Café Flesh (1982)

*. I’ve written before (starting here) on how porn movies aren’t about people having sex but about people watching people having sex. It is an essentially voyeuristic form.
*. This is a point that reached its sardonic apotheosis in Café Flesh. The idea here is not unlike Behind the Green Door, with the movie presented as a hardcore floor show into which an innocent newbie from Wyoming is introduced. In terms of the hydraulics what we get is a series of artistic (or, if you’re feeling snobby, pseudo-artistic) vignettes being acted out on stage in avant-garde fashion. I remember performance pieces in the ’80s that looked like this, without the sex. I don’t know if they still do.
*. The difference between this film and Behind the Green Door is that we’re in a bunker. This is post-apocalyptic porn. The “Nuclear Kiss” of World War III has divided the population into Sex Positives and Sex Negatives, with the former group constituting only 1% of survivors (it seems the lucky 1% will always be with us). The Sex Negatives, or “erotic causalities,” are people who “want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill.” They can, however, get some vicarious kicks by watching the Positives perform at clubs like this.
*. But are the zombies in the audience, who are shown in frequent cutaway shots, having a good time? They look to me more like the devil at the end of Devil in Miss Jones, experiencing the torments of Tantalus in hell. Perhaps it’s a masochistic thrill. As Nick puts it, “torture is the one thing left I can feel.”
*. Adding to their perverse debasement are the taunts of Max Melodramatic, Joel Grey of this sexy cabaret (writer Jerry Stahl saw the club as “Cabaret-goes-New Wave . . . an irradiated Ship of Fools“). Played by Andrew Nichols, Max has a decent patter combined with the ickiness suitable for such a joint. Surprisingly, as with most of the cast here, he isn’t a total embarrassment in the acting department either.
*. There seems something allegorical about what’s going on. Stahl thought the club’s come-on was the audience’s (that is, our) own apocalyptic yearnings: “the fetish for fiery climax that gives some folks a secret frisson at the prospect of the Holocaust to come.” This made me think of the thrill-seekers at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and it’s a provocative point. Is porn the afterglow of sex?
*. Danny Peary, writing in Cult Movies 3, found it “hard to believe it [Café Flesh] wasn’t made to comment on AIDS.” This would make it a part of the venereal horror that was taking off at the same time. In our own day, however, I read it more as an indictment of online thrills. As young people admit to having less sex while spending more and more time on social media or watching Internet porn, haven’t we come to resemble the zombified Sex Negatives? Those blank faces are instantly recognizable as the same that stare into cell phones even at public events. Today this would definitely be an online hangout, our parents’ basement as bunker. Especially since one of the few bits of our infrastructure actually designed to survive a nuclear war is the Internet.
*. It’s art, but is it porn? Meaning, does it arouse? Peary found the stylized costumes and sets to be erotic. The idea of Angel’s corruption and Lana’s awakening, the two of them taking on the Marilyn Chambers role from Behind the Green Door, has a thrill to it. What’s unerotic, at least to me, is the ironic presentation of sex. The performers are like parodies of the usual pistoning porn parts: more like props than flesh-and-blood people, made up in costumes that dehumanize and objectify them totally (a giant rat, a giant pencil, a mannequin typist). They are automata, or furniture with pubic hair.
*. Well, it could be argued that all porn is objectification. And the very theatricality the sex is presented with here may be a turn-on for some. It would lead to Gregory Dark’s New Wave Hookers (starring an underage Traci Lords) just a few years later, a film generally regarded as the start of the alt-porn movement, where being bizarre became part of the fun. But those days are gone now.
*. To stick with Peary for just a bit longer, it’s interesting how he sees a sex-positive message in the ending, with Lana leaving the audience, no longer just being a spectator but fulfilling herself sexually on stage. But Nick is banished from the club, no longer allowed to even watch. So where do we stand? Are we in or out?
*. Directed by Stephen Sayadian under the pseudonym Rinse Dream, a man who’s been credited with creating his own genre of “surrealist nightmare art-porn.” Alongside Café Flesh his best-known films are Nightdreams (as co-writer) and Dr. Caligari. He seems to have circled around porn for most of his career, imagining creative new directions for it to go in. The results he achieved in the ’80s were at least interesting, psychologically insightful, and even touchingly human at times. Nightdreams, for example, looks like it was the inspiration for Andrew Blake’s Night Trips, and with its mix of voyeurism, technology, and sex it’s as prophetic as this film today. Blake’s movie, on the other hand, is just as artistic in its own way, and is better porn.

17 thoughts on “Café Flesh (1982)

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        I dressed up as the MC a fancy dress party; my friend was Sally Bowles.

        And you think you’re decadent? So why are you peddling this Leisure Suit Larry stuff on us? Fraggle is quite impressionable, but I think I’ve calmed her down…

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