Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Liquid Sky
(Slava Tsukerman, 1982)


I have seen some pretty strange films in my time, and many of the strangest are to be found upon that consistently fertile faultline where exploitation/trash meets arthouse. Such inherently unstable territory provides the natural home of many of my favourite filmmakers, and, let’s face it, pretty much EVERY film I watch these days tends to fall into one or the other of those categories, so the meeting of the two is inevitably going to be a wellspring of unending strangeness, and a concept we’ll be exploring a lot on this blog.

Take ‘Arrebato’ for instance; that was pretty strange. And ‘Wax, or The Discovery Of Television Amongst The Bees’ – that was WAY stranger. I’m sure that after their recent official re-release, none of us need reminding how unbearably strange ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ are. Benjamin Christensen’s ‘Haxan’ isn’t gonna be getting any more normal any time soon. I seem to have sat through enough brain-melting claptrap from Poland and Japan to precipitate some kind of weirdness ragnarock, should the two film industries ever collide. And so on. On a purely objective level, ‘Liquid Sky’ can’t really compete in the strangeness stakes – it puts in a good effort, but in terms of sheer quantity of ‘?!?!!?’ moments, it’s outclassed. After all, it bloodmindedly persists in making a certain amount of sense. It features fine camerawork and performances, it won some awards. Its themes and imagery are, if not exactly conventional, at least coherent.

Nonetheless though, ‘Liquid Sky’ is still the first film in a long time that’s caused me to pause the DVD for a few minutes, catch my breath, and reflect that, ok, I have NO IDEA where this movie is coming from. After all, most of the films I’ve mentioned above are extremely SELF-CONSCIOUS in their weirdness, revelling in their position as carnivals of overwhelming cinematic lunacy. ‘Liquid Sky’, on the other hand, gives the impression of becoming inexplicably strange simply by virtue of the fact that it is the work of people who, culturally speaking, would normally lack both the means and inclination to make a commercially released feature film, especially a sci-fi/genre film, deciding that they’re going to make one anyway, and deciding that it will reflect the issues and aesthetics that are relevant to them, rather than drawing examples from established filmic language.

I mean, can you think of another example of a whacked out sci-fi movie made by a cast and crew largely drawn from early ‘80s New York queer/feminist art/fashion circles? Can you even imagine what one would look like? – if not, you’ve evidently not seen ‘Liquid Sky’, cos that’s exactly what we’ve got here. By turns, ‘Liquid Sky’ also manages to transform itself into a fairly grim sex film, a goofy black comedy, a celebration of early ‘80s club/drug culture, an examination of the schizoid nature of socially-enforced gender/identity creation and a psychedelic showcase of fluorescent op art visuals, as director Slava Tsukerman crams together a whole host of elements that have never been seen together on the silver screen before or since, creating a true one-off.



I’m aware that at least some of you will have already seen ‘Liquid Sky’. After all, it’s something of a perennial underground classic, a lynchpin of the ‘80s ‘midnight movie’ circuit, no doubt required viewing on any number of feminist cinema modules etc. – but this is the first time I’ve managed to see it (god bless my multi-region DVD player and Amazon Marketplace), so I’ll write this review from the POV of a neophyte if that’s ok with everybody.

When summarised on paper, the basic premise of ‘Liquid Sky’ is as simple as it is ludicrous: an incorporeal alien entity encased within a flying saucer the size of a dustbin lid has come to earth, with the intention of absorbing energy from the opiates released in the brains of humans who are high on heroin, killing them in the process. Having arrived and been around the block a few times, the alien has discovered that the energy that can be harvested from an orgasm is EVEN BETTER, and has parked on the top floor of an apartment block opposite the Empire State Building, focussing it’s attention primarily on Margaret (Anne Carlisle), an aspiring actress and new wave scenester whose life comprises an ugly nexus of bad sex and bad drugs.


We don’t learn this at first though – which is just as well, as if we did we might have assumed we were watching some gross-out Troma sex comedy or something. No, what will first grab you about this film is it’s incredibly stylised depiction of an ‘80s New York club scene that may or may not have actually existed at some point, a scene in which androgynous models with garish, homemade outfits, chopped asymmetrical hair and fluorescent face paint get down under neon strip lights to oppressive, minimal synth music. A no holds barred ‘80s overload, straight from that brief period when the signifiers that have come to stand for “the ‘80s” were still somewhat frightening and new. “We may look ridiculous to you now,” the film seems to yell, “but this is THE FUTURE!”

And, in a way, they were right. Go to New York or London today and you’ll still be able to find androgynous types with garish, homemade outfits, chopped asymmetrical hair getting down to minimal, oppressive electro music, more of them than ever before probably. In fact, when the film introduces us to Adrian, Margaret’s flatmate/lover, she’s in ‘the club’ (actually Manhattan’s famed Danceteria), performing her song “Me And My Rhythm Box”, a shouty, confrontational Suicide-esque number that she begins by sampling her own heartbeat, seeming to prefigure the style of everyone from Peaches to Crystal Castles to No Bra, whilst some of the outfits on display, for all their 80s kitsch, could have been pulled straight from the trash-glamour/global psyche aesthetics of Glass Candy or Gang Gang Dance. It’s, uh.. pretty awesome, actually.



Recently though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how little the signifiers of “NEW-ness” have changed over the years (specifically in terms of music scenes), and how “the future” seems to have atrophied as we’ve stumbled into what some regard as a post-modern/post-historical era. The purveyors of ‘electroclash’ a few years back at least seemed to be incorporating an element of conscious, tongue in cheek retro-futurism into their work, but increasingly that seems to have been dropped, as bottom-feeding media sources like the NME insist that stripped down electro-punk is new, new, new, and the androgynous types with garish, homemade outfits and chopped, asymmetrical hair hanging around colleges and galleries in 2008 STILL seem to be shouting, if a bit more quietly, “we may look ridiculous to you now, but this is THE FUTURE”, despite their working to a blueprint of “the future” that’s as well-worn as a bluesy roots-rocker’s blueprint of “the past”.

So anyway, that’s what I found myself thinking about as I poured another glass of wine and tried to get my head around ‘Liquid Sky’ of a Sunday evening. Visually, the film is a dense maze of quick cuts, awkward angles, stark, expressionistic imagery and bright, high contrast colour & darkness that often render it difficult to sit through for anyone not totally committed to the film’s stylistic agenda, and make even the simplest plot points seem difficult to follow.

Gnarly hair & fashion aside, ‘Liquid Sky’s main visual selling point is the incredible psychedelic visuals, which are utilised extensively, some might some excessively, throughout to represent the alien consciousness, the explosions of sex/drug inspired opiates within the human characters’ heads and, y’know, just because they look really cool. To connoisseurs of such stuff, it’s pretty extraordinary – perhaps the foremost pre-digital example of a narrative film managing to take the techniques of the ‘60s lightshow and the abstract underground films of Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs et al that flourished in New York during the same period, and to refashion them for the more consciously futurist, vaguely cyberpunk-y style of the early ‘80s, as the light rigs at the disco and the neon tubing and eerie ceremonial facemask that comprise the décor in Margaret and Adrian’s apartment melt via the use of fluorescent dye, extreme high contrast photography, heat sensitive imaging and god knows what else into an expressionistic alien landscape.

‘Liquid Sky’s soundtrack is equally jarring and distinctive, with most of the original music, quite fantastically, being “realised” by the director, along with Brenda Hutchinson and Clive Smith, using an early Fairlight CMI synthesizer at something called the Public Access Synthesizer Workshop in New York. Some pieces by Carl Orff and Marin Marais were reworked, but most of the score is original, and then some. The film’s main theme – I think it’s the bit based on Orff – initially just sounds plain wrong, a thunderous triptych of clamouring, dissonant slabs of tone that instantly put your teeth on edge, but, like the film as a whole, it begins to make glorious sense upon further exposure, becoming hypnotic, comforting and deeply involving, as the fuzz of ancient lower register analogue brutality hisses through your TV speakers. Combined with fragments of frenetic, post-punk/disco racket for the club scenes and the minimal electro-punk of Adrian’s song, and, needless to say, the soundtrack to ‘Liquid Sky’ is just as much of a cult touchstone as the film itself. In fact, both the sound and the visuals here are remarkable in the extent to which they push the ambitions and uncompromising, eerie menace of analogue technology to rarely seen perfection, making us curse the dawn of computerisation that swept away such unhinged invention in subsequent years.

‘Liquid Sky’s opening sections focus largely on establishing the parameters of Margaret’s world, and on exploring the toxic cycle she seems to be locked into, wherein she seems to get humiliated and abused by every man she encounters, hiding what we assume to be her deeply traumatised emotional core by obsessively restating that they can’t hurt her, she’s different from them, she just wants drugs, she couldn’t give a fuck, etc, etc.

Adrian, who’s supposedly her partner, doesn’t do a great deal to help matters. Although Paula F Sheppard puts in a very charismatic performance in the role (she seems like she’d be a real cool person IRL, even though her character is completely horrible, if you know what I mean), her character is portrayed as being completely amoral, a self-centred drug dealer who is unnecessarily nasty to everyone, all the time. Since she’s ostensibly our heroine’s best friend, we keep waiting for her to drop her nastiness mask (which seems kinda unconvincing anyway) and say something affectionate or reassuring, but she never does.



To confuse matters further, Anne Carlisle also takes on a second role as Billy, a male model who seems to exhibit many of the same characteristics – emotionless, monotone delivery, solipsism, drug habit etc. – that Margaret does, only he is, I’m assuming, supposed to be big and tough and macho where she is brittle and victimised. Either way, the two characters are so similar it’s hard to really fathom at first that Billy is supposed to be an independent character, rather than simply an evil twin/avatar/projection of Margaret’s imagining. The two play a lot of scenes together, with all the shot/reverse shot and body double action you’d expect, and depending on what Carlisle and Tsukerman’s intentions were in creating the dual role, the whole gimmick either falls flat or works far too well, as Margaret’s identity and gender (the two things she spends the whole film trying to disguise, subvert or destroy) are crushed to dust by Billy’s antagonistic presence. The moment during the film’s nightmarish final photoshoot where Anne Carlisle is effectively forced to give herself head is unbearably disturbing for all manner of reasons, perhaps competing with ‘Reanimator’ to claim the mantle of the definitive psychotronic cinema oral sex event of the 1980s.


For all that though, things don’t start to get what the likes of me might term PROPERLY weird until an eccentric German scientist (played by Otto Von Wernherr) turns up, on the trail of the pint-sized UFO that’s parked on the roof of Margaret and Adrian’s apartment. The scientist is so utterly, utterly out of place within the world of the film, Von Wernheer’s performance so wooden and awkward, that his very presence is totally hilarious, completely shattering ‘Liquid Sky’s carefully-wrought fashionista aesthetic at a stroke as he lumbers about like a down at heel, suburban Klaus Kinski in brown trousers and a sports jacket, earnestly espousing his theories about opiate-hungry extraterrestrials preying on “punk and hard rock music subcultures”, and his determination to stop them at all costs.

So our scientist friend – perhaps displaying what seems to have been a prevalent belief amongst ‘80s filmmakers that foreigners and other such ‘fish out of water’ characters forget all forms of universal social etiquette and just start acting bonkers when they visit New York – proceeds to the apartment directly opposite Margaret & Adrian’s (presumably in the Empire State Building), knocks on the door, and, in faltering English, informs the woman who answers that he is an unconventional scientist tracking the movements of UFOs, and could he come in please and set up his telescope to spy on the people in the apartment opposite – it’s VERY URGENT, you understand? And, luckily for Otto, he seems to have stumbled upon one in a million, as the lady not only invites him in, but orders a Chinese takeout for two, cracks open the wine, and immediately begins trying to seduce him. A series of farcical comic scenes follow, wherein the scientist valiantly ignores his host’s increasingly cringe-worthy stream of double entendres whilst she in turn displays a remarkable lack of interest in the bizarre orgy of extraterrestrial sex and murder that seems to be unfolding across the street. She even does a big *tt – MEN!* pout/sigh when he finally decides he’s got to rush over there and try to save Margaret’s life before it’s too late.

In fact, there seems to be a sort of running joke (or at least, I think it’s a joke… running COMMENTARY perhaps?) going on throughout ‘Liquid Sky’ about cynical, self-centred New Yorkers and their alienation from conventional social responsibility, and indeed reality. Every character in the film, with the exception of poor old Otto, seems entirely unconcerned about all the dead bodies, UFOs and alien laser craziness popping up all over the place. As long as they can still get their fix or get their rocks off, who gives a fuck, right? If guys keep dying with mysterious silver spikes through their head, or disappearing into thin air, well so what, more room for me and I never liked ‘em anyway.



It is through this increasingly exaggerated attitude of detached unpleasantness that the film begins to turn the tables on the underground scene it began by celebrating, fostering a slow realisation in the viewer that these people, for all their apparent flamboyance and creativity, are really, genuinely not nice, that their way of life as inhuman as the thrill-seeking, lonesome alien confined in it’s tin box. As Margaret begins to embrace the influence of the alien over her mind/body during the film’s finale, she seems to emerge from her fog of defiance and confusion, she realises that she’s been playing victim to these characters and their screwed up priorities all along, and instead begins to take on a self-immolating role as their destroyer (“I kill with my cunt”). In perhaps the film’s most effective moment, she throws a question at all the assorted lackeys present at the final photo shoot, demanding to know where they’re from. Each participant is framed by the camera portrait style as they say, “I’m from Cleveland”, “I’m from Lexington, Kentucky”, “I’m from Fresno”, and so on, as the true face of this highly stylised, implacable demimonde is revealed: screwed up Midwest kids, bullied small town queers, self-styled martyrs for art, damaged egos and outcasts who’ve all come together under the neon lights of Manhattan to…. well, to do WHAT exactly, the film seems to challenge them; to further their own narcissistic ends? To humiliate and fuck each other over? To get screwed up on drugs, turn tricks and die a wretched tragic loser as everyone else laughs at them? To take cash from corporate magazines for shallow, faux-shocking fashion spreads? Certainly not to support or communicate with each other, or to create any meaningful art or new ways of life, the film’s unspoken critique seems to imply.

For all the sci-fi craziness, this is a suitably grim and earth-bound conclusion, brutally prefiguring the political and artistic cynicism of the decade ‘Liquid Sky’s aesthetic helped to usher in.

There’s an absolutely brilliant moment during the cataclysmic photoshoot / sex n’ death session that comprises the film’s final half hour when one of the unnamed photographic assistants turns around, and declares in a clearly enunciated upper-crust accent, “there’s something strange going on here, and I don’t like it! I’m going to leave!”

Biggest laugh in the whole movie, and to be honest, I think he’s restating the conclusion that 90% of the film going public will have reached within the film’s first ten minutes. But, for the other 10% of us, ‘Liquid Sky’ ladies and gentlemen: truly, a film like no other, one whose ideas and imagery will be rattling around your brain in ever more disturbing permutations for months.



POST-SCRIPT:

It’s not often you manage to learn something new from the info. box next to a Youtube video, but, for inclusion in the ‘credit where it’s due department’, several of the videos I’ve posted above are accompanied by the following message:

“The producer of the film [Slava Tsukerman] took full credit for everything they really did not do anything but put up the money. He and his wife ( who got the credit for the costumes) needed green cards and that was the way for them to get them.
Anne Carlisle ( wrote the entire script ) and Julia Morton were responsible for almost everything. It was Julia that brought in marcel and nanxy from cinandre, who did the hair and make up.”


Naturally I can’t comment re: the statement’s accuracy either way, but thought I’d throw it in for good measure.

2 comments:

susan said...

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Ben said...

So naturally I was gonna delete that, but on reflection I think that's a sufficiently creepy and weird bit of spam to make me want to keep it.

Any other robots want to talk to me about using recordings of my own voice to change my thought patterns...? And to think, people say we're not living in "the future" yet, geez.