Andrew Nichols (Max Melodramatic)
Paul McGibboney (Nick)
Michelle Bauer (Lana)
Marie Sharp (Angel)
Darcy Nychols (Moms)
Robert Dennis (The Enforcer)
Paul Berthell (Mr. Joy)
Kevin Jay (Johnny Rico)
MPAA rating: NR
Video availability: VHS - DVD
Nights would have
you believe that porn peaked in the '70s. And there were
some good sexually explicit films in that decade -- either unabashed
porn (the Ingmar Bergman-influenced Devil in Miss Jones)
or art films that showed everything (Nagisa Oshima's notorious
In the Realm of the Senses). But porn didn't necessarily
give up the ghost after Dec. 31, 1979. For one thing, there's
still imaginative shot-on-video porn being produced today, by
the likes of John Leslie, Paul Thomas (not to be confused with
Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights), and
Candida Royale. But possibly the last ambitious porn film --
a porno that aspires to be more, and succeeds -- came out in
1982, right on the cusp of the home-video revolution that made
Dirk Diggler so unhappy. It played midnight shows at legitimate
theaters and would make an ideal double bill with 1983's Liquid
Sky (a non-porn sci-fi black comedy).
Cafe Flesh, a post-nuclear New Wave porn feature, is short
(80 minutes) but decidedly not sweet. The "Nuclear Kiss"
has rendered 99% of the population unable to have sex -- they've
become Sex Negatives. The remaining one percent of Sex Positives
are required by the government to perform public sex acts for
the benefit (torment?) of the frustrated Sex Negatives. The movie
is titled after a sex nightclub frequented by the Negatives and
MC-ed by an obnoxious former stand-up comedian named Max Melodramatic
(Andrew Nichols), clearly patterned on Joel Grey in Cabaret.
"I get off on your need," he taunts the Negatives.
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 Cafe 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 she becomes increasingly
lustful as the movie goes on; she knows she could join the Positives
in their sex games if she wanted to, and she's starting to want
If you've seen even a little porn, you know how rare it is for
a sexually explicit film to bother with such things as a plot
or even a premise, and when they do attempt a plot, it's usually
fast-forward-worthy. Cafe Flesh holds your interest throughout.
It begins in a daringly abrasive way (Max jeering at the Cafe
Flesh audience -- and at us, too, as he grins right into the
camera) and hooks us not with hardcore sex (though it has that,
too) but with its ideas and conflicts. The script, by director
Stephen Sayadian and writer Jerry Stahl (later the subject of
the 1998 biopic Permanent Midnight), is tight, efficient,
and often acridly witty. The acting is wooden (except for Andrew
Nichols, doing a virtuoso asshole turn -- he deserved to break
out into major movies but didn't), yet that fits the movie's
nihilistic New Wave mood.
What really recommends Cafe Flesh is its look. The stage
shows are conceived as avant-garde theater, with its participants
dressed as animals, secretaries, giant pencils. (Some of today's
more outré gonzo porn owes much to the kinky shenanigans
in Cafe Flesh.) The cinematography, by Joseph Robertson,
is stark and unsettling, shot mostly by available torch light.
The sex itself (you were wondering when I was going to get to
that?) is frigid and mechanized -- David Cronenberg might have
looked at this movie before making Crash.
It's so cold it's hot -- there's no fake context for the scenes,
as there is in most porn. It's just there, and it has
a queasy dead-zone fascination.
The movie's most challenging aspect is its disgust for its own
audience. If you rent it to see copulation, you'll get that,
but you'll also get dissed. The hapless, zombie-like spectators
in the club are stand-ins for the spectators in the movie theater
(or living room). In short, it's pomo porno. It gives you more
and less than you expect. Cafe Flesh is good enough to
make some of us regret the domination of porn by such cheerful
hacks as Seymour Butts (and his bubbly, ready-for-whatever starlet
Shane, the Sandra Bullock of porn). The medium needs more artists
like Stephen Sayadian, who tried to crack the mainstream with
1989's Dr. Caligari. It didn't work out, and by the early
'90s he had fallen back on routine sex videos like Party Doll
a Go Go and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West -- becoming,
you could say, a real-life Jack Horner.
Note: A sequel, Cafe
Flesh 2, was released on video in 1998.