Monday, December 18, 2017

Liquid Sky

(R, Cinevista, 112 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: April 15, 1983)

It's a rare but welcome surprise when a cult film manages to trip you up. Midnight movie masses tend to flock towards the most inept, most earnestly dreadful movies ever brought to fruition, so the discovery of one which actually is novel and assured rather than derivative and amateurish is something I celebrate. James Nguyen is a hero to the Rifftrax audience, and Tommy Wiseau has his own Ed Wood treatment thanks to James Franco. But I was burnt out with both Birdemic and The Room instantly because they don't reward ritualistic viewing thanks to being both hopelessly shoddy and thematically sloppy. They exist purely for ironic pleasure, and this is one of the biggest turn-offs I have developed in response to a world of online criticism where arch glad-handing has allowed mediocrity to thrive in the places where genuinely great films deserve to occupy.

Liquid Sky is a deathlessly kinky anomaly in a cult movie pantheon that often requires neon signs advertising a film's ineptitude to get recognized. It's safe to say Liquid Sky has osmosed itself into fringe appreciation, especially when you ponder the inspiration for such musical provocateurs as Peaches and Lady Gaga. But I have the hardest time trying to explain Liquid Sky categorically. Is it a new wave Ms. 45 via Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg? What do I make of a glamorous lead actress who plays a supporting role in male drag? Are the performance art take-offs embellished satire or another stretch at anthropological authenticity? How do I deal with the micro-plots involving a deadbeat junkie husband and a Jewish TV producer seducing a German astrophysicist? Are the heat vision visual effects transcendent of their shoestring appearance?

When a movie raises that many questions, my instinct is to watch it over and over looking for my own answers. And Liquid Sky hit me with that laser beam, in 1980s parlance, relaxing me with its deadpan charms enough to let the film's casual cruelty and "fashionable" desperation swirl around in my mind instead of slapping me upside the head. Conceived by Russian émigrés in tandem with an American performance artist, Liquid Sky is at once inside and outside the nihilistic DayGlo pageantry of the post-punk club scene. There is heroin, rape, catfighting, necrophilia, and enough free-floating hostility to make George Carlin seem like a pussycat. It's also visually and aurally sumptuous.

Liquid Sky takes place in the span of one day, and Slava Tsukerman labors to preserve a more unique portrait of New York than usual when compared to its seedier contemporaries. The Empire State Building is viewed as a shrine in the glow of golden hour cinematography. Not content with mere aerial shots, Tsukerman manages fresh footage of an airplane landing and makes the most of the window and rooftop motifs. The city streets are reassuringly heavy with traffic during lunchtime, and there is a dazzling make-up session conducted under black light that epitomizes the richness of the primary colors. There is also a nightclub sequence near the end which is rendered more extraterrestrial than the requisite UFO, which is no larger than a dinner plate and inconspicuously settles atop an apartment building cluttered with empty bottles and crates.

The alien craft is drawn to the penthouse suite occupied by model Margaret (Anne Carlisle: Desperately Seeking Susan, Crocodile Dundee) and dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard: Alice, Sweet Alice) on the promise of heroin, which upon injection stimulates a chemical reaction in the brain which the aliens harvest for sustenance. Or at least so until now, as West Berlin scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) has gone from noticing the bizarre pattern of deaths in drug-abusing punk circles to finding a connection involving sexual intercourse, particularly the rush of endorphins at the orgasm stage. The defiantly androgynous Margaret proves useful in the alien's mission as she is exploited by predatory soap stars, professors and failed artists, all of whom wind up with glass arrows lodged in their heads and/or vanish completely post-coitus.

Margaret was once of "Mayflower stock" before moving from Connecticut to Manhattan to pursue indoctrinated ideals of fortune, going from the notion of marrying a lawyer ("And on the weekends, we'd barbecue...") to waiting tables and wishing upon an acting agent instead. These modes of subservience and blind luck are shattered completely by the realization of her newfound power of sexual agency, which isn't limited to men. With her already outré face paint and hairdos, Margaret reaches the depths of her alienation even before she is emboldened to snatch a naive mate off the Danceteria floor ("Be nice to your audience") and send him off to a euphoric oblivion.

Her roommate Adrian is made of harder stuff, "concrete mazes, stone and glass." Confrontational and vulgar, this child of a hospitalized mother who once baptized a fancy restaurant with her urine is more of an outspoken nihilist than Margaret, who still retains tokens of gentle femininity (even when she turns primal, she's essentially Fay Wray as King Kong). Though she talks about relocating to Berlin, the European hub of glam culture and creative freedom, nothing becomes Adrian so much as her decadent New York environment. Whether reciting a ferocious poem devoted to her rhythm box ("It is preprogrammed/So what?/Who of your friends is not?") or writhing sensually atop the corpse of Margaret's acting teacher Owen (casting director Bob Brady), Adrian takes to being one of the damned with sardonic, sickening relish.

Trafficking in smack, Adrian's most pathetic client is Margaret's boyish opposite number, Jimmy. He latches onto Margaret at the start just so he can raid her apartment looking for the fix he can't afford, and proceeds to act even nastier to her as they share photo shoots. Anne Carlisle gender bends in the grand tradition of David Bowie by playing both these rival models, with trick photography and seamless doubles allowing them to be within striking distance of each other. As Jimmy, Carlisle flashes a 1000 watt sneer and takes cues from the Bowie/Ferry image of the debutante, slicked blonde hair and dapper tuxedo. The heated confrontation near the end between Margaret and Jimmy, where she is goaded into performing oral sex on the spiteful Jimmy, has to be seen to be believed.

The interactions between Margaret, Jimmy, Adrian, and the overbearing types courting them (from cocaine-huffing designers and their catty underlings to snooty reporters) are highly vitriolic comedy. Jimmy mocks Margaret by referring to her as an "ugly chicken" and steps on her toes, and her sadomasochistic response is to flatter his enabled ego as "the most beautiful boy in the world." Margaret is constantly defensive of her colorful style, as when Owen chastises her for looking like a hooker despite his history of wearing blue jeans as his own form of theatrical rebellion ("You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality while we at least know we're in costume"). Adrian's eulogy for the horny professor is delightfully profane and bitter ("You dropped dead fucking! It suits you well..."). And when Margaret is assaulted for the first time by soap opera hunk Vincent (Jack Adalist), who forces Quaaludes down her throat to render her docile, she resists with dry gusto. Incidentally, I didn't realize until a second viewing that Vincent would return later in the movie when Margaret accepts that there is one more score to settle.

Luckily, not all the humor is that black. Otto von Wernherr is endearingly straight as Dr. Hoffman, who asks his colleague Owen "How can I study the behavior of this creature if it's on private property?" His failed attempt to warn the defensive Adrian of the alien invasion is misinterpreted as a narco threat. And when he finds suitable space to conduct his studies, it's with Jimmy's mother Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the aforementioned Semite who works in television and throws herself at the duty-minded Donald Sutherland analog with an arsenal of playful bon mots ("You have protection from aliens? You have a laser gun in your pants?"). These lighter touches are effective counterpoints to the vagina dentata exhortations of Margaret, whose sci-fi venereal disease may arouse connotations with the then-nameless AIDS epidemic which was claiming hundreds of lives as early as 1982.

Credit joint screenwriters Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (Tsukerman's longstanding wife) and Ms. Carlisle herself that Liquid Sky, while unavoidably rough due to a filming budget of less than $500,000, is never stilted or cloddish. Even as Tsukerman and DP Yuri Neyman seek to dazzle you with their ace location photography and vivid lighting, the characters in Liquid Sky possess inner lives and aggressive personalities. Margaret, jaded as she is, is played by Anne Carlisle with a voice as enthralling as her appearance. Paula E. Sheppard finds the sexiness in Adrian's hippie-gone-hostile patois. And the snide monotone Carlisle adopts for Jimmy is its own comic reward: when Sylvia tries to offer him a ride uptown, he matter-of-factly states "No, I'm going down."

Tsukerman also helped out on the film's eccentric score, composed on a Fairlight CMI handily available for public access at a library. This pricey synthesizer, which was big among experimental musicians for its ability to program natural sounds as musical notes (think Peter Gabriel's fourth album and Kate Bush on The Dreaming), allowed for variations on new and existing melodies, sometimes coming across as harsh (in that traditionally fast, processed "new wave" style) and other times gentle (bell-like and carnivalesque at a stately pace). He even feeds spoken dialogue into the keyboard for added disorientation, particularly the point where Margaret is taunted by all sides, especially from Jimmy, at her last modeling gig.

Liquid Sky has been a hard movie to come by, but Vinegar Syndrome offered a limited edition BD/DVD combo package (3000 units total) which sold out fast over the 2017 Black Friday shopping weekend. Restored from 35mm elements and remastered in 4k resolution, Liquid Sky is a revelation even if you only check out some of the screen caps posted at the AV Club. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle discuss the film in brand new interviews as well as an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A session (co-composer Clive Smith is also in attendance), although their commentary track is disappointing; recorded in what appears to be another apartment room, there are stretches of awkward silence which last for minutes where it would've been better to revert back to the soundtrack proper. The best option of all these bonuses is the 50-minute Liquid Sky Revisited, which boasts a wider array of participants (Kerova, Neyman, Doukas, and many more) as well as the chance to see Carlisle revisit shooting locations. The nightclub no longer stands, but I smiled knowing that a Petco has taken its place.

Liquid Sky has fast become one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. Here's hoping this alien artifact touches down again in a reissue format.

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