When people talk about "outsider art," they could mean art that's about, by, for, or with the participation of outsiders. Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky is outsider art across that board: it was directed by a Russian emigre, co-written by and starring downtown New Yorkers who did a fair amount of starving for their art, and depicts (if in a stylized way) the new- to no-wave scene of the early 1980s in that city.
Don't even try to fit a label to the end result. Cheesy science fiction, grimy bohemian drug tragedy, psychedelic experimentalism, and no-budget arthouse drama all stew together freely here. It's eye-filling, irritating, and mesmerizing in about equal measure; it drags you around by the shirt collar for two hours and then kicks you out of the apartment. I'm still not sure if I like it or not, but it's one of my favorite films all the same. Paradox intended.
Liquid Sky is anchored at its center by Anne Carlisle, a Laura Dern-esque actress who uses her lanky build and androgynous features to fill two roles. One is Margaret, a fashion model trying to make a name for herself in New York's carnivorous market. Her drug habit makes her a prime target: one creep sleazes his way into her place promising a fix, shoves pills down her throat, then rapes her.
The other is Jimmy, a pouting pretty-boy type, all angular cheekbones and sullen blond forelocks, who jockeys for supremacy over Margaret. Drugs rule his life as well, and he ransacks Margaret's place looking for the stash kept there by her friend Adrian, a performance artist. In a movie teeming with unlikable people, Adrian is one of the ugliest: foul-mouthed, selfish, impulsive, sneering. She's also one of the few people Margaret can call anything like a friend.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all, a dinner-plate-sized UFO lands atop Margaret's apartment house. The aliens inside seem fixated on the opiates secreted by the human brain during sex. Only a befuddled German scientist, who watches Margaret's encounters Rear Window-style, knows of its existence. But he's alone in his quest; the only person he knows in New York City is a drama teacher, Margaret's own college professor. When the teacher shows up at Margaret's apartment and ends up in her bed, he becomes the aliens' first victim. At first Margaret is baffled: Somehow, whenever she has sex with someone, they drop dead. Then she realizes this is as much a blessing as it is a curse. It means she can turn the tables on all those who have exploited her or sneered at her, from her former rapist to Jimmy himself.
The allegories to AIDS are obvious if not necessarily deliberate, as Liquid Sky was in the works before the term ever entered use. But the main conceit is the way Margaret has been seeking to empower herself, and has failed to do so in the downtown fashion world. There's a mesmerizing monologue late in the film, delivered by Carlisle while applying makeup under black light, where she spitefully describes how all of her efforts to find herself — leaving home, becoming a model — have all just become versions of looking for someone to save her instead of actual self-empowerment.
I first saw Liquid Sky on VHS decades ago, back when I was young enough to find its flaky, fluorescent surface appealing on its own merits. Vinegar Syndrome remastered the film with great care, and its riot of color and angular surfaces — the sheen of Margaret's costumes, the heaped-up trash and broken cement of 1980s New York — stand out all the more. On watching it again now, I'm struck most by how hard Tsukerman, Carlisle, and the rest of the cast and crew worked to make most everyone in the film deeply repulsive.
I mentioned Adrian, but Jimmy's sole reaction to everything is a spiteful sneer, and the rest of Margaret's professional contacts are gorgeous parasites. Only Margaret is halfway appealing, and that's mostly by dint of her being able to recognize just how awful most everyone else is, and by us knowing what unhappy dreams she keeps hidden down below. The most palatable characters are the German scientist and Jimmy's mother, a ditzy TV producer, who lets the scientist into her apartment on false pretenses (she thinks he's cute; he's just there to look at the UFO on top of Margaret's apartment). But they're mostly ciphers. The people who matter seem designed to inspire disgust — and by the movie's logic, a disgust that Margaret feels, one that shades over into self-loathing for wanting to be part of their world.
Many of the other strategies Liquid Sky used to be confrontational and novel have aged, some better than others. The herky-jerky editing rhythm of the movie is disorienting at first, but I got used to it, and on reflection it seems designed to make us feel a little like the characters themselves, many of whom are baffled by goings-on or itching to get their next fix. Less impressive is the synthesizer-and-sampler score — striking at the time, when sampling was still novel, and intriguing because it was recorded on normally hard-to-find hardware made available at the Public Access Synthesizer Studio. Now it sounds like a grating parody of new wave/no-wave/industrial/synth music, but given the cynical flavor of the movie about its subjects, maybe that actually complements the material instead of working against it.
The movie deserves to be thought of as Carlisle's work as much as Tsukerman's. She starred in it, cowrote the script, and provided a good deal of native insight from her experiences in the movie's milieu. She also wrote a novelization of the movie — now out of print, but not hard to find — that fills in a great deal of background detail about the characters. It also provides us with, of all things, an alternate reading for the film: it strongly implies a lot of what happens is Margaret's own fantasy. The movie itself doesn't seem to support such a reading; if anything, it detracts from the movie's theme of finding empowerment through outsider means.
Cult movies tend to have shelf lives, doubly so if they revolve around a specific subculture that also had a shelf life. Liquid Sky still works as a mutant time capsule, but I'm most fond of it for its ingenuity and its still-timely notions about sex and power — the way it works with a tiny budget and constrained resources to tell a story with ongoing relevance that's not just about it being a splashy downtown period piece.
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