346. LIQUID SKY (1982)

” I’ll tell you something, too, that’s starting to annoy me about UFOs: the fact that they cross galaxies or universes to visit us, and always end up in places like … Alabama. Maybe these aren’t super-intelligent beings, you know what I mean? ‘Don’t you wanna go to New York or LA?’ ‘Nah, we just had a long trip, we’re gonna kick back and whittle some.'”–Bill Hicks

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Carlisle, Otto von Wernherr, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Bob Brady

PLOT: A tiny alien flying saucer lands on top of the Empire State Building, directly across from the penthouse where drug-scarfing New Wave fashion model Margaret spends her nights bedding partners of both sexes. A German UFO scientist who has tracked this manifestation takes up residence in an apartment across from Margaret, spying on her through a telescope. Margaret’s sex partners begin to die off as the aliens harvest the endorphins released during their orgasms.

Still from Liquid Sky (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Slava Tsukerman was a Russian Jew who trained as an engineer before switching to filmmaking. He made a mostly documentaries in the Soviet Union and Israel before emigrating to the U.S. to make features. He began developing Liquid Sky after funding for a sci-fi film that would have starred and fell through.
  • Co-writer Anne Carlisle, who starts as a fashion model in the film, was a fashion model in real life. Most of the actors were art-scene punks drawn from bohemian casting director Bob Brady’s acting classes, and most played some version of themselves.
  • Many repeat the claim that Liquid Sky was chosen as the title of the film because it was slang for heroin, but according to Tsukerman he encountered the term as a metaphor for euphoria in his research, and junkies only began to refer to the drug as “liquid sky” after the movie became a cult hit.
  • Made with an estimated budget of half a million dollars, Liquid Sky grossed more than $1.7 million in 1983.
  • In a 2014 interview Tsukerman announced his intentions to make Liquid Sky 2, but no news has emerged on that front since.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: New Wave fashion shows? Neon sculptures? Flying saucers hovering in front of the Empire State Building? Margaret’s fluorescent face paint under a blacklight? All excellent choices. But we had to go with alien-eye-vision, rendered through technology that looks like a cross between malfunctioning army ranger night-vision goggles and News at 11’s stormtracker radarscope, but with a Day-Glo color scheme, and often looking like it’s peering through a microscope aimed at a dividing zygote.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: UFO/heroin connection; spontaneous hateful beat eulogy; prayer to the Empire State Building

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Liquid Sky is like an alien’s attempt at making a film set in the No-Wave Greenwich Village art scene in 1982, if their only previous exposure to movies was the works of , , and Rinse Dream. Neon, nasty, and occasionally tedious, but there’s nothing else quite like it.


Original trailer for Liquid Sky

COMMENTS: Liquid Sky is about aliens, and it might as well have been made by aliens. In fact, it was made by an alien, though a terrestrial one—Slave Tsukerman, a recent Russian émigré who found himself, incongruously, embedded in the hedonistic world of downtown scene punks. Using a Soviet-trained crew and a cast of No Wave acting students and oddballs, he created an ironic, askew paean to the New York art scene, circa 1982. It is soaked in neon, scored to primitive synthesizers pumping out vaguely disco beats, and told with all the tenderness and compassion of a junkie looking to score at 2 AM. Liquid Sky alternates between nihilistic monologues, New Wave fashion shows, joyless sex scenes, deadpan campy dialogue (“Are you sure this has to do with UFOs? It looks like two women just killed a man”), and 8-bit psychedelia, reinventing the 80s NYC punk scene as an amoral, paranoid sci-fi fairy tale dreamt up by an NYU art school dropout during a heroin nod.

Liquid Sky is set during one of the counterculture’s periodic identity crises, as it moved from the dusty anger of the 70s punk movement into the glitzier, more aesthetically-oriented 80s scene. The music had morphed from angry three-chord guitar riffs to alienated synthesized bloops; the fashion sense had changed from safety pins to neon face paint. But the FU attitude was the same: anger, drugs, sex, and the cynical live-for-today nihilism common to almost every generation of disaffected young bohemians. It was post-disco, pre-AIDS time, but the seeds of the coming crisis can be seen in the reckless behavior of its nervy scenesters. They snort coke, shoot horse, sleep around, dance robotically all night, and play at dress-up with the clueless arrogance of those who think they’re creating art rather than fashion. Anne Carlisle, cast as the “it” girl of the Reagan counter-revolution, looks waifish and wan, hiding her vulnerability behind geometric face paint and a bad attitude. The acting is far from Liquid Sky‘s strong point; but, playing her androgynous double Jimmy, the “beautiful boy” and perpetually strung-out blonde with cheekbones would have killed for, she embodies the sort of narcissism basted with fashionable ennui that makes Liquid Sky‘s hustlers seem so phony and despicable.

Everyone in Liquid Sky is out for themselves, angling to create a private heaven within their own neurons and/or genitals. Besides Margaret and Jimmy, there’s Adrian, Margaret’s cruel and possessive live-in lover, drug dealer, and sometime performance artist who sings the monotonous and vapid “Me and My Rhythm Box” for a crowd of narcotized zombies. She constantly degrades and tries to control Margaret. There’s a California hustler who likes to shove Quaaludes down his partner’s throat before making love. Their fashion scene collaborators, seen mainly in a long combination penthouse party/photoshoot, are every bit as callous and shallow as the principals, cheering on catfights and encouraging public fornication. The alleged adults aren’t much better. Margaret’s ex-hippy acting coach (played by her real life acting teacher) crosses a few professional lines with his pupil, who may be young enough to be his granddaughter. Jimmy’s shrimp-obsessed mom is a MILF on the make, eager to seduce the German UFO scientist who wants to use her pad to set up his spy telescope to observe the tiny aliens who have landed on the Empire State Building. That character, Johann, may be the most sympathetic and altruistic of all, except that he’s so wrapped up in his studies that he blatantly ignores the many murders taking place in the apartment across the street while scribbling notes in his notepad. The data’s just too good; he gets a bigger thrill from alien voyeurism than from the woman in a kimono sitting on his lap and discussing orgasms. (He’s therefore more than a bit of a stand-in for the director, also a stranger to America and a dispassionate observer of its depraved excesses.) The aliens, harvesting these degenerates for the euphoriants they produce, may be just as amoral as the humans; but at least they have the excuse of preying outside their own species. It’s fair to say that Liquid Sky takes a dim view of its characters; whether it restricts its cynicism to the art scene, or sees it as a broader criticism of Americans or even of humanity, is up to you to judge.

But whatever Liquid Sky lacks in likable characters, it makes up for in visual and conceptual razzle-dazzle. The plot itself, sliding merrily along its aliens/orgasms/heroin axis, is bizarre enough. But the outré lifestyles and sleazy soap opera dynamics of the coked-up cast of marginalized performance artists dominate, at times shuffling the alien invasion off into a subplot. Margaret sleeps around with a troupe of shady weirdos. Her drug-dealing gal pal Adrian is one of the oddest, and most dangerous, of the bunch, delivering a heinous and blood-curdling rhyming eulogy for one of Margaret’s unintended victims. The supporting cast of fashionistas are suitably bizarre in appearance. The wardrobe is 80s New Wave, but oversized and exaggerated: the men wear outrageous blazers with bizarre collars and protrusions, and Margaret goes through a series of spandex miniskirts that would make ZZ Top do a triple-take. The makeup, both men’s and women’s, consist of blocks and stripes drawn on faces in the brightest shades available: pinks, oranges, purples, bursting off kabuki-white foundations. Margaret and Adrian’s apartment, where most of the action takes place, is a riot of mirrors and tinsel and neon signs, with a strange blank mask surrounded by overlapping neon halos hanging above her mattress. All of the interiors were painstakingly lit by neon lights, and, the background doodads change color according to the time of day: yellow for daylight scenes, shifting in turquoise and purple at night. There is always something voguish in the frame to catch the eye. The film opens on that mask, with the camera pulling back to show the entire apartment, then traveling out the window to show the New York skyline. A cheesy glowing dinner plate of a flying saucer materializes in front of the Empire State Building, alternating with shots of big-haired, wide-shouldered extras from a Devo video dancing in a sweaty warehouse of a discotheque. Queue the heat-image alien-vision, which looks like a space age update of a 1967 psychedelic light show. A synthetic trumpet blasts a repetitive march, accompanied by a drum machine, interrupted by “Space Invaders” sound effects  when the aliens get busy dissecting brains. At times, as in this lengthy opening, Liquid Sky seems more like an art installation with a movie surrounding it for support than like an exercise in narrative filmmaking.

Obviously, this is all a very strange farrago indeed. The flights of sci-fi fantasy are grounded in some very real punk nastiness. As previously mentioned, almost all the characters are unsympathetic. Margaret becomes our heroine by default. She is trapped in a kind of hell on earth—a downtown art purgatory—without realizing it until the very end of the story. In a climactic monologue, she explains how she fled her bourgeois Connecticut “Mayflower stock” upbringing for the big city, seeking transcendence from convention in drugs, bisexual experiments, and art. But these avenues all proved as unfulfilling as the fantasy of weekend barbecue dinners with her lawyer husband she was weaned on would have been. One key to her story is that, despite all the sex she has, she is anorgasmic. This may be because she is constantly being raped, either by actual force or through persistent coercion. But it is a key plot point, because Margaret’s failure to find sexual satisfaction is what keeps her alive; the aliens never harvest her because her brain won’t release the pleasure chemicals they are collecting. It also allows her to use sex to kill those who wrong or offend her, which turns out to be just about everyone she knows. In the end, she dons a wedding dress and flees to the roof, pleading to be taken away by the aliens. Tsukerman calls Liquid Sky a postmodern Cinderella story where the abused punk princess’ Prince Charming is a little green man from outer space. The end result turns out to be something even weirder than that wild premise would suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an odd, yet generally pleasing mixture of punk rock, science fiction, and black humor.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“All of this, lurid and weird as it may sound, is related in a virtually matter-of-fact manner.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…Liquid Sky has always been caught smack between delirious curio, avant-garde put-on, exploitation cheapie, and naive masterpiece.”–Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice (Blu-ray)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Liquid Sky movie -among the media archived here are a stills gallery, some video clips, and vintage magazine interviews

IMDB LINK: Liquid Sky (1982)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

“Trust Your Vision”: An Interview with the Filmmakers of the Cult Classic “Liquid Sky” (1982) – 2018 interview with Slava Tsukerman, cinematographer Yuri Neyman, and costume designer Marina Levikova

The Story Behind Liquid Sky, the Heroin-Fueled New Wave Alien Invasion Time Forgo – A lot of background on the film via Vulture

A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEON-SOAKED CULT FILM LIQUID SKY – Another Tsukerman interview

Revisiting the Downtown Scene Through Alien Eyes in ‘Liquid Sky’ – A 2018 retrospective on the film from The New York Times

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: LIQUID SKY (1982)‘s original review of the film for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Liquid Sky: The Novel – Anne Carlisle wrote a novelization of the script

HOME VIDEO INFO: For many year since release, Liquid Sky was accessible only on VHS or a poor-quality, low-availability DVD edition. That changed in 2018 with Vinegar Syndrome’s deluxe restoration and release, in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (buy). Giles Edwards had an extensive review of the Blu-ray itself in January 2018 (he reviewed the “limited edition,” but the features are the same on the regular release). Interested parties are encouraged to read that rundown. In brief, however, the massive extras include a commentary track from Tsukerman and Carlisle (which is honestly not the best—at one point, the 77-year old director falls asleep and can be heard snoring!); a short introduction from Tsukerman; a fifteen-minute interview with the director and a nine-minute interview with Carlisle; an hour-long retrospective documentary; a 37-minute post-screening Q&A with Tsukerman, Carlisle, and co-composer Clive Smith; 12-minutes of outtakes (silent, but scored to the film’s electronic soundtrack); a ten-minute alternate opening; almost twelve minutes of (very poorly preserved) Betamax rehearsal footage; five versions of the trailer; a stills gallery; and an isolated soundtrack.

Liquid Sky is also available on video-on-demand (rent) or free with an Amazon Prime subscription.

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