I first saw “Cafe Flesh” in a ground floor apartment in the Nirvana apartment building on Orange and Franklin in Hollywood, right around the corner from the Chinese Theater. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also seeing the film just a few blocks from where it was shot.
The film is something of a legend as one of the few crossovers from adult entertainment to mainstream, after a style. There was also “Deep Throat,” which became something of a cultural touchstone and played for a decade at the Pussycat Theater on Hollywood. “Cafe Flesh” never crossed over to that sort of audience. No, this film found its audience at midnight screenings.
A little bit of history, first. The was the second film made by the duo of director Rinse Dream and writer Herbert W. Day, the pseudonyms for Stephen Sayadian and Jerry Stahl. Sayadian had been a creative director at Hustler, producing a series of in-house ads that merged pornography with puckish satire; Stahl likewise had worked for Hustler, and went on to some notoriety for his book “Permanent Midnight,” in which he recounted a drug habit that was legendary even by Hollywood standards. Sayadian and Stahl moved out to Hollywood with Hustler, as the magazine’s publisher, Larry Flynt, had big plans to break into making films. And then Flynt was shot by a white supremacist in Lawrenceville. Georgia, who was offended by an interracial photoshoot in Hustler.
That left Sayadian and Stahl a bit adrift. To make ends meet, they opened up a design shop in the Cherokee Building on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee, which was also used as an office by the nearby Masque punk rock club (located in the basement of the very Pussycat where “Deep Throat” played). The building was also used as a rehearsal space for various Hollywood bands, including The Germs and Wall of Voodoo. (Much of this information comes from an extensive history of the film by Jacob Smith, found here, but locked behind a paywall.) Sayadian and Stahl continued to design for the ailing Hustler magazine, but also worked for mainstream film, and, in fact, designed the famous poster for “Dressed to Kill.” They also broke into hardcore pornography with a film called “Night Dreams,” which was their first to find a cult following on the midnight circuit. The film is very much like a screen version of the work the two had done for Hustler, consisting of a series of satiric tableaus, including one that recreated the “Dressed to Kill” poster. The film also features an astonishing soundtrack, including Wall of Voodoo’s version of “Ring of Fire.” The film was shot in the Cherokee building, and can be seen as a sort of test run for “Cafe Flesh.”
Telling of a future in which 90 percent of humanity has been rendered sterile by radiation, while the remaining 10 percent are forced to perform live sex acts in clubs, 1982’s “Cafe Flesh” is one of the most distinctive films in the history of porn. Sayadian and Stahl managed to create the film in a tiny space in the Cherokee, using stolen electricity and paying for the rest of the film with bags of coins; the film was financed by the profits from nickel booths in adult stores. Firstly, the pair cleverly segregated the types of performance — porn actors weren’t required to do anything but have sex onscreen, and the rest of the cast wasn’t required to disrobe, but for two female leads. This allowed the pair to cast out-of-work actors in speaking roles, including a tour de force performance by Andy Nichols as the club’s hostile emcee, who presents each act with a series of celebrity impressions; they’re closer to caricature than impersonation.
This is not to say most of the acting is better than you might find in other porn films. Sayadian had decidedly avant garde tastes, which mostly shows itself in his new wave set designs, but carries through to how he directs his performers. They manage at once to be flat and melodramatic, often posing as they speak. It might be mistaken for bad acting, except it is so clearly deliberate. It’s also often hilarious — the bar features a bartender who, unprompted, will launch into long, deadpan, working-class riffs. A young Richard Belzer appears in a scene, smoking, twitching, and rattling off a hipster monologue that sounds cribbed from old juvenile delinquency films.
“Cafe Flesh” isn’t populated by characters, but by types, as though after the atomic holocaust, all of society has been burned away, leaving us nothing but half-remembered movie tropes to build our lives around. The men all seem to come from either vampire movies or Bowery Boys shorts, and the women all seem to come from Ingmar Bergman. The dialogue is peppered with lines from older films, or just titles. “You’re a kitten with a whip,” a character declares at one point, and it’s typical dialogue for the film. Nowadays, it has become common for films to quote earlier movies, a sort of cinematic intertextuality where new films are made out of pieces of older films. In 1982, it was decidedly uncommon, and made this film feel like it was as much a contemporary art project as a porn flick.
In fact, it didn’t do very well as pornography. It would show up now and then in adult theaters, which tended to cycle through dozens of films per week, but it wasn’t something that was constantly programmed — in my original three years in Hollywood, I never saw it listed at any adult houses, although I saw “Night Dreams” at the Pussycat on Sunset. As porn, it’s deliberately unsatisfying, with the act of coitus pared down to piston-like thrusting, sometimes with piston-syle sounds behind it. There are almost no representations of pleasure, and characters are often in grotesque costumes — one scene has a man in a rat mask and tail mounting a 50s housewife while three men in baby costumes look on from cribs, which they bang on in a mutual tantrum. There is a great deal of sensual overload in scenes like this, but it’s not sexual.
Nonetheless, you’ll still see films that borrow extensively from “Cafe Flesh,” mostly upscale adult films by arty directors, such as Antonio Passolini, who made two sequels. They tend to replicate the style of the film, with its deliberate artificiality and its distinctive use of industrial sounds, but replace the mechanical lovemaking with something simulating excitement. But while these films catch the original’s sense of style, they miss its sense of satire, which is probably for the better. “Cafe Flesh” doesn’t just offer a smirking, occasional vicious lampooning of old Hollywood films and apocalyptic scenarios, it extends its satire to adult films, the adult film audience (who seems to be the primary target of abuse by the club’s emcee), and even to the sex act itself.
This is not the sort of thing that is likely to keep winning back audiences, and, in fact, Rinse Dream’s later adult films became increasingly inscrutable and impersonal. But we don’t need more than one “Cafe Flesh,” as it got it right. For one moment, it seemed like the artistic avant garde that was both heralded and linked to punk and new wave had creeped into everything, including porn. I’m honestly surprised this film still doesn’t play the midnight movie circuit, but, then, the avant garde tends to go underground for a while, building its legend, before it reemerges to an audience prepared to appreciate it. We may not be in a time that is ready for “Cafe Flesh” just yet. When the moment is right, it will pull itself out of its hiding spot, perhaps deep in the ground below the Cherokee, and make an appearance just long enough to give its audience the middle finger they need and deserve.