Out of this world
Tom Ridgway on the enduring appeal of Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s stylish cult hit.
A white mask sits on a wall surrounded by neon light. A UFO descends upon Manhattan. People dance in a nightclub, but not to the weird electronic music you’re hearing on the soundtrack (unless early 1980s clubgoers danced to a completely different beat). Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky begins as it means to go on: oddly. Inside that club we meet Margaret, a beautiful woman with a monotone voice and full-face make-up who, over the next 100 or so minutes, will be described by various other characters as a “bitch”, an “ugly chicken” and an “uptight WASP c*nt”. Jimmy, a man who looks strangely like her (both look suspiciously like Kristen McMenamy fronting a Heaven 17 tribute band and are played by the same actress, Anne Carlisle), suggests they go back to the slightly grotty penthouse Margaret shares with Adrian, her lesbian performance-artist lover and drug dealer (sample lyrics: “Me and my rhythm box / It never eats, it never shits, it never sleeps / It’s always high and so am I!”). Once there, Margaret proceeds to dance arrhythmically, like Annie Lennox having a spasm attack while on Quaaludes (which she will later be forced to eat by a man who then assaults her in the stairwell), ignorant of the fact that just above her on the roof is the aforementioned UFO that looked so big in the credits, but which is, we will soon be told by German astrophysicist and UFO researcher Johann (who is, as Margaret dances, on his way into town from JFK armed with a giant telescope), actually only the size of a dinner plate. The alien inside is invisible, but it can still shoot Plexiglas arrows through walls in order to get high on opiates.
Confused? Get ready, because that’s just the first 15 minutes, and it gets way madder after that. In other words, Liquid Sky is a film with cult tattooed all over it in bright pink and crazy green ink. There’s the excruciating, terribly delivered dialogue – “Don’t you call me that, you low-class freaking monster!” – that no one at the time understood was supposed to be funny. (“We never laughed more than the time when we were writing the script,” the director told The Awl recently.) There’s the peculiar music, which smartly and disturbingly feeds Carl Orff samples through an early synthesiser and was made, according to the final credits, “on the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument at the Public Access Synthesizer Studio (PASS) in New York City”. There are the images – described with typical understatement by the New York Times back in 1983 as “visually arresting” – like the startlingly bright colours of the alien’s point of view, clearly inspired by David Bowie’s 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” video, that get more intense and out-there as it gets off on heroin and sex, or the disconcerting zooms and downright freaky cuts. And there’s the fashion. Oh, the fashion. The main characters of Liquid Sky look like they got dressed after a night out at Blitz and a trip into the future to steal Alexis Carrington’s shoulder pads. It’s all New Romantic warpaint and frighteningly angular cuts and, I’m reliably told, just like it was.
Because, for people who experienced the downtown Manhattan club scene at the time, Liquid Sky is the only film that captures the drug-fuelled, hedonist, nihilist madness of it all. In fact, you may see the film as a parody documentary of a long-lost New York, a sort of fashion This is Spinal Tap with added junkie alien. (One feature far stranger than alien visitations immediately stands out: back then, you could rent a “penthouse” in midtown Manhattan even if you weren’t a banker! Oh, heady days!) But the film is also funny because almost without exception, its characters are truly awful, selfish monsters with no redeeming features whatsoever. (In a nice touch, the only vaguely decent character is Johann, the dutiful German.) This makes one of the film’s keys scenes all the more strangely moving. During a fashion shoot (which ends with two deaths and a desire to go dancing), we see a selection of photos of Margaret as a child, all WASP-y innocence and orthodontics-free teeth. It’s so odd to see this glimpse of the “normal” world after 90 minutes in the freak show that you suddenly wonder what drove her into those clothes and make-up. And the answer comes, not long afterwards, in a terrific scene involving glow-in-the-dark make-up: it was – of course – that cruel mistress, fashion. “I was taught,” she monotones, “that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my c*nt. Isn’t it fashionable?” (Which is both ridiculous and oddly relevant at a time when current fash fave Jamie Bochert is the spitting image of both Steven Tyler and Patti Smith.) Liquid Sky is not just a parody of the shallowness of the fashion world and its accompanying “scene” – which is hardly a revolutionary point of view, even if the film makes it a rather funny one – but also how useful that shallowness can be; as powerful as drugs when you need to run away. Liquid Sky is about escape, but also its impossibility.
Through a twist of timing, a dark presence lurks behind Liquid Sky’s silliness and camp. It was made the year that the aestheticised nihilism of the late 1970s was meeting a real-life killer, a disease that had just been renamed from GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) to AIDS. The film looks now like a sort of premonition of a near future when sex, drugs and death would become inextricably and terrifyingly intertwined. The alien comes to Earth, explains Johann, because it’s a junkie, here to get high on heroin, also known as liquid sky (“key to heaven, milk of paradise,” as a failed writer describes it). “In the beginning,” Johann explains, “aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later aliens appeared in specific subcultures, punk circles, still around heroin, and in these punk circles more deaths occurred.” But this alien has different plans: it now targets people having sex because the chemicals released during orgasm are like opiates. “Doesn’t that mean that orgasms are dangerous?” asks the TV producer. You got it. And once Margaret understands that sex is a death sentence for anyone who orgasms while with her, she sets about getting revenge on all those men (and a woman) who have abused her. In a splendidly silly scene, she manages to off two people in front of an assembled crowd of fashion folk and still no one believes her when she says, “If you fuck me, you die!” Liquid Sky may well be satire, but the arrival of AIDS also means that it has become a strange sort of elegy for the very scene it lovingly mocks.
Which makes Liquid Sky sound like a total downer. It’s not – it’s a blast, and one that appears to have been more influential for artists and musicians than most of 1983’s other releases (Flashdance excepted, obviously). Tsukerman told The Awl, “A Japanese distributor told me that no film influenced a generation like Liquid Sky did – it changed a generation.” There is no doubt, for example, that Lady Gaga has sat through it more than once. (Her 1983-era doppelgänger appears about 13 minutes in.) Once you’ve seen it, you spot its possible influence everywhere – I’m looking at you, M.I.A., and your “Y.A.L.A.” video, and you, Charlie Le Mindu, with your AW14 wig extravaganza. Liquid Sky might be a bizarre cinematic and fashion artefact, but it’s one with a bit more intellectual and satirical meat on its bones than its odd androgynous frame might at first suggest. Or, as Johann the German so aptly puts it, “Duty is more important than shrimps.”