Boogie 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 to.
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.