“I Know You’re Watching Me”: The Bizarre Visions of “Rinse Dream”

As renegade as they may seem to the outside world, porn films stay within a “comfort zone.” Few directors strayed outside that zone as consistently and imaginatively as Stephen Sayadian, who made eight porn features under the moniker “Rinse Dream.” Sayadian’s work is provocative in the truest sense of the world: his characters explode the fourth wall by including the viewer in the action, his “party doll” actresses daring us to get off at their antics while they spout nonsense sex phrases (“lucky spasm,” “man mayo,” “slut slaw”) and a voiceover – from the performer you’re watching descend into an orgasmic frenzy onscreen – offers sardonic comments like “she’s lying … lies, lies, more lies….”

The average porn fan had little patience for Sayadian’s sometimes grotesque sex scenes (a girl and her jack-in-the-box, a secretary and a man dressed as a pencil). But Rinse Dream is well-beloved by movie buffs for the fact that he was the first and only porn director whose work was shown exclusively to cult and underground audiences, usually in Rocky Horror-style witching-hour bookings. His features continue to get glowing reviews on adult movie websites and in reference “guides,” most especially his Café Flesh (1982), a lavishly stylized slice of arty sci-fi porn about a postnuclear world in which the people who can still have sex (“Sex Positives”) are forced to perform in sleazy cabarets for the sad “Sex Negatives” who’ve lost the knack.

But who is Rinse Dream….er, Stephen Sayadian exactly? He first worked in show business as a theater director with avant-garde tendencies, something that certainly defined the look of his porn. Café Flesh opens with a leering M.C. (Andrew Nichols) inviting us to watch a “tableau of desire in decline, the honorable Mr. and Mrs. Sane…” This sequence winds up concerning a housewife getting it on with her rat milkman (don’t ask), but the tableau principle harkens back to Sayadian’s theatrical work, as does the incredible set design, lighting and makeup effects that appear in his features.

Sayadian’s real-life experiences in the advertising industry are reflected in his dialogue, which mocks consumer gullibility, and in a visually striking episode in his first dark-humored art-porn outing, Nighdreams (1981). The film finds a pair of scientists monitoring the outlandish sex fantasies of a buttoned-down housewife (Dorothy Le May), who is the first in a long line of Rinse Dream characters to utter the fourth-wall bustin’ line, “I know you’re watching me….” A creepy rape fantasy that occurs midway through is clearly modeled after the movie poster for Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill – which Sayadian had, coincidentally, helped to design.

Sayadian’s final pre-porn career, directing music videos, is also echoed in Nightdreams, in a memorable lesbian cowgirl episode. As a pair of nubile twin cowgirls come up against a horny gunslinger (LeMay) with a dildo in her holster, a killer cover of “Ring of Fire” by the band Wall of Voodoo fills the soundtrack. The fact that the cowgirl scene and Wall of Voodoo’s classic vid-clip “Mexican Radio” have a similar setting and the same lighting is no coincidence, as Sayadian directed that music video and several others at the turn of the ’80s.

When it came time for Sayadian and his co-scripter Jerry Stahl (better known these days as the author of gritty tomes like the memoir Permanent Midnight) to cash in on the surprise success of Flesh, the pair came up with a completely wigged-out softcore update of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari called, simply enough, Dr. Caligari (1989). Stahl and Sayadian’s dialogue is at its strangest here, with the actors delivering weird monologues about their lives before they entered into treatment with the slinky doc (played by Madeleine Reynal). What one carries away from the film despite its torrent of words, however, are demented items like a giant skin-covered door that has odd gaping wounds and a very large functioning tongue that makes one female patient very happy indeed.

With its hypnotic syntho soundtracks, severely geometric fashions and screwy, pop culture-centric dialogue, Sayadian’s work fits in snugly in with other art-school-freak creations of the new wave period in the 1970s and early ’80s, including Devo, “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” and Richard Elfman’s live-action cartoon Forbidden Zone. As integral to Sayadian’s style as the tableau idea is – a frozen sexual grouping that comes to life and is explored through different camera angles – Mitchell Froom’s skewed synthesizer music helps to modulate the pacing for much of Café Flesh and the other early Sayadian pics. Froom went on from these film experiments to become a highly lauded music producer and session musician, working with the likes of Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos and his wife, Suzanne Vega. Froom was also one of the few crewmembers on the films to use his real name — perhaps because his real name sounds like a pseudonym in the first place.

Sayadian’s other main collaborator, Jerry Stahl, was his writing partner for over a decade. The two went from cranking out satiric ads and articles for Hustler to contriving what Stahl refers to as “avant-garde whack’n’whiggle” flicks in Permanent Midnight. Sayadian’s work after Stahl went off on his own – to write mainstream sitcoms like Alf and battle his own drug abuse – was still sublimely subversive, but the early films contain some of the most jarring images to ever appear in porn. Key among these is the comic sequence in Nightdreams where a black dude decked out in a cardboard Cream of Wheat box (with the real logo!) receives a blowjob from a horny housewife, while a white guy dressed as a slice of bread plays the sax (to a scratchy 78 of “Old Man River”).

Sayadian returned to porn in 1991 after becoming fed up with working on mainstream TV series like Silk Stalkings and Max Headroom. He displays an even more defiant attitude in the six shot-on-video features that appeared from ’91-’93 (Party Doll a Go Go 1 & 2, Nightdreams 2 & 3 and a pair of features about the Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West). These half-dozen features are open acts of sabotage – Sayadian gives the average porn fan what he wants, but not in the package that he wants it in. Plots are non-existent, dialogue ranges from silly to bitchy (the always-intense Jeanna Fine comments on her own character’s submissive begging: “she’s saying some profound stuff. She’s must’ve read The Hobbit.”), sex scenes are interrupted by chicks doing the frug or the hitchhike, and, most radically, in Party Doll each girl gets a mantra to repeat over and over as she climaxes (or watches one), the best being Bionca’s manic, “Calling all porn dogs – watch me work, uh-huh!”

After dismembering porn’s clichés in those features, Sayadian returned to his roots in theater and advertising. In the past few years, he has bounced back from health problems to work on a variety of projects, both in and of show business. He’s currently working on a theatrical musical based on – what else? – Café Flesh that he says won’t contain hardcore but will reflect the humor and surreal sensibility that made the film a cult classic.

The upcoming Café Flesh stage show guarantees that future “Rinse Dream” mindfucks may on the way (this time in person!). Whatever happens, Sayadian’s reputation as a radically surreal filmmaker is secure: not content to simply supply jackoff fodder, he and his partners served up some indelibly strange nightmare imagery, as well as some of the wildest camp humor to appear in any medium during the ’80s and ’90s. And, ironically, even though he was hellbent on subverting their “big moments” in every conceivable way, soft and hardcore performers like Michelle Bauer (who starred in Flesh under the pseudonym “Pia Snow”), Jeanna Fine and Madison look a helluva lot better in his features than they did in films that offered no distractions whatsoever. Maybe those mantras held some magic, after all…. — Ed Grant

(First published in Celebrity Skin and used with the written permission of the author and publication of first instance.)