Desire in Chains — The Films of Rinse Dream, Part 2

Cafe Flesh (1982) was Stephen Sayadian’s followup to his first feature film Nightdreams (1981) (for my review of the latter, included in Part 1 of this series, click here). Sayadian, as “Rinse Dream”, co-wrote with Jerry Stahl (AKA “Herbert W. Day”), co-produced with Francis Delia (“F.X. Pope”), and if IMDb is to be believed, co-directed with an uncredited Mark Esposito.

Stahl was a heroin-addicted journalist who went on to become a successful novelist and “grossly overpaid, self-loathing, can’t-look-in-the-mirror-without-gagging TV writer”[1]. His credits include Alf, CSI, and most unexpectedly, Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II. He and Sayadian are close. He ​once spent thirteen sleepless days detoxing in a corner of Sayadian’s loft.

My favorite quote about him comes from the book Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, though I found it on Wikipedia. In regards to the episode he wrote: “He turned in a completely incomprehensible, unusable, incomplete script a few days late and as I recall there were blood stains on it.”[2] This after mistaking a week-long coke bender for a single day and having to furiously type something up on the spot while a courier knocked on his door.

Delia is an expert photographer they met at Hustler. He went on to direct music videos for The Bangles, Blue Öyster Cult, Oingo Boingo, The Ramones, Rockwell, Starship, Wall of Voodoo, Weird Al, and others.

According to a YouTube channel started by his son, “Mark Esposito was an independent filmmaker in the 1980s. His talent as a young writer/director saw him rubbing elbows with the likes of Woody Allen, Richard Donner, and John Avildsen. In his cannon were many short films, music videos, and commercials.”

You’ve probably heard Cafe Flesh and don’t know it. Rob Zombie sampled one of its sex scenes in his old band White Zombie’s biggest hit “More Human Than Human”. The moaning at the beginning — an actual porn star. Well, maybe. Most of Nightdreams was shot without sound and dubbed later, so Cafe Flesh likely was too. The moaning might just be some random lady they grabbed to do voiceover. If you listen closely, you can even make out composer Mitchell Froom’s score. His song “The Key of Cool” is audible from about 00:27 to 00:37.

Froom was a friend of Stahl’s from high school. His jazzy synthesizer score was later released as “The Key of Cool” by Slash Records, a sub-label of Warner, with sporadic spoken word lyrics by Stahl. The cover is a photograph taken by Delia of a masked man from the film. The album was recently given a limited vinyl re-release as the Cafe Flesh Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Fun City Editions. Parts of it could have been lifted from a Sonic the Hedgehog game.

There’s a lot of contradictory misinformation surrounding these players, so bear with me. Stahl, for example, has claimed that his nom de porn “Herbert W. Day” was both the name of his little league coach and high school principal, and that he adopted it out of revenge for their having publicly spanked him, before admitting he made up those stories to amuse himself. Sayadian cautions that some of his friend’s recollections are wrong.

In a cover article penned for the April, 1985 edition of Playboy, Stahl says Cafe Flesh was conceived as a sexy albeit softcore Cabaret-style musical. He and Sayadian shopped it around for a good half a year and were passed on by just about everyone. That’s when they finally agreed to add penetrative sex to get funding. The film was shot in ten days for a hundred-thousand dollars. Stahl makes it sound like he and Sayadian sacrificed their integrity changing the script and got roped into the world of adult entertainment against their better judgment, ignoring the fact that they’d already gotten their figurative dicks wet the year prior with Nightdreams.

From other sources I gathered their sophomore effort was cut to an R, presumably in the hopes it could still be released that way, and was shown in said form to potential investors to raise additional funds. However, the hardcore footage was ultimately reinserted and/or re-shot at the insistence of the producers. Froom was told to extend his score and make it disturbing.

“We came up with repulsive, anti-sexual, anti-stimulating sex.” Stahl recalls in the liner notes of the Fun City Editions LP. “We wrote sex scenes designed to keep you from getting an erection.”[3]

“The sex is not to arouse…” Sayadian said of his work in 2021. “That wasn’t the intention. When you look at these sex films, they’re never about sex. They have sex in them, but they’re never about sex… I like sex because of the imagery you’re allowed to play with. It gives me a lot of ideas for images.”[4]

Unsurprisingly, Cafe Flesh failed to please those who spank it in theatres, but found success as an art movie. It replaced Pink Flamingos at the prestigious Nuart, played college campuses, and achieved a level of acclaim in Europe. The movie’s Wikipedia page contains the humorous, unfounded claim it was “enjoyed primarily by Iowans”.[5] That’s the best kind of trolling: subtle and random.

Cafe Flesh was made during a time of renewed hostility between the US and the Soviet Union, and reflects that. It’s set in a radioactive, post-apocalyptic… I’m tempted to say “wasteland”, but we never actually see what it looks like outside. The whole thing was shot on a single dark set and takes place indoors.

It starts with the opening credits, followed by title cards. “Able to exist, to sense, to feel everything but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t.” the female narrator explains. “99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill. The rest, the lucky one percent, are Sex Positives, those whose libidoes escaped unscathed.”

Credit: VCA DVD

These positives are required by law to perform bizarre sex routines in dingy nightclubs for the gratification of the negatives. Those who refuse are inevitably tracked down and dealt with by “enforcers”. It’s literal sexual slavery. However, the positives don’t mind the system. The negatives are the ones who are suffering. Most look bored or plain dead inside. If you’re wondering why they torture themselves watching others engaged in carnal activity, take a look at your browser history.

The first shot is of the title club’s sardonic emcee Max Melodramatic (Andrew Nichols, who has top billing). Max loves nothing more than antagonizing the patrons. He mocks them, and by extension, us. Max says need is his fix, then mimes tying a tourniquet around his arm and injecting smack. He introduces the first routine.

The stage is black except for a living room chair. A typical housewife is knitting. Three more spotlights turn on behind her in quick succession, illuminating adult babies in highchairs. The babies have bonnets and bibs that say “brat”, but otherwise don’t look like babies because they also have facial hair, face paint, and vampire teeth. The two on the ends are lit green. The one in the middle is pink. The babies are waving bones around like rattles. A man dressed as a milkman/rat comes sniffing out of the shadows. He struts around to the beat til the housewife takes notice. She stands up, removing her dress. She gets down and strokes the rat’s tail between her legs like she’s jerking off a big dick. They 69. The human-size rodent enters the housewife. He blows his load on her stomach, then heads back inside for round two.

Throughout the film, there are cutaway shots of lone, New Wavey audience members. The saddest, most lifeless people you’ve seen. Among them is Nick (Paul McGibboney). “Remind me to set a trap.” he jokes to his girlfriend Lana (B-movie scream queen Michelle Bauer as “Pia Snow”). A combination of fog and cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Nick and Lana are sitting with a woman who’s always accompanied by a statuesque lover. Similarly, there’s a naked woman who lives in a carpeted glass display case. She never moves or says anything either. There are all kinds of unique and unsavory cats in Cafe Flesh, including a man with festering sores on his face and a little person.

Credit: VCA DVD

Credit: VCA DVD

A short pimp type named Silky walks in with a transplant from Wyoming named Angel (Marie Sharp) and announces to Nick that he’s signed celebrity sex stud Johnny Rico (Kevin Jay) away from a rival club. Lana gets giddy just thinking about Silky’s latest acquisition in action. “Johnny Rico” is the main character from Starship Troopers, making it an unofficial sequel to Cafe Flesh. Johnny Rico wears shades while he’s fucking. He’s the kind of guy to eff your bitch right in front of you. Silky boasts that he’s “packing ten, the hard way”.

Silky, I think, owns the place, but Moms (Tantala as “Darcy Nychols”), a voluptuous former beautician, oversees operations. Moms is protective of Nick, her favorite customer, and loves to collect birds, a rarity in their poisoned world.

Max is now on a swing in a Peter Pan-collar dress a child would wear. He has white makeup on and rosy red cheeks. He walks into the crowd to insult Nick, calling him a hypocrite, then turns his attention toward Angel. Later, he slaps Nick. He harbors a grudge against him rooted in jealousy. Max has been a grade-A asshole ever since his penis was blown off in World War III. When he steps out of line, Moms forces him to kneel down and reveal as much to the crowd with a poem.

Credit: VCA DVD

Cut to: a man with a pencil for a head drilling a woman to the rhythm of his naked secretary asking repeatedly if he’d like her to type a memo, in front of a silhouetted oil field. The song here is “We Don’t Dream”, and it looks like the audience members have been awake for a good forty-eight hours. Conversely, the performers so far have been pretty easy on my eyes. Makes me wonder what they do with the ugly, out of shape, and/or elderly positives. Maybe that explains the rat masks and pencils.

Would you like me to type a mammo?
Credit: VCA DVD

Nick says he’s seen enough. He and Lana exit through one of those big circular bank vault doors.

The slimy doorman flashes a gap-toothed smile. “Leaving so soon, friend?”

Lana is having none of his crap. “Goodnight, Mr. Joy.” she says firmly.

Credit: VCA DVD

At home, Lana tells Nick she’ll be watching the club for Moms in a week while she scouts talent in “Sector 17”. Nick is annoyed by Lana’s enthusiasm. He says he’s been struggling to accept his fate, his impotence, lately. Not being able to pleasure her like he used to has damaged his sense of worth. He envies her optimism. He caresses her chest. They kiss. He starts puking.

Max addresses the crowd from a coffin, doing his best Bela Lugosi impression (he also does Elvis, Marlon Brando, and others). Two topless women in flower headpieces step out from behind him. Max plays a trumpet, summoning three masked men in suits, as seen on the poster. What they do isn’t shown. Sayadian loves the image of masked men in suits. He put one in Nightdreams and two in Nightdreams 2. He’s also obsessed with doors, especially free-standing doors that serve no purpose.

Credit: VCA DVD

Meanwhile, a sickly-pale junkie bribes his way in with a live bird. Nick visits backstage with Moms. She promises to “take care of” Max for tormenting him, not that he asked her to. A female performer tells Lana she fantasizes about her onstage. “We could make love and be tender.” she offers. Lana insists she’s a negative. Nick overhears through a hole in the wall.

Max’s head is now in a cage. A naked woman is seated on top, back to the camera. Max feigns trying to lick her bare ass. An air raid siren goes off. A lesbo in American flag panties and Lana’s admirer glide into frame on moving platforms. Max says the real bars are always behind the eyes. The lesbos go at it. Instead of music, we just hear the aforementioned siren, marching, gunfire, and condescending laughter. The woman on Max’s cage turns around to reveal that she has a mustache and monocle.

Two enforcers interrupt the festivities, claiming they smell a positive. One is holding an object that could be anything from a laser gun to a flashlight to a leaf blower. They drag away Angel, who admits she hid the truth because she’s a virgin. Fun fact: the male enforcer produced Space Jam.

Credit: VCA DVD

That night, Lana hangs back in Moms’ office to finger herself. Max watches on from the doorway. This, I think, is supposed to show that she’s positive, having concealed her status out of loyalty to Nick. However, it’s unclear if negatives can masturbate. It’s implied, but never explicitly stated, they can’t. All the narrator says is the touch of another makes them violently ill. My question is, how do men pee? Sitting down? Actually, that would fit the movie’s humiliation theme perfectly.

Next up is Angel’s debut. The Busby Berkeley-inspired number sees two men wearing masks made of rotary phones slide her back and forth across an overturned phone booth. A pair of women in referee stripes pose with handsets. A fourth is trapped inside the glass booth. There are hands sticking out of the floor, all snapping in unison. This is where the moaning in “More Human Than Human” comes from. Skip to the forty-six minute mark. After exchanging bodily fluids, Angel excitedly tells Nick and Lana how much fun she just had.

New phone, who dis?
Credit: VCA DVD

This movie does not have what I’d call a happy ending, although there is a “happy ending”. Nick gets cucked in front of the whole club. That’s not something you can recover from. Suicide is the only solution. Johnny Rico arrives and does his thing to Angel while a woman sits in a hair dryer. Lana can barely contain herself. She’s licking her chops. A hand drifts South. She’s completely entranced. Max encourages her to go up and receive Rico’s throbbing manhood, mainly to stick it to Nick. Lana makes her way past the crowd in slow-motion. She 69s Angel to warm up. After a while, Rico carries Angel away so he can spell Lana’s name backward, if you know what I mean. Just kidding, it’s vaginal, homie. Nick is shocked by the act of betrayal. He stands there in horror. Max laughs an inch from his face. The final shot is a freeze-frame of Lana lost in pleasure. I should clarify that Michelle Bauer is not penetrated. A body double was used.

The ending leaves me with a horrible feeling in the pit in my stomach, which is better than no reaction at all, I suppose. The film does an excellent job of making me empathetic toward Nick. I just feel so bad for the guy.

I once read that a scene was cut from the end where Max is taken out back and killed, possibly beaten to death. I remember there being screen shots as proof. For a while, porn distribution companies were in the habit of censoring everything even remotely violent. My cheap copy of 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, for example, is missing a rape that was later restored in Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray. Would the satisfaction of watching Max die lessen the impact of the ending for me? Probably not. I’m curious to see the scene, though.

Some of the coolest poster art ever. The neon sign, smoke, shafts of light, glistening, half-naked model caressing herself, anonymous spectators… It’s fun to look at and perfectly captures the feel of the movie. Obviously designed by Sayadian.
Credit: tmdb.org

The first thing you’ll notice about Cafe Flesh is how dark it is, both visually and tonally. The finer details are hard to make out, but that’s only because there hasn’t been a high-quality home video version yet. A 4K restoration would clear that right up. My humble review is based on the VCA DVD circa 2002.

Sayadian’s previous film, Nightdreams, pointed out that porn is inherently voyeuristic. It pulled back the curtain separating us from the characters. By doing so, it turned us into participants. Cafe Flesh shames us for it. Its kink of choice is humiliation, psychological sadism. We’re pathetic, it spits with contempt. Now, watch as real men satisfy these holes. Everyone put on your chastity cages. Click.

In spite of its mockery, I enjoy Cafe Flesh. I find myself more engaged with it than with most mainstream fare. It really is a good movie that just so happens to include penetration. As mentioned above, its sex scenes are brief and not meant to arouse. The mostly silent performers may well be robots. The patrons look bored. The strangeness of it all is half the appeal. The rest is what comes in between.

Cafe Flesh retains the surreal, visual style of its predecessor, but goes a step further by also having a narrative plot with an interesting concept. This time the characters have backstories, motivations, emotions.

The acting is pretty convincing. I believe these people are who they say they are. Andrew Nichols makes Stahl’s verbose dialogue sound halfway natural. His impressions are also amusing. I hate the guy, which means he did a good job. Leads Paul McGibboney and Michelle Bauer — usually remembered for showing her boobs, not her fine thespianism — elicit reactions from me as well. Even Marie Sharp and Tantala do ok as Angel and Moms, respectively. It’s always surprising to see what professional dick takers are capable of when given a chance.

Particular care was again given to the art direction, costuming, lighting, and sound design. The shots are expertly staged and framed too. Almost every shot could be a photograph in an art exhibit. The stage, scenery, performances, body language, etc., make this feel more like a play than a “movie”, which isn’t that crazy considering Sayadian directed a play that ran for six months titled Jackie Charge, of course co-written by Stahl, of course centered on peeping Tomism.

Average moviegoers probably won’t like Cafe Flesh. It’s an arthouse film with a sci-fi plot where the actors cum on each other. It looks like the 80s and talks like the 50s. I tried to get my wife to watch it with me before we had kids and she wasn’t having it. My only complaint is that it’s too short at seventy-three minutes.

Speaking of wives, Stahl met his first one through Cafe Flesh. Having seen it, she contacted him to write made-for-TV movies. Five minutes into their meeting, she offered him $3000 to get married so she could stay in the country. Stahl said why not. They lived a semi-normal life together for years, even buying a house and having a daughter. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction.

Spiritual Successor?

In the Playboy article cited above, Stahl says the obscure porno Smoker (1983) promoted itself as picking up where Cafe Flesh left off. In what way, who knows. Story-wise, thematically, stylistically? “Smokers” were hardcore reels shown in Grange halls, American Legions, colleges, and other meeting places throughout the 1920s and 30s, though the term could obviously be applied to anything hot and/or steamy. The film noir-style poster that pops up for Smoker on Google sports a Classic Hollywood dame reclined in an office chair, smoking seductively. The image has nothing to do with the plot. There is also no mention of Cafe Flesh. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to skim through the movie. The version I found is missing at least a few minutes from the beginning and end.

It sees a young Ron Jeremy (before he grew into a sloppy, repellent piece of shit) and an unnamed accomplice trying to track down a bomb disguised as a functioning vibrator they unknowingly sold in their sex shop. The bomb belongs to their philosophy-spewing boss Madame Suque, naturally, pronounced “suck” (Sharon Mitchell, who’s had bit parts in “real” movies like Maniac and Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown). The trio kidnap and rape several women for information until being thwarted by Suque’s ex, John Leslie, now working for the Bureau of Internal Affairs.

It’s honestly nothing like Cafe Flesh. The only vaguely Sayadian-esque touches are a cross-dressing landlord using a one-way mirror to spy on his female tenant, and a sunglasses-wearing alpha male fucking that landlord’s wife right in front of him. There’s also a stark image of an abductee, hands cuffed overhead, face wrapped in cloth, punani stuffed with a vibrator, that has some disturbing sound design, the closest the film comes to horrifying.

If Cafe Flesh pushes your boundaries of decency, I don’t advise watching this. It’s fairly sadistic and sleazy, with strange attempts at humor. To me, the most shocking part is knowing a woman directed. If you can confirm the existence of old advertising comparing Smoker to Cafe Flesh, leave a comment below.

Next time: the sequels?

References
1. Stahl, Jerry. Permanent Midnight. Process Media, 1995.

2. “Jerry Stahl.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, February 26th, 2022, 3:20 am, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Stahl. Accessed May 20th, 2022.

3. Castel, Jacqueline. “The Music of Café Flesh.” Screen Slate. February 8th, 2022. Web.

4. Fantasia International Film Festival. “A Masterclass with the Legendary Stephen Sayadian.” Online video clip. YouTube. August 19th, 2021. Web. May 20th, 2022.

5. “Café Flesh.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, March 6th, 2022, 4:01 pm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Café_Flesh. Accessed May 20th, 2022.

2 comments on “Desire in Chains — The Films of Rinse Dream, Part 2

  1. I’ll comment here as I catch up with everything I missed … I tried to watch “Smoker” once, but I don’t recall whether it was compared to “Café Flesh.” (It WAS called a “cult classic,” though.) I’m way behind on my own screening “schedule,” but this one sounds like it deserves a look-see. And now I have some more reading material to dig into, courtesy of the introduction to Jerry Stahl. Oh, and another former “Hustler” worker (who also was part of the Masque world), Allan MacDonell, has a coupla books, too, if you are unaware. I’ve only read “Punk Elegies,” but he has one about his time at the magazine (“Prisoner of X”) and a newer one I only found out about while checking the spelling of his name to write this comment (“Now That I Am Gone”).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the info! I’m glad you’re back. Looking forward to some more of your posts. I hadn’t heard of MacDonell. Prisoner of X could be good. I’ll check it out. Permanent Midnight was awesome. I went in not really knowing what to expect and was very impressed. I didn’t want it to end. It’s dark, sometimes shocking, but also hilarious. Stahl has a great sense of humor and way of describing certain feelings and situations. He’s refreshingly honest and doesn’t try to portray himself in a positive light. I’d say 80% of the book is about his life in LA writing different TV shows.

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