The difference between the moldering prints and VHS tapes of Liquid Sky you might have been lucky enough to see in recent decades and Vinegar Syndrome’s new digital 4K restoration of the film is something like the difference between peeping on a party from the outside, through soiled curtains, and actually being invited in. At last, after sitting out the DVD and streaming eras, Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 neon-fired New Wave New York alien sex-party punk-disco orgasm-as-revenge proto-electroclash feminist genderfuck is on screens in its finest form, scrubbed and crisp and gorgeous, ready to baffle, disquiet, thrill, and trigger.
Stalwart fans might carp that it loses something without the murk and that whiff of alien samizdat. This is, after all, a cult film about bodiless aliens who come to Manhattan for the heroin and then stick around when a lesbian fashion model discovers she can feed said aliens by — and, yes, I realize this is hard to picture if you haven’t seen it — bringing sexual partners to climax. At that point, naturally, the sexual partners vanish, possibly into that void Scarlett Johansson so dutifully tended in Under the Skin, a film no less serious than Liquid Sky. My heart and eyes disagree that this digital sprucing is apostasy: The tangerine skylines, sweat-slick club dancers, grubby-chic apartments, ubiquitous neon, lavishly asymmetrical hairdos and so-primitive-they-fascinate alien effects demand truly to be seen. Anne Carlisle, who co-wrote the film and plays the lead, the lesbian model Margaret, shares scenes with herself also playing a man, the glibly horny/drug-hungry Jimmy, also a model. Now you don’t have to squint to spot the subtleties of the performances.
Produced for half a million, and shot (by cinematographer Yuri Neyman) sometimes in Tsukerman’s own apartment, Liquid Sky has always been caught smack between delirious curio, avant-garde put-on, exploitation cheapie, and naive masterpiece. Today, it seems prescient, not just for its awed fascination with the wildest fashions of ’82 club culture. The storyline turns, like so many vintage genre films, on the protracted rape of a woman, Margaret; soon, in her penthouse digs in the shadow of the Empire State Building, a tiny spaceship imbues her with those mysterious sex-disappearance powers — or, as she bluntly puts it, “a cunt that kills.” At first, she’s horrified and confounded at the fate faced by men at their climax. The men she hooks up with, after the rape, are simply nullified, blinked out of existence in cinema’s most literal la petite mort. When she at last understands what’s happening, she sets herself for revenge.
The specter of the AIDS crisis to come now looms over Liquid Sky, of course. Each man Margaret expels to the void is another hole in the club scene. It’s impossible to watch without mourning the fact that it’s not just time and changing fashions that make its world so distant. The film might sound ludicrous, and it is often funny — intentionally — but it’s impassioned rather than some grim joke. It’s no accidental cult classic. Tsukerman and Carlisle capture and honor the essence of a scene but also push that essence, tease it out (like the towering pompadour she wears as Margaret) to otherworldly heights. And Tsukerman, working with Neyman, has captured a singular vision of a twilight Manhattan haunted by the lost, the daring, the damned, the jonesing — and some aliens. The soundtrack is a dizzying synth carnival, coaxed out of a Fairlight CMI. And for all the fervid sexistentialism, the film peaks with “Me and My Rhythmbox,” a grandly teutonic art-beat song performance by Paula E. Sheppard, who plays Margaret’s girlfriend.
Directed by Slava Tsukerman
Opens April 13, Quad Cinema
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