The Safe-Sex Lesson in Café Flesh
Much as I am loath to criticize the noble efforts of Tony Kushner, the real enjoyment some people get from Rent, and the whimsical rounded stick figures that grace the sides of buses, most AIDS art could be summed up with a big yawn. Maybe AIDS artists should remember George Burns’ advice: “Death. It’s been done.”
In the rush to praise post-AIDS art/kitsch as immeasurably profound, critics have mostly failed to notice the art that led to it. The 1982 science fiction porn movie Café Flesh comes to mind. Along with other sex crimes-themed art of the era, such as the movie version of George Orwell's 1984--featuring as theme song The Eurhythmics' "Sex Crimes"-- and the rigid, robotic beat of New Wave groups, as in The Talking Heads singing-speaking "We can dance, we can dance, everything's under control," Café Flesh captured, in its own campy way, the malaise of the decade that brought us AIDS.
TimeOut London does note the film's "certain eerie prescience": "Produced on the very eve of the AIDS pandemic, it proposes a future in which, following some plague-like visitation, the world's population is either Sex Positive or Sex Negative." But even this prediction was just the spirit of the times, the same spirit that created the AIDS mythologies about sex, shame and projection. Café Flesh resonated so clearly that, despite its X rating (or more likely because of it), the film enjoyed a controversial but popular second run as a midnight movie in college towns in late 1984. You may recall this was a few months after the Gallo press conference announcing a sexually transmitted virus as the cause of "the new, deadly epidemic", and making "HIV Positive" the same as "having AIDS".
The second run billed Café Flesh as an “art film,” full of what kids like me would call "heavy social commentary." It was photographed in nihilistic gunmetal-gray tones accompanied by a synthesized punk parody of Vaudeville music and disembodied moans. The plague comes after the fulfillment of the pervasive fear of the 1980s--nuclear war. The Sex Negatives, who become nauseous if they try to have sex, attempt to satisfy "the lust that war has made insatiable" by watching the Sex Positives get it on, staged as Dadaist performance art with props like phone booths, typewriters and salon hair dryers.
Bad acting seems almost part of the plan, as does a script littered with nonsensical film noir gangster-talk and such attempts at depth as quoting Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” In true Dadaist fashion, if you got that, you didn’t really. Like AIDS, it doesn’t make sense unless you are one of the cognoscenti. But here's the “deep” part: Audiences for Café Flesh watch audiences in the movie, who in turn watch people have sex. One critic called it a "porn movie about porn movies."
"During the sex scenes the [night club] audience's faces become blank, pained, fixated stares (and if you quickly grab a mirror you might catch yourself with the same expression). Café Flesh's emcee, Max Melodramatic, provides intermittent commentary explaining the audience's pain. It has to do with dwelling on a need you can't fulfill, trying to think about it until you make it happen."
What could better describe the ambivalence of 1980s America, consumed with sado-masochistic desire for ever more power, control, consumer goods and sex against a background of post-Vietnam, Christian fundamentalist, Reaganomic shame and guilt? What better way to express that angst than by shutting down sex in a portion of the population, as the film fantasizes?
People come to the night club Café Flesh to experience the thrill of somebody else’s passion, but the crowd’s highest ideal of sexual prowess–a finely tuned sex machine named Rico–can do it without even taking the cigarette out of his mouth.
Elizabeth Ely is a freelance writer and public speaker based in New York City, who has learned all the wrong lessons from being thrown out of a major Protestant church. She is working on a book about the religious nature of AIDS-think.