Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pozzies and Neggies: Genre, Industry, and Cultural Hierarchy in CAFÉ FLESH

In 1980, while the major Hollywood studios were in the middle of an unsuccessful lawsuit to enjoin owners of home videocassette recorders from taping copyrighted material off-air, an estimated 60 per cent of U.S. video sales were for pornographic films.  By 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against the majors, and an already-existing infrastructure of video rental outlets, blank tape sales, and exponential sales growth of VCRs convinced Hollywood that the new landscape of home video could be profitably exploited.  During this intervening four-year period, porn filmmakers, distributors, and devotees negotiated the new home-viewing context of pornographic feature films.  Café Flesh (1982), produced and directed by writer/director Steve Sayadian and cinematographer Frances Delia (under their respective noms de porn, “Rinse Dream” and “F. X. Pope”) was released by porn video “major” VCA Pictures to massive critical acclaim and record sales.  The film is set in a post-nuclear fallout future where the vast majority of people are incapable of having sex and the remaining minority are required by law to perform in live sex shows for the entertainment of the “sex negatives.”

    Initial publicity surrounding the film’s theatrical release contrasted its high production values, literate script, extraordinary musical score, and seemingly bottomless contempt for the porn viewing audience to the production context, aesthetic values, and commercial viability of mainstream porn.  Café Flesh was received as a movie that was “not really” porn, made by industry outsiders, and which had sailed way over the heads of mainstream porn audiences, who were actually visible onscreen as drooling, slack-jawed, resentful zombies, many with open sores and physical disabilities.  

In fact, Café Flesh was produced by Caribbean Films, one of the most established and successful production houses in porn, a studio which was part of sex-trade mogul Harry Mohney’s nationwide network of bookstores, publishers, theatrical distributors, porn theaters, brothels, and strip clubs, including the latter’s showcase Dejá Vù circuit as well as the Erotic History Museum, my favorite Las Vegas non-profit institution.  Caribbean Films had produced some of the industry’s biggest and most ambitious theatrical hits, including the Candy films starring Deep Throat’s Carol Connors (1978-79) and Bob Chinn’s World War II-themed John Holmes vehicle, Prisoner of Paradise (1980). Sayadian and Delia’s previous Caribbean hit, Nightdreams from 1981, garnered excellent reviews from porn’s trade press and high box-office grosses.  The movie is a series of highly stylized hardcore set pieces which appropriate the iconography of the horror film and psychological thriller as two “scientists” explore the inner fantasy life of a woman in a mental institution hooked up to a mind-reading device.

   Central to both films’ wild generic hybridization and downbeat themes is screenwriter Herbert W. Day who, as Jerry Stahl, wrote scripts for some of the most successful television programs of the eighties and nineties, including Moonlighting, Alf, Northern Exposure, and Twin Peaks, and whose struggle with drug addiction was chronicled in the memoir Permanent Midnight.  Although Stahl has never acknowledged this, Café Flesh is based on the premise of cult sci-fi novelist Tom DeHaven’s Freaks Amour, published by William Morrow in 1979, which told a strikingly similar post-nuclear mutation / sex cabaret story.

   The central conflict in Café Flesh turns on heterosexual couple Lana and Nick.  Lana is played by future “scream queen” Michelle Bauer, acting under her porn pseudonym “Pia Snow.”  Lana and Nick have been a couple since before the nuclear holocaust, and Lana is struggling to keep her continuing sexual desire and functioning a secret from Nick and the authorities, who would force her into a life of performing if her positive status were revealed.  We see this in a subplot in which the virginal teenage runaway Angel, played by porn supporting player Marie Sharp, is literally sniffed out as a positive by enforcement bounty hunters, kidnapped, and returned to Café Flesh to perform her debut number as a despairing Nick and increasingly aroused Lana are forced (or at least compelled) to watch. 
In a role based on Joel Grey’s from Cabaret, the Café’s misanthropic master of ceremonies, Max Melodramatic (played by Andrew Nichols in one of the greatest performance ever in a hardcore movie), takes pleasure in taunting the negatives from the stage and begins a particularly vicious campaign against Nick after he secretly witnesses Lana masturbating after hours at the club.  His goading of Nick is phrased in terms which explicitly link virtuosity of performance in showbiz with basic sexual functioning:  “Listen, pal.  Before the nukes I was a two bit yuck hustler bombing in the Borscht Belt.  For ten years, fuckin’ squares like you kept me on the bottom.  But I’m on top, buddy boy, and don’t you ever forget it.  Now it’s time for me stare into your face and laugh.”  We learn that Max is neither positive nor negative.  Rather, he is a eunuch, having lost his genitals in the nuclear conflagration.

   The two leads of the film, Michelle Bauer and Paul McGibboney, turn in performances wholly consonant with Hollywood’s norms of acting professionalism.  The muscular but impotent Nick oozes despair and pessimism and reads his lines in an dead, emotionally shattered tone reminiscent of male voice-overs from films noirs of the forties.  Lana’s is the film’s most complex performance, her character evincing an increasingly frantic attempt to perform the role of sex negative as the desires aroused by the cabaret performances begin to overwhelm her.

   The cabaret is abuzz with excitement that the most famous performer on the sex circuit, the massively hung and insatiable Johnny Rico, played by Sayadian’s favorite B-list porn stud, Kevin Jay, is coming to perform at the club.  Watching Johnny Rico coldly topping a female performer onstage, Lana can no longer hold back, and she walks to the stage in a slow motion trance and unleashes her desire with Johnny Rico as Max laughs in the face of a completely broken Nick.  But at the moment, “Lana” can no longer sustain the role of a sex negative within the narrative of Café Flesh, Michelle Bauer can no longer sustain her role as porn actress Pia Snow, and porn actor Kevin Jay performs with a body double in the emotional, thematic, and hydraulic climax of the film.

Even the film's earlier sex performance pieces display a jarring discontinuity of tone and rhythm.  Angel’s debut number at the cabaret, which features art deco visual motifs and men wearing telephone masks and which takes place on top of trapezoidal phone booth inside which a nude woman writhes and attempts to escape, is choreographed with mechanical precision.  Disembodied hands emerge from the stage floor and snap fingers in time with the score, and her two male partners move her up and down the surface of the overturned phone booth in time to the music. But when Angel / Marie Sharp begins her explicit sexual performance, both the rhythm of the bodies and the rhythm of the editing lose the beat, and the undulating pattern of body movement become the driving force of the cutting.  After we see this virtuosic display of pornographic performers in action, Angel exits the stage and excitedly greets Lana and Nick, and the line readings of Marie Sharp are as unconvincing as Michelle Bauer / Pia Snow / Lana’s body double is to hawk-eyed fans yearning to see their favorite scream queen fucking before she became famous.

   Café Flesh pushes almost to the breaking point the clashes between the different registers of performance and film style characteristic of the porn feature aiming to approximate the understated virtuosity of even off-Hollywood cinema, but many films in this period attempted to combine the norms of hardcore and general release cinema.  Several changes in the porn film industry worked to provide commercial incentives to produce ambitious and innovative films in search of a box-office hit. After revisions to the Tax Code eliminated the tax shelters for motion picture investment in 1976, the number of annual features declined steadily 1983.  As the number of films declined, budgets began to rise, and high-profile star vehicles such as Miracle Films' Marilyn Chambers feature Insatiable (1980), Evart Enterprises' Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle (1981), the Veronica Hart caper comedy Wanda Whips Wall Street and the Annette Haven costume romance 1001 Erotic Nights (both 1982) became huge hits on the adult circuit, which saw large numbers of 16mm houses replaced by 35mm theaters as failing subsequent run houses converted to porn.  In distribution, the states rights system, with its single payment up front by a sub-distributor in exchange for regional distribution rights, was replaced by studios booking directly into theaters along with an orderly clearance system in which films were distributed in zones radiating out from major markets, with large numbers of prints circulating through the market.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights mythologizes the coming of video to the porn industry in much the same way that MGM’s Singin' in the Rain mythologized the coming of sound to Hollywood:  At a New Year’s Eve celebration in the final hours of 1979, a video executive shows up at the house of a porn director and announces that he represents the future.  Like Singin' in the Rain, this makes for better storytelling than history.  Porn’s transition to video production was measured and took place against the background of an industry committed to producing films with high production values for theatrical release.  The Sony Betamax was introduced in 1975 as a high-end consumer item and was considered too expensive to serve a conduit to a large porn-consuming public.  Further, the VHS / Beta format wars caused a lack of standardization and a doubling of lab fees for video transfer.  During the earliest years of home video, the porn industry exploited video by releasing its back catalog to the home format and replacing Super 8mm in arcades and peep shows with the Sony Betamax.  The original video productions did not appear until 1983.

   The company which released Café Flesh to theater and home video was VCA Pictures, whose full company name was VCA Labs, Inc., originally a tape duplicating service which provided mass-produced copies of videocassettes to several porn companies.  VCA was established in 1980 and was promptly sued by the Veterinary Council of America.  After this initial setback, the company acquired the rights to a small back catalog and released its own titles beginning in 1981.  Café Flesh was the inaugural release of its theatrical division in 1982, and its first 35mm production was New Wave Hookers in 1985, a spectacular box-office success which influenced the next generation of porn filmmakers and became a profitable franchise which exists to this day.

   New Wave Hookers’ director, Gregory Hyppolite aka Greg Dark of the “Dark Brothers,” was the head of VCA’s theatrical division and oversaw the company’s buying of the film from Harry Mohney and Caribbean, its promotion as a movie too good for porn made by industry outsiders, and its careful multi-platform theatrical release.  Hyppolite was so taken with the film’s visual style that he hired Café Flesh’s production designer Paul Berthell, credited onscreen as “Pez D. Spencer,” to craft the signature stylized look of the Dark Brothers’ films throughout the mid-eighties.

 The clashing registers of performance and style in Café Flesh’s visual design, linking scenes, and explicit sex are paralleled in the multiple exhibition and reception contexts the film inhabited in 1982.  The film was released in March of 1982 to hardcore circuits in major markets.  Shortly after this, VCA farmed out an R-rated cut to Fox Lorber for distribution in art theaters in an effort to capitalize on that distributor’s previous success in booking risqué art films into theaters in the Landmark chain.  Also, VCA placed the film in several midnight bookings in art theaters in a hardcore version with the cumshots removed, seeking to raise its cultural leanings to level of say, Pink Flamingos by omitting the most déclassé and downscale trope of the porn genre while preserving its “transgressive” elements.  This experiment was not a success, but the film reaped moderate financial rewards as a supporting feature and through block-booking arrangements.  Steve Sayadian’s stories of “riots” breaking out in hardcore houses where the film was shown appears to be an overstatement.  The movie was released to home video just weeks afterward, before it had finished its theatrical playoff in the outlying zones away from major markets.  This was part of a series of “day and date” experiments by the porn industry which coordinated the theatrical and video releases of a high profile feature and which also included a 1981 New York City booking of Ron Sullivan’s Babylon Pink at which the film was offered for sale in the lobby after the screening for the then-standard price point of eighty dollars.  Café Flesh became one of VCA’s most successful video releases in both its hardcore and softcore “cable” versions.

    Café Flesh provides a case study of the changing porn industry’s attempt to expand both the demographic groups to to which its products might appeal and the spaces in which this audience could be reached.  The story of Café Flesh’s ultimate success as a crossover film on home video points to a series of seldom-questioned assumptions about the aesthetic tastes and rungs on the cultural food chain inhabited by porn audiences on one hand and cult movie aficionado “hipsters” on the other.  Throughout the period of porn’s theatrical distribution in the 1970s through the mid-1980s, audiences responded very favorably to artistically ambitious, challenging, and innovative films, making many of them huge box-office hits.  Later, a larger crossover audience in home video was in fact parasitic on the cultural discernment of the porn crowd, an audience which had rewarded filmmakers’ experimentation and which provided home-video distributors with pre-tested commercial properties likely to benefit from a modified sales pitch to the smug and contemptuous larger viewing public.  This larger pubic often disingenuously viewed themselves as cultural “pozzies” alive to the pleasures only dimly remembered by the “neggies” who haunted x-rated exhibition circuits during porn’s greatest artistic flowering.

Many thanks to adult film historian and preservationist Joe Rubin, who patiently explained the history of the distribution of film prints through the x-rated theatrical market in the late seventies and the industry's measured and multi-phase embrace of home video.  Rubin and his colleagues at Vinegar Syndrome continue to do excellent work in the preservation and restoration of classic adult films and cult movies for DVD, and their online streaming service, ExploitationTV, offers full 1080p streaming of a range of XXX, horror, and international films from the Vinegar Syndrome catalog and elsewhere.  Their work deserves our support.

The academic field of media studies has produced a diverse and incredibly well-researched body of work on the porn industry, its history, its products, its key players and  some of the social implications of its enduring popularity and struggles with censorship.  These titles feature some of what I consider the best writing from scholars in the U.S. and the U.K. on the topic.  The Feminist Porn Book contains thoughtful essays by performers, media makers, and activists as well.

Coming soon:  "Dumb White Guys Unite!  
Or, `Hey Rush, Am I on the Air?'"