Classic

06.02.14

Punks, UFOs, and Heroin: How ‘Liquid Sky’ Became a Cult Movie

Gorbachev watched it during the putsch. Hipsters still flock to it. The director of ‘Liquid Sky,’ which features aliens and addicts in ’80s New York, reveals how he made a cult classic.

“What connection can there possibly be between UFOs and heroin?” asks a character in Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic from 1982, Liquid Sky. It’s not really a question I pondered myself during my own years of addiction, but apparently enough people find it intriguing to attend screening after screening, in many countries, wearing makeup and outfits in homage to the specific style of the film, for the last 31 years. Before attending Friday’s screening at the BAM, I had a long talk with the director at his Manhattan apartment, where part of the movie was filmed back in those dark and distant 80’s.

A detail that struck me is that apparently it’s not just the hip and fashionable who enjoy Liquid Sky. Slava Tsukerman told me that during the August Putsch of 1991, when Gorbachev was held prisoner by KGB guards in the resort of Foros, in the Crimea, he was allowed to make an ‘entertainment’ order for himself and his wife Raisa. So while the Old Guard was attempting to restore rigid Communism in Moscow, the KGB agents provided Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev with something to take their mind off things; a few bottles of white and the film Liquid Sky.

The plot, which deserves a quick re-telling, is unique. Tsukerman wrote the script with the star of his film, Anne Carlisle, and his wife Nina. In the film it’s either twilight or the day is ending; an infinite sunset. A lesbian couple lives in a small downtown apartment. We later learn that the model, who is the heroine, is a Connecticut Wasp disappointed in her arrival in the big city. Her girlfriend is a heroin dealer and performer, whose music is made with a ‘rhythm box’ strapped to her (and often sampled by progressive DJ’s in later years).

There is a lot of elaborate make-up and costuming, and then a UFO arrives. Seriously. It is only as big as a dinner plate, since the film had but half a million dollars to be filmed on. Inside are beings without bodies. We know because a German scientist turns up to study the invaders and explain them to us. Turns out the aliens are here for the dope. They find places where heroin use is rampant and feed off the endorphins of pleasure that addicts experience. But in sexy New York, the aliens learn that they can suck off even more endorphins from orgasms. Of course, this kills the person having one, as becomes obvious when sharp crystals are found in the bodies’ skulls.

So our heroine, who has been raped and abused in the beginning of the film, figures out that “she has a cunt that kills.” She causes orgasms in everyone she wants to knock off, and then shoots enough dope for the aliens to take her away with them. There is also a fashion shoot, punk dancing, an androgynous male model also played by Carlisle and some desperate middle class junkies.

Liquid Sky
Anne Carlisle and Slava Tsukerman. (Petra Szabo)

Is this a comedy? Like with many a cult film, there is no concrete answer. Slava explained that some early viewers thought that the humor was unintentional, and experienced the film earnestly, while now the culture has grown up enough to understand the sarcasm and dark humor of Liquid Sky. I’m inclined to agree; the theatre was rollicking at some gory and vicious things at the screening, which were understood to be deliberate exaggerations and tongue in cheek. The referential and cynical style that rules today’s humor is better for enjoying Liquid Sky than the purist authenticity of the early punk 80’s.

Cult films are a genre of their own; ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ has been popular for forty years now. People still go to midnight screenings in Frank-N-Furter costumes and throw rice. Tsukerman told me that for some distribution reasons, he rejected the idea of midnight screenings for his own cult classic, but perhaps that makes perfect sense, since his film is in a different vein of fetish, the kind of vein you shoot heroin in.

“Word of mouth. Old VHS tapes passed around, watched when parents were not home. That is how ‘Liquid Sky’ survived the period between its release and the rise of the web.”

As I could easily tell from Friday’s audience at the BAM, this is a movie beloved by the stylish, fashion-conscious and achingly cool. Being a fan of Liquid Sky carries the cachet of degenerate hipness to this day, 32 years after it was filmed.

I asked Tsukerman how an immigrant from the Soviet Union, who came to the United States after a stay in Israel, ended up making the film that epitomized the New Wave punk ethos and is beloved for that reason to this day. He started out in documentaries, and filmed many features and other films on Russian topics, dealing with the end of the Soviet Union and Karamzin’s Poor Liza, to name just a few examples. But until his current plans come to fruition, Liquid Sky is his singular contribution to the cult genre.

Ben Barenholz, a key presence in the Independent film scene, who has distributed the work of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, read the script. “He said ‘Slava, you are making a cult film’. Somehow he could just tell. I researched what was going on in the city at the time by going to nightclubs and downtown events, but the music, which has had a big role in the film’s lasting appeal, was written by me. And I don’t even know how to write a score.”

Liquid Sky
Anne Carlisle in a scene from Liquid Sky. (Photofest)

Tsukerman and I spoke in Russian, so I’m somewhat paraphrasing, but he prepared me well for the spectacle of a Liquid Sky screening. The music is eerie and disturbing, and it is easy to imagine how revolutionary it sounded in 1983. Tsukerman explained that synthesizers were barely available at that time and he had a lot of trouble getting exactly what he wanted. Brian Eno was the first one invited to do the soundtrack; after all, the film was intended as an homage to Andy Warhol. In fact, Tsukerman noted that Warhol agreed to star in a production they had planned that never came to fruition. But in any case, Eno was not the appropriate composer for the score. Tsukerman had conceptualized exactly what he wanted, and it was an electric, modern interpretation of symphonic music, specifically the fugues of Carl Orff, as well as some lesser-known 19th century compositions.

However, computerized music was so new in 1982 that Tsukerman had to reserve slots on a system called PASS, which afforded him synthesizer time. He sang and plucked out the tunes he wanted computerized, and with the help of two young composers he managed to create the music that has survived in the public ear to reappear in today’s hits. In particular, the genre of Electroclash, of which Fischerspooner are the best known exponents, is aesthetically influenced by Tsukerman’s film and music. Larry Tee, who is so deeply involved with the genre that one can call him its overseer, has said that it was the look, feel and sound of Liquid Sky that informed his style. He also frequently spins electronic music with samples from the film. Lady Gaga has been accused of drawing her costume inspiration from the movie. Did Tsukerman, a Soviet immigrant, expect this kind of legacy?

“Thomas Dolby came here and sat in the chair you are sitting in and said that the music in the film was revolutionary. The Director of the New York City Chamber Orchestra offered to play the score with classical instruments, and the only reason it didn’t happen was grant problems. And the international success has been heartening, particularly in Germany and Japan. Of course, Russia is its own story. But having been inundated with Marx from an early age, I started to understand that we made something special when the receipts began coming in. After all, our budget was only $500,000, and while the official figure is that the film made $1.7 million, in fact it made at least a million dollars in each of the art film theaters that ran it in New York, Boston and Washington D.C. And it ran for almost four years, which has to be some sort of record.”

I asked Tsukerman whether the success of the film had to do with its provocative nature. After all, heroin and cocaine are dealt with like everyday objects, the sex is either gay or configured as rape, and the body-count is high. But Tsukerman explained it to me differently.

“Every housewife, deep in her heart, wants to be a punk.”

Apparently. At the BAM screening, most shades of hair color that are chromatically possible were in evidence. Some of the audience were people who had been at the 1983 premier, now in their 80’s. But many had not even been born in 1983. I asked a particularly dashing fellow why he was there, and he explained that the film influenced him as a 13 year old to aspire to be an artist. He was 13 about 20 years ago, so I also questioned how he knew about Liquid Sky at all, since this was before the long tail of the Internet appeared. He told me the same thing that Tsukerman said earlier when I asked a similar question. Word of mouth. Old VHS tapes passed around, watched on VCR’s when parents were not home. That is how Liquid Sky survived the period between its release and the rise of the web. When Tsukerman first searched for the references to the film, in the days of Netscape, five million results showed up. Only Spielberg films had as many.

Carlisle, who played both a nefarious male role and a tragic female one in the film, was at the screening, looking amazing and unaged. It turns out that lately Tsukerman has been working with Ann on the script for a sequel. He noted that with the recent popularity for all things 80’s and the frequency of remakes, it has been offered to him to re-do Liquid Sky with modern CGI and better lighting. He would like 3D; Tsukerman believes the medium would be good for the film.

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Petra Szabo

But he cannot imagine a remake not set in the filthy old New York of 1982. In case the film was transposed to 2014, the director believes it would be a guaranteed flop. However, a sequel, especially with Ann reprising her roles, could be something. As always with films of this nature, funding is an issue, or at least funding without exploitation. But there is a script almost ready.

I asked Tsukerman why the 1980s were back with such fierceness, and why all of these remakes were being made. Our conversation then turned to Hegelian dialectic, but basically it’s the spirality of life, according to Tsukerman. As every generation grows up, they desire another look at the same things. At the screening, the generation that bought most of the tickets was born around the time the film first came out, so Tsukerman might just have a point there. Soon the film will be shown in Williamsburg for three nights, and in that bastion of hipness I expect that the makeup and costumes of the movie-goers will be even more intense. There might even be a real junkie or two in the audience.

Considering Tsukerman’s provenance, the question arises: Did every Soviet housewife also wish to be a punk in her heart of hearts?

“I thought the film would never be shown in Russia at all. Three reasons; first of all I am an immigrant and the work of immigrants was not propagated in the Soviet Union. For example, Lolita was only available in samizdat. Secondly, the film shows sex in a raw way, and the Soviet regime was notoriously prudish, despite its official atheism. And finally, the film is very hard to translate. Both in concept and language.”

“However, then 1989 came around, and with it a thaw in official Soviet culture. No one knew whether to trust it, as there had been détentes before that ended in the labor camps, but I was invited to the 1989 Moscow Film Festival, which had a special emphasis on ‘sex-kino’, cinema with a sexual theme. After the official showing, a young man who represented an unknown film club asked me to show the movie to the members of his organization. I went. The audience was full of blocky types with the kind of faces we had feared in our counter-cultural youth. I asked for an answer to a question that had been only vaguely replied to before. Whose club was this? It was the police, of course. With a lot of guests from the KGB. I paled and decided this was the end for me, but instead of a lynching I got a round of applause at the end. Such is life, such is change.”

If a sequel to Liquid Sky emerges out of the current work of Carlisle and Tsukerman, there will be a built-in audience. Asking the young movie-goers at the screening at the BAM what this 32-year-old film meant to them, I was told that it liberated them to embrace their artistic leanings and even their sexuality. For at least one young woman with aqua-blue hair, Liquid Sky was what prompted her and gave her the courage to move to the big city from Wisconsin. And this despite the morose speech given by the main character about the hardness of the New York life, which seems to include a lot of waiting on tables while waiting for your big break. But it’s still fabulous. Maybe therein lies the ongoing appeal of Liquid Sky, captured in that infinite sunset.