May 9th, 2010

The Life and Times of Stephen Sayadian
Luther Phillips

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It’s 1982 and the adult videotape market is just beginning to surge. Stephen Sayadian is in the process of making his second feature film, with the usual complications of the b-movie director: the entire film had to be shot over the course of eleven days in a small studio in the heart of downtown L.A.; electricity was being illegally patched in to power the equipment; and extras were recruited from a nearby blood bank and methadone clinic. The film was Café Flesh, a post-apocalyptic cult pornographic science fiction dystopian satire designed and directed by Sayadian (under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream”) and co-written by Sayadian and Jerry Stahl (credited as “Herbert W. Day”), most famous for his work on ALF, Thirtysomething, and Moonlighting, and later as the subject of the 1998 biopic Permanent Midnight.


Performance is one of Sayadian’s central themes, and his films feature styles of acting that are typically associated with the avant-garde. At that time, many downtown L.A. filmmakers were incorporating aspects of pornography into avant-garde film, and so it was a logical move for Sayadian to do the same thing in the opposite direction, bringing not only the acting techniques, but the surreal set and costume design associated with the avant-garde to his morbid pornographic vision. For example, a housewife getting it on with a milkman in a rat costume while gaudily made up men in high chairs look on and bang at their feeding trays with over-sized bones, or the executive with a giant pencil for a head doing it doggy style with his secretary. How did this happen?


Sayadian got his start during the mid 70s as Hustler’s creative director in charge of humor and advertising. This position entailed making the advertisements for Flynt’s novelty sex products. “When you looked at the advertising, you wouldn’t know if it was a parody or it was real,” Sayadian said in regard to those ads during a personal interview with Jacob Smith in August 2005, but it wouldn’t be till the early 1980s that he came into his own, when Sayadian teamed up with co-author Stahl and director Frank Delia, to create a new kind of porn: Night Dreams.


The narrative of Night Dreams is structured around sessions in a surreal sex therapy clinic.The first image we see is an extreme close-up of Mrs. Van Houton (Dorothy Le May), kneeling in a stark white clinical observation room, electrodes connected to her forehead. She looks directly at the camera and says,”I know you’re watching me. I feel your eyes like fingers touching me in certain places.” The camera cuts to a shot of a male and female doctor (Andy Nichols and Jennifer West) observing Mrs. Van Houton on the other side of one-way glass. For the rest of the film Mrs. Van Houton delivers direct-address stream-of consciousness monologues to the camera that segue into stylized sex sequences, while on the other side of the glass the exasperated doctors try to make sense of her behavior.


In one segment we see Mrs. Van Houton in a kitchen, preparing a pot of Cream of Wheat. “Mmm. I love Cream of Wheat,” she says. “It’s so hot and creamy. It feels so good when it goes down my throat.” “It really fills a girl up. Nutritious and delicious,” exclaims an African American man wearing a cardboard Cream of Wheat box. As the soundtrack plays the Ink Spots’ light jazz version of “Old Man River” Mrs.Van Houton performs oral sex on the Cream of Wheat box, intercut with images of Wonder Bread. The scene ends when Sayadian appears dancing and playing the saxophone dressed as a slice of white bread.



Café Flesh has the same abstract element, but combined with a compelling storyline, in which Sex Positives hide from the authorities. “I’m a virgin,” a woman shouts as she’s being pulled away by undercover agents. It all takes place in the notorious sex club, Café Flesh, with its leering Negatives so reminiscent of the audience-members in Metropolis viewing the female robot as she comes to life for the first time, or the remarkable performance of Max Melodramatic (Andrew Nichols), the MC at the club where these shenanigans take place and clearly modeled after the character of Joel Gray from Cabaret.


In the world of Café Flesh, a “Nuclear Kiss” has rendered 99% of the population unable to have sex. The remaining one percent are required by the government to perform public sex acts in front of the frustrated Sex Negatives in a variety of dives like Café Flesh. The film exists in the same gritty alternative universe as Mad Max and Blade Runner—Blade Runner came out the summer before, and Mad Max three years previous. Between interspliced faces of sickly club-goers and the main characters in the back oozing boredom with every breath they take, we’re caught in a nightmare bizarro porn version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. “Big deal. Rico fucks. We watch. What else is new?”


“Good evening mutants and mutettes, and welcome to Café Flesh..” That’s Max Melodramatic, a cigarette-wielding hand concealing his disdain. Max is the voice of the film, playing it quiet and disgusted one minute, or flipping off the audience in a bonnet and dress while hanging from a swing. He’s the pusherman who gives you what you want while he spits in your face.


But the plot centers on a Sex Negative couple, Nick (Paul McGibboney) and Lana (Pia Snow, later the scream queen Michelle Bauer), who are addicted to the nightly shows at Café Flesh. Nick keeps trying to make love to Lana, but he gets violently sick. Lana fakes being ill—unbeknownst to Nick, she’s actually a Sex Positive who has stuck with him out of love, but her hidden lust is starting to get in the way. The slow-mo shot when she finally can’t take it any more and makes straight for the stage is like something straight out of an italian horror film, like The Beyond or Suspiria. “Ooh. Wyoming huh? Where a man can still be a man if he doesn’t mind sleeping in lead pajamas.”




Sayadian vanished from the scene for a while. Then, in 1989, he released Dr. Caligari, an attempt to move away from pornography and into pure cult, but also in many ways a return to Night Visions. Like Night Visions, it takes place in an insane asylum, but revolves around the mad scientist who runs C.I.A (Caligari Insane Asylum), as much as the patients. Dr. Caligari’s treatment is to transfer glandular brain fluids from one patient to another. This film is like the offspring of Cronenberg and Troma.


Two of her main patients, Mr. Pratt, a cannibalistic serial killer, and Mrs. Van Houten, a nymphomanical housewife, are the primary subjects of her mindswapping. Mrs. van Houten becomes the cannibal and Mr. Pratt the nymphomaniac; although, they seem to still retain some elements of themselves as well. Apparently Caligari’s unconventional idea is to cure people by introducing equally opposite traits to balance out disturbed minds, but this is never implicitly stated in the film. Several other doctors, a married couple Mr & Mrs. Lodger, become concerned with Caligari’s experiments and approach Mrs. Lodgers father Dr. Avol who confronts Caligari only to fall victim to her mindswapping and receives an injection of Mrs. Van Houtens fluid turning him into a transvestite nymphomaniac. Sex is a very prominent theme throughout the movie, especially for Mrs. Van Houten who appears topless and performs masturbation at several points, but there are no hard core graphic scenes as in his previous releases.


By the end of the film Mrs. Van Houten has injected Dr. Caligari with her own nymphomanical fluid and herself with Caligari’s ancestor’s (the original Dr. Caligari from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) thus the patient becomes the doctor, the doctor becomes the patient and the inmates are left running the asylum.




Since Dr. Caligari, Sayadian has slipped back into the world of mainstream porn, but he still retains his distinctive style. For example, at one point in Party Doll A Go Go Part 2, Jezabel (Jeanna Fine) says, “I know you’re watching me,” just as Randy Spears is about to orally ravage her labia and surrounding girl area.