Euro Beat: Art-Porn-Surrealism Master To Be Honored In Paris

Brian Clark, European Editor
Today's eclectic edition of Euro Beat features a spotlight on a singular adult filmmaker, a simple way to help save Portuguese cinema culture, a guide to watching Venice film festival premieres at home, European box office and more.

We'll kick it off with the porn, not just because we are, like all other sites, in the page view business, but because I've waited a long time to write a bit about the cinema of writer/director Stephen Sayadian. And finally, I have occasion! This year's edition of Paris' excellent genre film celebration, L'Etrange Festival, will feature a focus on the cult director, who will be on hand in person to present theatrical screenings of Night Dreams, Cafe Flesh and Party Doll a-Go-Go

I first stumbled up on the work of Sayadian by accident. Back in college, I was wandering the video store when a VHS Box caught my eye. It depicted a naked woman, posed somewhere between sex and fear, being watched by a disembodied eye. The film was called Night Dreams and the quote on the front read "The Citizen Kane of Porno's." On the back there was another quote that made no mention of the fact that it was a porn -- it simply said, "Fellini meets Eraserhead." I rented it immediately. 

By the time my friend and I were ready to give it a whirl, I felt pretty sure that no movie could live up to the movie we were imagining and joking about all the way home. But it turned out that Night Dreams was a few steps ahead of us, and anything we could have imagined. 

The sparse plot involves two scientists observing a housewife who has lost her mind. She's screaming and babbling incoherently, so naturally the scientists hook her up to some sort of brain wave-monitoring machine that allows them to observe her dreams and sexual fantasies. For the rest of the movie, we too observe these fantasies, checking back with the scientists only occasionally to get their banal reactions to the surreal, transgressive universe inside the woman's head. 

About what's in her head: I don't want to spoil too much about the film, because part of the magic is not knowing where or how far the movie is going to go. Suffice to say, when the first sex scene began with a slow tracking shot across a foggy room stocked with horrifying clown dolls then finally stopped when a human-size, anatomically correct jack-in-the-box popped out, I knew I was watching something unforgettable. The fact that this entire sequence is scored not with music, but with looped demented cackling is also significant. 

From here the film veers from the scary to the dreamy, from an acid-laced johnny cash cover around a campfire to a must-be-seen-to-be-believed sexual meditation on racial stereotyping, from heaven to hell... literally. Because of its episodic nature, it sometimes feels as if the film won't end, and even if you sometimes kinda want it to, it's difficult to stop to watching. 

At the time, I couldn't find any information on the internet about the film or how it got made. I had sorta constructed an elaborate fantasy about a serious art student whose sleazy uncle offered him a modest sum of money and carte blanche to make a porno as long as he delivered a specified number of penetration scenes. 

Since then, I've discovered more about the career of Stephen Sayadian (who worked in adult film under the pseudonym Rinse Dream). It turned out that in many ways, his screenplay for Night Dreams (which was directed by another person with psuedonym, F.X. Pope) was really a precursor to his labor of love -- Cafe Flesh, which he directed and co-wrote with Permanent Midnight author Jerry Stahl. Once again combining pornographic sex with the esoteric and surreal, Cafe Flesh takes place after an apocalyptic nuclear fallout. Most people -- the negatives -- have lost their sexual ability, and thus, the minority who is still capable -- the positives -- is forced to perform sexual acts around the clock for the entertainment and satisfaction. Naturally, a forbidden love story emerges.

Sayadan has since quietly amassed a well-deserved cult following while continuing to work in the margins -- though he did design the original theatrical poster for Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill! It probably goes without saying, but the Sayadan's work isn't screened publicly very often, and certainly not with the man himself on hand to introduce the screenings. So Kudos to the L'Etrange Festival for giving the public a chance to collectively experience some of the most bizarre, memorable cinema of all time. If you live anywhere at all near Paris, it's more or less essential that you grab a date and go to one of the screenings -- neither of you will ever be quite the same. 

L'Etrange Festival will take place from September 5 to 15 at the Forum Des Images in Paris -- Check back later today for the full program, which includes a number of other reasons to excited. But for now, click through for the rest of Euro Beat!
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