Monday, 7 December 2015

Liquid Sky (1983)

Director: Slava Tsukerman
Screenplay: Slava Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle and Nina V. Kerova
Cast: Anne Carlisle (as Margaret/Jimmy); Paula E. Sheppard (as Adrian); Susan Doukas (as Sylvia); Otto von Wernherr (as Johann); Bob Brady (as Owen)

Synopsis: A flying saucer perches itself on top of a New York apartment complex roof.  The size of a dinner plate, its occupant has found the perfect narcotic high in the chemicals found in the human brain at the height of sexual orgasm, the extraction process for it to claim these chemicals killing the victim instantly. A German scientist Johann Hoffman (Wernherr), in the apartment of an older woman Sylvia (Doukas) who tries to flirt with him, keeps an eye on the saucer with concern. Model Margaret (Carlisle) is victim to this alien, perched above her apartment, killing everyone she has sex with to the point she finally believes she is the one killing people herself. Amongst drug addicts, her abusive roommate/lover Adriane (Sheppard), a gay model who continually berates her (also played by Carlisle) and various night clubbers and photographers, she slowly becomes more and more disillusioned with her life in the city and becomes more curious about the alien.

After all these years building up an image of Liquid Sky, you find yourself as for others that a film can be drastically different from the picture you built in your mind. The eighties sci-fi movie I painted in my thoughts is actually a low-fi drama in the scope of Paul Morrissey's work with Andy Warhol like Trash (1970), sunk in the bottom of the gutter but with a lot more hairspray involved. The screenshots show how the early eighties aesthetics are fully entrenched in the film's personality, with lots of neon and unconventionally shaped costumes but beneath this style is a gritty drama involving heroin addiction, date rape and struggling socialites hiding their angst behind glow-in-the-dark face paint, cocaine and constant nightclub dancing. Despite a style that predates Lady Gaga, the perspective on life is pretty dank for the most part, almost all the characters more concerned about finding drugs or insulting each other than making the most of their lives. If the seventies marked the death of the hippie dream - of free love, art and peace - than Liquid Sky feels like the prolapsed dirge afterwards into the early eighties. The central character Margaret is an outsider in her own community; a girl who ran from her home town to New York, turning herself from the pretty small town lass into the peroxide blonde figure who hides herself in her exaggerated dress sense. Rather than a camp tone, Liquid Sky is a suitably grotty movie where a character tries to find herself under the context of an alien related story. It's not dissimilar to Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984), where the sci-fi narrative is a layer over a realistic depiction of a young adult trying to find them self in an urban city environment.

Like the Morrissey films and various underground movies from the USA, it breaks rules on the notion of how characters should act in films, where unlike mainstream films you can find them acting drastically different and with a greater realism and/or an exaggeration seen as too "raw" for commercial product. They tackle subjects like drug addiction and sexuality with an incredible bluntness that you don't find in most films. Then there are ideas like Liquid Sky casting Margaret and Jimmy with the same actress, the later with Anne Carlisle lowering her voice and looking like a New Romantic in a suit and slicked back hair, the trick of having the two being able to communicate with each other (and for one to perform oral sex on the other in one scene) pulled off with considerable success and simple ideas. The fact the director Slava Tsukerman - was a Russian emigrant who made films in his homeland, before the difficulties with making films in the Soviet Union forced him to leave, means that he would've had considerable experience with film production; for this to meld with the type of cinema that usually suggested improvisation and working with limited resources leads to fascinating results.

His willingness to tackle taboos is also commendable as if he was finally unshackled from the restrictions he had before, particularly with how the film blurs sexuality and gender continually. Alongside Carlisle playing a male and female character, the film co-written by Tsukerman with Carlisle and Nina V. Kerova has the central character express displeasure at romance being dictated by gendered anatomy and various other characters have dialogue the plays with gender. Sexuality itself is as much a victim of the ennui the film has, scenes of sexual orgasm mostly depicted in infra-red from the alien's point-of-view before it kills the person involved, the human face and body distorted by the reds and rainbow colours of their body temperature before a giant circle swallows the image up.

Technical Detail:
Liquid Sky is a film held up by a series of character scenes where anecdotes and events rather than plot points take place, and a distinction this film has to other similar films of its ilk is how it intercuts up to three different scenes within the same time frame together. The result isn't dislocated at all, instead adding a pace that interweaves all the characters into each others' lives as most of them eventually meet each other.

The most well known aspect of the film is its score. Partly composed by the director himself with Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith, it's a crude yet evocative thing, its limitations in sound as much a part of its virtues. The music is a huge factor in the film's character. Especially when it gets to its central theme, its mix of almost guttery pipes and machinery fits the New York locations and avoids coming off as cheap synth because of the texture of its sound. Also worth mentioning is a musical number by Adriane with a machine that uses her heartbeat for percussion, her song about her musical box memorably blunt in the lyrics.

Abstract Spectrum: None
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Barring the archness of some of the dialogue and the main plot thread, Liquid Sky is far from an unconventional work. The aesthetic of the sets, the cloths and the neon lights is a considerable part of the movie's personality but it drastically contrasts to the reality just around it. It's a gritty drama that feels grim and melancholic at the same time as it can be quirky, using practical visual effects to add to its charm, to the point that behind the costumes and music its very subdued.

Personal Opinion:
As long as you go into the film knowing that it's far from the cartoonish work that its aesthetic suggests it is, Liquid Sky is a very engaging cult film. 


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