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. Continue reading

“Go Ahead, Eat Me With Your Eyes” — The Films of Rinse Dream, Part 1

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.

Credit: Dr. Caligari, Excalibur Films DVD

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…”[1] 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.”[2]

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