Directors: Stephen Sayadian (with Mark S. Esposito)
Screenplay: Stephen Sayadian and Herbert W. Day
Cast: Andy Nichols as Max Melodramatic; Paul McGibboney as Nick; Michelle Bauer as Lana; Marie Sharp as Angel; Tantala Ray as Moms; Dennis Edwards as The Enforcer; Kevin James as Johnny Rico; Dondi Bastone as Spike
Synopsis: After World War III blows everything to smithereens, the world becomes divided into the Sex Negatives and the Sex Positives. The Sex Negatives, due to nuclear fallout, are physically unable to have sexual pleasure, even erotic contact causing involuntary nausea. The Sex Positives, those rare few who can still have sex, must perform real sex acts for the Sex Negatives across the nightclubs in the remaining United States. At Cafe Flesh, one such club, one Sex Negative Lana (Michelle Bauer) finds she may be becoming a Sex Positive again whether her boyfriend Nick (Paul McGibboney) is comfortable with the fact or not.
If it was easier for the films of Rinse Dream, aka. Stephen Sayadian, to be seen his cult would grow more than it has, which is significant considering how that cult is already pretty large full of those who know his work and have managed to see them. That his career is mainly within pornography is a huge disadvantage to him, both in terms of attitudes to the medium in any artistic meaning and also in terms of availability in good versions, particularly an issue within the United Kingdom as, due to the view of pornography and laws of selling, it's impossible for older works to be commercially viable to rereleased let alone be taken seriously as art, the best you could get in the few licensed sex stores retro compilations rather than whole films. And why Dr. Caligari (1989), his non-pornographic sequel to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), has neither been released despite being a great cult film is puzzling. Its saddening as Sayadian can stand talk as a truly individualistic filmmaker, one helped in Cafe Flesh by talented people - co-director/storyboard artist Mark S. Esposito, writer Jerry Stahl (aka Herbert W. Day), costume designer Polly Ester and cinematographer Francis Delia - but also someone with a very unique style. A bold artistic style, one as with all his films fed from a previous career creating eye-catching art for Penthouse magazine and film posters like for Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill (1980). Idiosyncratic dialogue, co-written with others, and a sense of the funny and perverse to his work. His three most well known films, which I've managed to see, are the work of someone able to make films within the eighties that were very unconventional and inventive as long as an aspect was marketable within them all, giving him carte blanche at truly odd, artistically imaginative creations.
Dr. Caligari is great. Out of the two other well known works, Nightdreams (1981) is a hardcore film which I am split on. It's full of weird and aesthetically rich moments, but is difficult in terms of being to appreciate it as it's a compilation of sex scenes based around a threadbare narrative of a woman having her erotic dreams experimented on by scientists. Whilst the dreams are vivid and perversely erotic, you do have lengthy passages of merely an eighty minute work which is the hardcore sex, which goes on and on to the point that, whether one a turn on or not, can result in finding the film almost trance-like or boring due to its slow pace. Cafe Flesh in vast contrast manages to find the right balance in both having to be a pornographic film and a rewarding cultish object, Rinse Dream's most well known work for a reason. The plot's pretty simplistic, restricted to only a couple of sets and based around like Nightdreams a series of bizarre hardcore scenes. These scenes can almost be off-putting for some viewers, but are wrapped within a rewarding little plot that's as interesting and full of memorable characters. The script's a godsend, written by Sayadian and Stahl, only matched by Dr. Caligari in terms of Sayadian's trademark of deliberately artificial and manned lines, word play and individual characteristics in each actor's line readings with are sprinkled with humour and a biting sense of mockery of ordinary culture. Effectively imagine a punk attitude filtered through arty, neon intoxicated mannerisms and that's his dialogue style.
That this is a porn film is not a lynchpin to trap the film, Cafe Flesh as interesting if it was softcore. That there is real penetration does however have a strange effect to its advantage. The morality a viewer can have on pornography is subjective, whether you feel its justifiable to have real sexual acts filmed entire to your opinion, but in terms of this film whilst it could've easily worked as softcore, the hardcore moments feel as much part of the overall aesthetic, a sense when you enter the world of the nightclub Cafe Flesh. A place within the last of the remaining civilisation after nuclear war where most of them are effectively sterile mentally, feasting from afar at depictions of the acts they can no longer have as Sex Negatives. The complex emotions a person can have viewing pornographic images with real people - usually watched isolated, let alone issues of cultural and gender politics being involved as they watch the images - makes the sudden transgression in art cinema when it includes real sexual acts in explicit detail puncture the false reality. This is important here as whilst Cafe Flesh was originally meant as a pornographic product, it's clear from the start the creators of this made the film wanting to create something else, merely dressed in the clothes of porn and using this fact as part of its own ideas and style, the theme of sexuality as possible to do in Dr. Caligari as a mainstream film but taken advantage of here nonetheless.
This also means Cafe Flesh openly transgresses the line between being meant to be erotic and repulsive. Sayadian's artistic eye is incredible, the colourful day-glo neon of the era, apt that he was the one to reinterpret Dr. Caligari as his work takes German Expressionism with its artificial sets and use of shadows but plunges it into full vibrant colour, moodiness also exaggerated by the way his characters dress and move with mannered choreography. Nightdreams was ambitious already - any porn film with a kitchen set musical number/sex scene where a housewife gives a man dressed as a Cream of Wheat box a blowjob whilst anthropomorphised toast is playing a saxophone nearby is both the last thing you'd expect in pornography and yet depicted onscreen with such carefulness technically. But Cafe Flesh manages to up the stakes in artistic ambition and weirdness. The sex scenes performed onstage within the film are both too weird to find titillating yet can also still be erotic. The film's first performance already warns the viewer of what to expect within a fifties styled kitchen set with two Sex Positives as a housewife and a milkman. Striking colour and aesthetic style stands out immediately even in the worst copy of Cafe Flesh you could see, but with the milkman in a prosthetic rat man costume with a enormous tail, who just also happens to be a milkman, and men dressed as babies at the back rocking back and forth as the main performers have actual sex for the Sex Negatives and us the viewer. The extremity of this style - turning the performers on stage into caricatures of Americana by dress and appearance - is throughout Sayadian's work, as he depicts anything from the stereotype of eighties erotica, introducing the ultimate of male hunks wearing sunglasses in a dark room and a leather jacket, to even including a musical number with military symbolism that intercuts between sex.
The sense of the truly bizarre involved throughout is striking, as pencil headed men getting it on with a secretary completely goes against the perceived concept of pornography being a turn on for a viewing. However as with Nightdreams and even Dr. Caligari there's a pronounced sexuality helped by his attitude that contrasts this. That his women are always strong and in this case with Lana becoming a willing agent of her rediscovered sensuality, all always gorgeous and lovingly photographed whether they are dressed in the style of the era but with a dominance, taking the furthest in his most well known work with Madeleine Reynal as the titular Dr. Caligari, dressed in deliberately striking and an almost angular fashion to show her physical prescience. Sexuality in his work is always powerful, transgressing against conventional morality but ultimately a force of virtue. In the midst of the post apocalypse, the lead of this film eventually becomes liberated within this environment, contrasted against a lead male character in her boyfriend who is so morose to be practically hateful.
It helps as well that Cafe Flesh, in terms of plot, is just as compelling when there's no sex with dialogue, that it's also a fun film that just also has explicit sex scenes. Actor Andy Nichols in particulate is a virtue just by himself, one of the actors who doesn't perform in the sex scenes but is absolutely vital as Max Melodramatic, the charismatic and dickish host of these performances, someone as capable of acidic wit but also can be castrated by the female owner of Cafe Flesh, Moms (Tantala Ray), in front of a crowd. Humour is found throughout, from Max Melodramatic's line readings to some of the monosyllabic comments made by Sex Negative patrons, helping a viewer into its grungy, multi-coloured world by having the delicately sense of the absurd there, the grotesquery in the sex scenes purposely broad and ridiculous as well.
Abstract Spectrum: Erotic/Expressionistic/Grotesque/Pop Art/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
A film like Cafe Flesh feels like a work which skewers the medium it's in and absolutely in greater need of recognition. The golden age of pornography is known to have feature films like this which undermined the stereotypes of porn, slowly being recognised finally. But as the stereotypes of older pornography are still being shrugged off in retrospection, and the accessibility of films like this are exceptionally difficult to see countries like the United Kingdom with backwards attitudes to sexuality, a work like Cafe Flesh really needing to be more readily available as a result, an example of a work which has been placed in the genre of pornography but is so much more vibrant, strange and imaginatively twisted than the presumption of such a medium usually is.