Sunday, September 14, 2014

Post-Nuclear Expressionism: A Stephen Sayadian Sampler

Still from "Red White Acrylic Dream"
Imagine a time where filmmakers were shadowy figures of mystique, only mentioned at awards shows and, if they were really unlucky, clucked about in rags written by harpies like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. (And boy, if ever a name was built for literally harpy-ing, it was Hedda Hopper, but I digress.) In this day and age of social media and artists tweeting the exact specs of their brunch at Barney's, it is rare to see a living filmmaker still shrouded in mystery and falsehoods bordering on urban legend, but yet, all of this and more applies to Stephen Sayadian.

Album cover for Wall of Voodoo's "Happy Planet." Note the fish, a motif that appears again and again in Sayadian's work.

For the unfamiliar and unconverted, Sayadian is a former ad-man and current filmmaker and artist whose best known works include the post-apocalyptic, science-fiction adult film, “Cafe Flesh,” as well as the neon-expressionist sequel-in-spirit to the German silent film classic “Cabinet of Dr.Caligari,” “Dr. Caligari.” But his resume is much more than that. In addition to working with Francis Delia on the classic “Nightdreams,” in which Sayadian himself appeared in one of the most joy-happy moments in cinematic history as a dancing piece of toast, (In wingtips, no less!) Sayadian got his big start working as the advertising art director of Hustler Magazine, though the masthead often lists him as assistant art director. He made his official debut in the December '76 issue, with the article “Hustler's Sleazy Shopping Guide.” Starting off with a sense of humor that at times played out like Mad Magazine meets Grand Guignol, it wasn't long before Sayadian's distinctive visual eye and wholly unique thumbprint would come into full play at the magazine. 

From the January 1977 issue.
One of the most amazing things about seeing Sayadian's work in Hustler is realizing how young he was. Born on October 18th, 1953 in Chicago, Illinois, Stephen was all but 23 years old when he started at Hustler. Coming from a commercial background that included writing the fortunes that were included in the individual pieces of Bazooka Joe gum, he truly was the Madison Avenue Wunderkind when he was brought into the fold at Hustler. Sayadian left the magazine for awhile in late '78, right after the assassination attempt on founder and editor Larry Flynt. But as Larry healed up and became more involved directly with the magazine again, Sayadian returned and created some of the best and most memorable layouts in Hustler's history. This included “Red, White Acrylic Dream” in the July 1984 issue, which famously invoked such American advertising brand stalwarts as Bob's Big Boy, the Morton Salt girl and Aunt Jemima, coupled with text by frequent Sayadian collaborator, Jerry Stahl. It takes the “erotic nightmare” aesthetic that was used so beautifully in his films and in turn, he created something simultaneously poetic and ghoulish about our own culture. So much of modern American pop culture is completely riddled with advertising and commercial tactics, which is one of many layers in Sayadian's creative keenness. 

Cover for the "Thing Fish" spread in Hustler
 Another hallmark layout was the collaborative piece with Frank Zappa for “Thing Fish” in the April 1984 issue. Based on Zappa's three-LP album of the same name, the spread featured model/comedienne Annie Ample, spaghetti used as a lewd metaphor, a giant reproduction of the infamous Pat Boone exposing his penis photo and, of course, the titular “Thing Fish.” (The latter was voiced by Zappa-regular Ike Willis on the album, but here is portrayed by a glorious creature designed by Jene Omens.) Frequent Sayadian collaborator, intensely skilled Austrian photographer Ladi von Jansky, lensed this spread, as well as the cover for the actual album. (Ironically, it is von Jansky's birth date and homeland that are often erroneously listed as Sayadian's, despite them being very much two separate individuals. In fact, von Jansky went to school with Milos Foreman and was, in his youth, the Austrian equivalent to James Dean.) 

Two geniuses: Sayadian & Zappa. Photo by Ladi von Jansky.
In addition to his print work, he also worked on a number of music videos, including both Wall of Voodoo's pioneering “Mexican Radio” with Francis Delia, as well as the latter-day incarnation of the band and their cover of The Beach Boys “Do it Again.” (Complete with Brian Wilson cameo and a Keene-faced beach bunny.) But it is his film work that has made the deepest and most seismic-type impact. In a world of remakes, personas, reboots and pretensions, there is no filmmaker, living, dead or demon that is like Stephen Sayadian. His fingerprint is unmistakably his and while Sayadian has influenced numerous artists since making his debut with “Nightdreams,” no one has ever come close to touching him.

While he has flown under the radar for the past several years, Sayadian himself has been surfacing more and more, between an appearance at last year's L'Etrange Festival in Paris and showing up for one barnstormer of a Q&A session with Stahl at the Cinefamily Event showing “Cafe Flesh” in Los Angeles. Could it be a sign of fresh and bigger things afoot? Absolutely, with a new film entitled “May's Renewal” in the works, which for the handful that have read it indicated that all signs point to it the being the best and most transformative Sayadian film yet. If 2014 has been the year of Jodorowsky's return, then 2015 will be the year of Stephen Sayadian.

Thanks to David Arrate for the Red, White Acrylic Dreams scans and super-special thanks to Stephen Sayadian for everything. 

© Heather Drain 2014