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Neon White: Slava Tsukerman’s Cult Masterwork, Liquid Sky

Liquid Sky (1982)
Directed by Slava Tsukerman
Shown: Anne Carlisle

When a work of art cuts and I mean, truly cuts deep, it is via that combination of human truth, a vivid aural and visual landscape that sweeps like no other, and figures that even the murkiest parts of your brain will always retain, it is better than any drug or material pleasure. It’s the type of love with philia and agape combined. Welcome to Liquid Sky.

Released in 1982, Liquid Sky first came to my shores via a late night cable transmission in junior high. (See kids, sometimes having a history of off/on insomnia does pay off.) Its impact was intensely heavy and akin to getting a peek into a work of art that was sacred and rare. That adrenaline that comes with finding something that feels like a multi-layered secret kicked in and even though it meant I would be rolling into school on all of maybe an hour and a half worth of sleep, there were absolutely zero regrets. The bleached system walls and the world of public school felt even more dreary and soulless though.

With the film finally getting a release on Blu Ray through Vinegar Syndrome, the time felt right to revisit this piece of real independent cinema and if my teenage brain was altered by it, my adult self was absolutely rattled and consumed by it. Directed by Soviet-born Slava Tsukerman and written by Tsukerman, Nina V. Kerova, and lead American actress Anne Carlisle, Liquid Sky centers around two distinct individuals. One is Margaret (Carlisle), an androgynous post-punk model and Johann (Otto von Wernherr), a German astrophysicist who has been researching and trying to trace an alien entity that feeds on the endorphins created by humans in moments of ecstasy, such as the rush of an orgasm or strong opiates, especially heroin.

Paths soon cross when the alien’s ship lands on the roof of where Margaret and her drug dealer/musician girlfriend, Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), currently live, attracted to the amount of heroin being currently kept in their home. The alien ends up using Margaret, who keeps getting repeatedly raped from everyone ranging from a dance club Marina Man (check out the 1982 song “Marina Men” by the Valley Girls and you will instantly get the reference and go ah ha) to one of Adrian’s junked-up customers to even Adrian herself, as a means to feed. Not fully understanding the situation but realizing that an entity is killing and deleting every person that sexually assaults her, she starts referring to the being as “Indian” and seeks it out as the one source of comfort in an urban sea of parasites. Johann gets to use the apartment of a curious, shrimp-enthusiast TV producer who lives across the street, which helps him pinpoint exactly where the alien vessel is. Will he be able to save Margaret from the alien? Is Margaret better off being with an alien entity than the cesspool that is much of our own species? Do yourself a favor, watch this film and find out for yourself.

Liquid Sky is the best kind of science-fiction film. Genre cinema is often at its strongest when the fantastical reveals something incredibly real about our existence and culture. It’s incredibly easy to focus on the film’s visual look, which is post-punk atonality streaked in neon and bold colors, from the set design of Margaret and Adrian’s apartment to the fashion show sequence early on in the film. (Eagle eye viewers can spot Andy Warhol’s assistant Benjamin Liu as one of the models. He would go on to appear in drag as “Ming Vase” in the music video for The Cars’ “Hello Again,” which happened to be directed by Andy.)  This is a film that pulses with striking everything. The visuals are match for match with the musical score. The latter, created by Brenda I. Hutchinson, Clive Smith, and Tsukerman himself, at times, sounds like a Sousa march heavily mutated and with nary an organic instrument audibly at play. Given that this particular universe is nothing but glass, stone, and steel that is populated by a majority of characters whose own earthy humanity got eroded and corroded a long time ago, there could not be a more perfect and fitting score.

But the iconic visuals and utterly sui generis soundtrack are some fine layers of paint and material on what is the true canvas here and that is the screenplay and the character of Margaret herself. Born and raised in Connecticut, a fact that is lorded over her by Adrian in a sniggering manner, Margaret describes her family as “Plymouth stock.” In a bid to free herself from the slow personal death of a lifetime sentence of being a wife and hostess of weekend barbecues-of-Suburbia, she fled to New York City, trading her long brown hair for a more androgynous bleached cut and became gender fluid and pansexual before those terms were ever codified.

Existing in a world that is, regardless of economic or cultural status, inherently hostile to people, especially women, that dare to exist as an individual who is not interested in defining themselves through the eyes and narrow viewpoints of others, is an ugly reality. Margaret is a person who constantly and consistently tries to build personal boundaries, despite being torn down by various people. There’s the extreme version of this, with her being raped multiple times, which nets her being called a “whore” and the more insidious strains of oppression, with her being magpied at about how she needs to be less of a “bitch” and be more “nice.” It’s especially maddening because not only is she not a bitch, except to the handful of men who end up assaulting her, which really, that’s not being a bitch, but being a creature in the moment of self-defense, but the fact that “bitch” is code for not being a submissively docile female. Put a penis on it and watch the word change to “assertive.”

The fact that the alien entity that feeds through her is the sole being that she feels the the warmest towards is heartbreaking, not to mention quite telling. While many a critic in the past have latched onto the drug thing or drawing parallels with HIV/AIDS noting the fact that everyone who has sexual contact with Margaret dies, both of which are understandable, the real thread feels more about how our culture tends to put a stranglehold on women acting outside of their veal-crate-like box of accepted behavior. Having the oppressors and violators be both men and women is incredibly smart since the real bad seed of intolerance and willed ignorance is a fully human one. Not a gendered one. Even Margaret, in the true showstopper scene in the whole film, while giving a speech and applying black-light makeup in front of a room of stunned fashion barracudas, notes that after she started dating women in a bid to break free of domineering boyfriends, says “Men won’t step on me anymore. Women will.”

The heart and hurt of Margaret are pulled off exquisitely by Anne Carlisle. Carlisle has the kind of presence that instantly draws you in, which is a raw charisma that is a bit rare. Couple that with a performance that pulls off a character who is strong, wounded, and human without ever resorting to award-baiting hysterics and you have a genuine star. Playing an anima to a weird animus, Carlisle also pulls double acting duty with her additional turn as Jimmy, a gay model/junkie who is one of Adrian’s many customers. In addition to pulling off not one but two great performances, Carlisle also co-wrote the screenplay, would go on to write the novelization of the movie in 1987, has written an unproduced (at least of the time this piece is being written) screenplay for a sequel with Tsukerman and is a fantastic painter on top of all that. In a world full of beige mundaneness, be an Anne Carlisle.

Speaking of performances, Paula E. Sheppard is tremendous as Adrian. Best known to cult film fans as the titular Alice in Alfred Sole’s horror gem, Alice Sweet Alice (1976), Sheppard is mesmerizing as the fucked-in-the-head-and-heart Adrian. Like any innate abuser, Adrian’s alternately charismatic and sweet but can slither into vicious and controlling with the toss of the dice, both of which Sheppard pulls off cleanly. Her musical sequences, including her brilliant rap by the body of Margaret’s former professor/lover and the song “Me & My Rhythm Box,” are completely stand-out. (Tsukerman wrote the lyrics to both songs, further cementing the multi-talents of the core cast and crew of this film.) Sheppard should have gone on to further acting endeavors but Liquid Sky is her last noted film credit.

There would have been no Liquid Sky without the man behind the lens himself, Slava Tsukerman. His approach here is a powerful one, with even basic shots of the city looking like a beautiful-ugly, not to mention hostile, alien landscape. A strong leader always allies themselves with an A+ team and let them equally shine, which is obviously the exact thing Tsukerman does here.

Both Tsukerman and Carlisle have worked at trying to bring a sequel to fruition, with the latter coming back to play Margaret. (According to an interview with the director at The Awl website, it involves her returning to the city post-alien life.) While that hasn’t happened just yet, we always have the first Liquid Sky, which will be getting a limited edition release via Vinegar Syndrome. Getting to see this film restored from its 35mm negative will be a true treat to see and possess in our hot little film loving hands. You will see colors you’ve never seen and yet, see the ugliness of our own condition in new familiar ways. This is Liquid Sky.

About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

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