Home Video Hovel: Liquid Sky, by Tyler Smith
If there’s one thing I can say for sure about Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, it’s that it is memorable. After first watching the 1982 sci-fi punk film in high school, many of the concepts and imagery have stayed with me to such an extent that, upon watching the recent Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray release, I was shocked at how much I remembered. This is a film that is almost assaulting in its desire to provoke the audience, both with its style and its substance. Though the film has many glaring flaws, I think it’s safe to say that Tsukerman achieved everything he was attempting with this fascinating film.
Set in the New York fashion scene, the film follows vapid model Margaret (Anne Carlisle) as she wanders through a world of drugs, sex, and a general embrace of hedonism. Soon, though, Margaret begins to notice that the men she has sex with die suddenly, with a strange crystalline wedge shoved into the backs of their heads. It is soon explained – to the audience, anyway – that an alien race has entered our atmosphere, and feeds upon the chemicals released in the human brain during a heroin high or an orgasm. Margaret’s eventual realization of what is happening causes her to see her sexuality – so often seen as a commodity in her industry – as a weapon against those that have objectified and violated her.
As often happens in science fiction, the general genre trappings of the story allow the filmmaker to explore something that is all-too-real. In Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman appears to have surveyed the free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960s and seen underneath it all a deep current of loneliness. The catty competitiveness between Margaret and the other models – most notably the narcissistic Jimmy (also played by Carlisle) – would at first suggest a hollowness to their lives, but Tsuckerman instead portrays these characters as wounded, wandering, and so very alone. That the characters choose to deal with their inner turmoil with a never-ending string of meaningless sexual encounters and wild drug binges only serves to make their lives seem that much more desperate. And, Tsuckerman suggests, not without risk. One could dismiss Tsuckerman’s outlook as old-fashioned moralizing, but this dismissal is perhaps itself reactionary, as we see that the film was released in 1982, just as the AIDS epidemic in the United States was beginning to grab the attention of the public. People everywhere were starting to realize that there were actual, concrete consequences to behavior previously championed as the embodiment of personal freedom.
One might think that the themes of this film would most appeal to more conservative viewers; those that might watch old episodes of Dragnet and nod their heads approvingly as Jack Webb lectures those poor, misguided hippie kids. However, nothing about the style of the film – with the exception of the clunky, never-ending scenes of plot exposition – would suggest that it was for anybody other than those most interested in engaging with experimental, uncompromising, cutting edge filmmaking. From the film’s fashion style, to its depiction of the club scene, to its jarring musical score – that grabs you by the shirt and forces you to pay attention – this is a film that is stylistically over the top, and it is both garish and beautiful.
Most of the acting is serviceable, but Anne Carlisle is doing tremendous work in her dual role. As Margaret, we see a disaffected cynic whose cool exterior occasionally gives way to expose the broken, insecure young woman underneath. Thankfully, Carlisle doesn’t overplay her hand and suggest that Margaret is just a quivering mass of fear and loneliness beneath a thin shell of hipness. Carlisle plays Margaret as a strong, forceful woman whose internal issues are very real, but don’t necessarily control her. The film is ultimately about Margaret’s decision to not let anybody dictate to her how she should act or what she should think. It’s a subtle performance in a notably unsubtle film.
Carlisle also turns in a great supporting performance as Jimmy, the male model whose vanity and cruelty seem to mask a very real sadness. We see that Jimmy’s mother is actually very affectionate, so we’re not exactly sure where his angst comes from, but perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Jimmy is just one of those poor souls who, for no particular reason, are incapable of love and affection for anybody other than themselves. Though Jimmy would seem to be a sort of villain, and his eventual fate a satisfying one, I couldn’t help but feel for him, wishing that he could somehow move beyond himself and show a real concern for others. That Carlisle can depict Jimmy’s vulnerability underneath an even thicker veneer of haughtiness than Margaret speaks to both her innate abilities as an actress, and her sympathy for both of her characters.
In the end, though, it is the stylistic excesses of Liquid Sky that stay with you. The crazy hairstyles, the brightly-colored, angular clothing, the borderline-antagonistic music; it all serves to create a world where the viewer is uneasy and maybe even a bit paranoid, not unlike those that inhabit it. The film is far from perfect, and could be a difficult experience for most viewers, but those that are willing to engage with the film on its own strange level will be rewarded with a memorable film experience that, as I myself can attest to, will stay with them for years.