don’t seem particularly happy about being forced to perform in sex shows as entertainment for the Negs, and some of the Positives try to hide from the authorities. “I’m a virgin,” shouts one woman as she’s being pulled away by undercover agents.

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Most of them, however, are easily co-opted with the lure of fame and wealth, and they are the only ones able to satisfy their own desires, and are encouraged to do so, so they have that to hold over the much larger majority, who, by the way, look like they carry the effects of an unhealthy environment, with gray skin, purulent burns and radiation sores on their faces.

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Our protagonists are a Sex Negative couple, Nick (Paul McGibboney, in his only acting role) and Lana (Michelle Bauer, though she was billed as Pia Snow), and they are addicted to going to the nightly shows at Café Flesh. But they are growing apart. Their home life is pretty dire. Life in this post-apocalyptic world seems to suck, frankly. We can see how some kind of acid rain is pouring down from a dark sky, slashing against the windows. We see moke when a door is opened to the outside.

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Nick, who at the beginning of the film is becoming increasingly frustrated with not being able to fuck his girl, keeps trying but he gets violently sick. Lana has to fake being ill though, because, unbeknownst to Nick, she’s actually a Sex Positive who has stuck with him out of love, but her hidden lust is starting to get in the way. Meanwhile, Lana gets more and more turned on by the spectacle onstage at Café Flesh. There’s a wonderful slow-motion scene where she realizes that she must follow her desire, which takes her straight to the stage, is shot like something straight out of an Italian horror film, like Suspiria

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The cigarette-wielding Master of Ceremonies — clearly modeled after Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret, but taken to colorful extremes — is Max Melodramatic (played by the wonderful Andrew Nichols), and he’s probably the best character in the film.

“Good evening mutants and mutettes, and welcome to Café Flesh…”

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He not only emcees the proceedings, he sometimes appears in some of the vignettes. He’s the voice of the film, whether he’s playing it quiet and disgusted, or flipping off the audience, while wearing a a bonnet and a dress while hanging from a swing. His intermissions seem to be addressed not only to the audience at the Café Flesh fuck club, but to the audience watching the proceedings at home (!).

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And what can we say about the actual sex? Well, it’s not very sexy. This is really art-house stuff, with performance-art pieces set up like little stage performances that are truly more surreal and strange than they are titillating.

In the first of these, for instance, a bored, knitting housewife is sitting in a recliner. Suddenly, from out of the darkness, she is surprised by a milkman in a rat costume — a Sex Positive porn dude in a rat-face mask and long tail — who comes in, carrying milk, and then he proceeds to dance around and seduce her until he starts with the sexy stuff. All the while, in the background, we see gaudily made-up grown men in high chairs, dressed up to look like babies, who look on at Mom getting banged and they bang at their feeding trays with what looks to be over-sized bones. Why? Dunno! While this plays out for the audience, who we see intercut with this action, moaning and awe-ing for the most part, the man babies keep beating the bones as if they’re crying out for more food. Fucking strange!

Another vignette seems to feature an executive with a giant pencil for a head doing it doggy-style with his secretary. Feeling turned on yet?

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As for Mr. Rinse Dream himself, director Stephen Sayadian has had an interesting career trajectory which has also included a stint Larry Flynt Publications, at Hustler magazine, starting back in their mid-70s heyday, working as a Creative Director. He was in charge of humor and advertising, a job that involved coming up with the creative ad copy and design for the ads hawking Flynt’s novelty sex products. “When you looked at the advertising, you wouldn’t know if it was a parody or it was real,” Sayadian said, during one interview about ten years ago, about the work he was doing.

He ended up working in a number of areas, in both film and print mediums, writing, producing, directing, and art-related fields, like production design, and working as a print art director, and he’s collaborated on numerous motion-picture one-sheets and posters including films directed by Brian De Palma, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. He’s designed and directed for network television, MTV and worked on theatrical stage productions.

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Last summer, here in Los Angeles, the Cinefamily devoted a few nights to screening the films of Stephen Sayadian, during a celebration called Sexperiments: A Collection Of Turned-On Cinema. Here’s what they had to say about the director:

“Stephen Sayadian is a born provocateur. A gregarious storyteller. A genre unto himself. The genre he created, dominated and left behind could best be described as surrealist nightmare art-porn. But funny. With his twin early-’80s epics Nightdreams and Café Flesh created under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream”, Sayadian lifted from experimental theatre (where he has also worked extensively), silent cinema and absurdist comedy to create X-rated films that are hallucinations that stick with you.” (Twitch Film)

We’re very proud to welcome Stephen in-person for a boffo night of conversation spanning his entire career, from his earliest days as a creative director in the Hustler Magazine Empire, to artist behind some of the most iconic ‘80s movie poster art (Dressed To Kill, Body Double), to visionary maker of the most unusual adult cinema ever lensed in 35mm. Then, it’s time for Café Flesh, Sayadian’s slice of nightmarish, New Wave sci-fi avant-gardism set in a post-apocalyptic, post-sex society — one where the last remaining erotic creatures are made to display their prowess in a seedy, insane cabaret that mixes early music video aesthetics, Dada and dong-age to stunning effect.

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The central themes in Sayadian’s films always seem to feature styles of avant-garde acting typically seen in independently stage plays and performance art pieces. At that time, many downtown L.A. filmmakers were incorporating aspects of pornography into avant-garde film, so there’s also a very low-budget aspect to Café Flesh, which is probably apparent because the entire film had to be shot over the course of eleven days in a small studio in the heart of downtown L.A.. The electricity was being illegally patched in to power the equipment, and extras were recruited from a nearby blood bank and a methadone clinic, so it’s no wonder there are some amateurish-looking actors in the film, but there’s a deft director’s hand at work here, don’t be fooled. Café Flesh is anything but amateurish.

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Perhaps the most significant contribution to Café Flesh comes in the film’s storyline, co-written by Sayadian and someone named Herbert W. Day, which, as it turns out, is actually Jerry Stahl.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Stahl began publishing short fiction, won a Pushcart Prize in 1976, and made a living writing for magazines and doing porn stories for cash. One writing job as humor editor for Hustler meant moving to Columbus, Ohio and living at the YMCA until the magazine moved its headquarters to California. Stahl lost his job six months to the day after taking it and ended up on unemployment in California, alongside an escalating heroin dependency, which eventually led to his contracting hepatitis C.

Stahl would then turn to the nation’s narcotic, television, and he ended up penning teleplays for shows like “ALF”, “thirtysomething,” and “Moonlighting”, and an episode each for “Twin Peaks” and “Northern Exposure.” His fiction began to appear regularly in magazines, newspapers, alt weeklies and, more recently, online destinations, including Esquire, The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Playboy, Black Book, LA Weekly, and Tin House.

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You may recall that Stahl chronicled the narcotically-enhanced misadventures of his life up to then in his fascinatingly awesome story-rich memoir, Permanent Midnight, which was later made into a pretty good 1998 indie drama starring Ben Stiller (Stahl co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director, David Veloz).

But going back to the beginning, one of his first screenwriting gigs was Café Flesh, about which he has said, on at least one occasion, “I was so fucked up, I can’t remember writing it.”

For this Flavorwire interview, he seemed to remember a few more of the details:

FW: What can you tell us about writing the cult film Café Flesh?

JS: It’s a pretty dim memory, but I do recall being paid in quarters, from peep show machines on Hollywood Boulevard. Rinse Dream and I had the idea for a post-atomic movie, before Mad Max and the rest of them. But when we screened it for the money guys, they said, “Great, boys, now howzabout you stick in six extra scenes?” After which we had to work the, uh, “money” scenes in… My sharpest memory is that when they screened it for a bunch of Japanese tourists at a Pussycat Theatre, the entire audience ended up fleeing after five minutes. But it failed as a porn movie and lived on as a cult movie, replacing Pink Flamingos at the Nuart in Santa Monica. Porn was great preparation for Hollywood.

As for the film’s stars, if we’re not abusing the use of the word “stars,” there’s some interesting background there too.

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Michelle Bauer (born Michelle Denise Medvitz) stars as Lana. She was a Penthouse Pet of the Month around the same time she was filming Café Flesh (July 1981). For her cinematic debut, she is credited as “Pia Snow” (what a great name).

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Bauer has stated that she was happy to appear in the film, and on the box covers of other X-rated flicks, but says she insisted on a stunt double for the actual sex scenes. Bauer appeared in several other porno flicks, using the name Pia Snow, including Bad Girls, Bizarre People, and Nightdreams. Her Penthouse centerfold appearance also led to acting for the Playboy Channel.

She also went on to appear in a lot of low-budget horror/exploitation and more mainstream films, as you do, beginning with The Tomb (1986). Her best known movies include: Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Lust for Frankenstein (1998), and the wonderfully-titled Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust (2008), which sounds like it might be parodying two mainstream films at once.

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Bauer also appeared in the documentary Screaming in High Heels: The Rise & Fall of the Scream Queen Era (2011), which focuses on her career, along with Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens, from the mid-1980s through to the 1990s low-budget horror films.

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There’s a great description of the doc over on Horrorpedia:

Known as “The Terrifying Trio,” Linnea Quigley (The Return of the Living Dead), Brinke Stevens (The Slumber Party Massacre) and Michelle Bauer (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), headlined upwards of ten films per year, fending off men in rubber monster suits, pubescent teenage boys, and deadly showers. They worked together in campy cult films like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama (1988) and Nightmare Sisters (1987). They traveled all over the world, met Ronald Reagan, and built mini-empires of trading cards, comic books, and model kits. Then it all came crashing down.

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By the way, we have two final trivial things to mention about Café Flesh: Richard Belzer (you might know him from “Homicide: Life on the Street” or a million other appearances on TV and in films) oddly also makes an appearance, and L.A.-based composer and musician Mitchell Froom, with lyrical help from Jerry Stahl, provides the music, which became available a few years later on his album Key Of Cool (Slash Records, 1984).

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Of course, we can’t recommend Café Flesh for everyone, but we believe there’s a select audience of Night Flyers who might want to seek it out.

You get the feeling that Sayadian was trying to impart some kind of political message with the HIV/AIDS symbolism that can been read into the film, like everything from the ’80s, creating a kind of 80s postmodern parable porn.

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But even more than that, it may have been a prescient look at what happens in a society when a large majority of the adults stop having sex for pleasure. Perhaps the point of Sayadian’s film — and Stahl’s and Sayadian’s screenplay — is that it can be seen as a portentous warning in the ’80s of the disaster-filled future that lies ahead for a society that becomes addicted to pornography, watching it at home in the dark, while strangers on a stage (the proscenium stage of their own computer monitors, actually) perform sexual acts for their enjoyment, instead of actually, you know, having real sex on their own.

And remember, back in 1982, when this movie appeared, there was no internet. There were only a couple of ways to see adult movies; in theaters, of course, but that was a industry struggling to stay alive at the time. Most people were renting and purchasing porn on VHS tapes, and the adult videotape market was just beginning to surge. So perhaps we can look at Café Flesh as a reminder of when X-rated adult movies occasionally tried to give their audiences something to remember, something to think about, later.

Maybe Café Flesh is actually kind of an anti-porn porn movie, if you think about it.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.