If I asked you to come up with a short list of directors whose works are instantly recognizable, who would be on it? Tim Burton? Wes Anderson? John Waters? Rob Zombie? A name I bet doesn’t spring to mind is Rinse Dream, the pseudonym of Stephen Sayadian. Love him or hate him, you always know when you’re watching one of his movies.
They’re filmed in warehouses on dark sets made of theatre scenery built at weird angles. His characters routinely break the fourth wall, delivering beatnik prose directly into the camera. They wear plain, bright colors and move like interpretive dancers. They have uncomfortably close conversations so their faces can both fit in frame. They exit scenes by ducking, and sometimes float without walking. There’s a preoccupation with everyday objects, and, in one memorable instance, product packaging. Nightmarish. Bizarre. Perverse. Indelible. These words come close. Sayadian refers to his style as “pop-art noir”.
He was active as a filmmaker from 1981 to 1993. All but one of his nine movies have penetrative sex, making them “porn”. The thing is, they’re too weird to be fully erotic. The first three are considered “cult” movies. Even the six decidedly-more-porny, doing-it-for-a-paycheck titles that followed confuse my penis.
Nightdreams (1981) (writer/producer)
Cafe Flesh (1982)
Dr. Caligari (1989)
Nightdreams 2 (1990)
Nightdreams 3 (1991)
Party Doll A Go-Go! (1991)
Party Doll A Go-Go!: Part 2 (1991)
Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West Part 1: The Pillowbiters (1993)
Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West Part 2: Jammy Glands from the Rio Grande (1993)
With the announcement that Mondo Macabro is putting out Dr. Caligari on Blu-ray this year and Cafe Flesh is on the way, I figured now would be as good a time as any to revisit Rinse Dream’s filmography. Before I go any further, I’ll issue this warning.
Now, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but men like to engage in what’s known as “sex”. If sex can’t be had, we settle for looking at no-nos. This can be a strange concept for women. Our shameful, primal urge led to pornography. It wasn’t long after the first camera was invented that one man turned to another and said “You know what this could be used for…” There are nude films dating back to the 1890s. Georges Méliès, the man responsible for that goddamned horrifying image of the moon with a rocket lodged in its eye, showed his wife’s derriere in After the Ball, albeit through a very thin pair of tights.
It’s true, historically, films have been told from a straight male perspective, with the camera being our gaze (that’s why I always enjoy a good wanger — it bucks the system and lets the ladies in on the fun). Rinse Dream doesn’t try to subvert this convention, he just pulls back the curtain, smashes the wall concealing us from the actors, and says We know you’re there, welcome to the show. His movies examine our fascination with porn, the relationship between viewer and subject. They hold up a mirror, confronting us with the fact that we are by definition voyeurs — presumably a reaction to breaking into the arts at a porn magazine.
His movies often have meta plots about (mad) doctors observing their patients in various states of undress or performing sex acts through one-way mirrors. At times, it feels like they’re also trying to comment on Cold War America – the paranoia, pop culture, family ideals, repression of female sexuality, things of that nature. Or maybe it seeps out subconsciously.
Until recently, very little was known about the elusive director. In fact, for a long while, IMDd thought he and two of his collaborators, Francis “Frank” Delia and Ladi Von Jansky, were all the same person. Actually — checking — they still think he’s the latter. To be fair, “Ladi Von Jansky” does sound fictitious. Thanks to a few long-overdue interviews, the misinformation was cleared up for good.
It turns out he was knocking on death’s door for over a decade. In 1995, Sayadian was diagnosed with liver failure due to Hepatitis C and given six to ten months to live. Miraculously, he hung on for thirteen more years until undergoing a liver transplant. He’s been healthy again for as long as he was sick, so that has to feel good. I’m happy for him. He comes off as a wonderful, genuine dude.
I’m not saying his condition was caused by intravenous drug use, but that’s the most common mode of transmission, and one of Sayadian’s closest friends and collaborators, Jerry Stahl, wrote a whole book about slamming heroin, Dilaudid, and other drugs called Permanent Midnight. Besides that, I know wrestlers get it from bleeding on each other.
“To make a long, tortuous saga bite-size, I got hep. C, like every other dope fiend lucky enough not to get AIDS…” Stahl told Literary Hub in 2015.
Before working with them, Delia shot 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy for Abel Ferrara as “Francis X. Wolfe”, and Ferrara was a notorious junkie. That whole art-porn scene, it seems, was involved in illicit activities. However, Sayadian hints at some other obscure explanation for his illness in an interview given to ScreenAnarchy at the 2013 Etrange Film Festival in Paris, France.
“I got a rare strain of Hepatitis C, and the Center For Disease Control did this great story about how I caught it, but that’s a whole other story and we don’t have the time.”
I’m two-hundred pages into Permanent Midnight and so far Stahl has only twice briefly mentioned “Rinse Dream” and the “cult” movies above, which he co-wrote with him. They’ve also written as-yet-unproduced scripts titled Hormone Alley, Rapid Eye Movement, May’s Renewal, and Hell is Tender.
The two met at Hustler, although you wouldn’t know it from the book. Sayadian started out as a photographer and fortune writer for Bazooka Joe bubblegum. He submitted concepts to National Lampoon, who told him to talk to Hustler. Hustler was in the process of dropping all their advertisers so they could use the space to sell their own products — coffee mugs, dildos, “love dolls”, etc. They liked Sayadian’s work and brought him in to create the ads. Hustler head Larry Flynt didn’t care if the products sold, he just wanted the ads to be entertaining. According to Sayadian, within half a year, Hustler was making almost as much off the ads as from the magazine itself. This earned him total creative freedom.
While he knew photography, Sayadian considered himself a “conceptualist”/”art director” and preferred imparting his visions to other photographers. So, he hired Delia, who, as I already mentioned, had shot porn for Abel Ferrara, and later, Von Jansky, a former Czech actor.
When serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin unsuccessfully assassinated Flynt, confining him to a wheelchair, Sayadian and Delia left the publication, forming their own studio where they shot movie posters and album covers, including the posters for Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse and John Carpenter’s The Fog, as well as unused images of Kurt Russell as Snake Plisken for Escape From New York. They shared a building with the owner of a punk club across the street called The Masque. By way of adjacency, they became friends with the great New Wave band Wall of Voodoo. After hearing a pulsing electronic cover of “Ring of Fire” through the walls every day, they decided to use it in their first feature film, Nightdreams.
Nightdreams was written in a single day. It was financed by a former CEO of Hustler with money made from Times Square peep shows. Everybody involved was paid in socks full of quarters so there wouldn’t be a money trail. Pseudonyms were used for fear of prosecution. At the risk of alienating my readership, let’s take a look. Continue reading