Monday 11 June 2018

The Question in Bodies #14: Liquid Sky (1982)

(This post is also On a Thousand Walls #13)

Liquid Sky is a film I've wanted to see for nearly 30 years. Ever since it was in the list of inspirational movies in a sidebar in Mike Pondsmith’s first Cyberpunk game (I dug it out and looked, and found teenage me had ticked off the ones I'd seen like it was a checklist).

I suppose out of all those films I really wanted to see, it's the one that I took the longest to track down, and it's not like I spent the whole three decades waking up every day feeling sad because I hadn't yet seen Liquid Sky, because that's not how it works, but every so often, someone would mention it, or it'd come up in a discussion of cyberpunk films, or 80s cult movies, and I'd think, Yeah, I should get to that, and in the last decade or so that'd mean that I'd go see if you could get it on Amazon or eBay and I'd invariably find you couldn't, and shrug, and go and watch something easier to find, and that continued until a couple months ago, when I found that there was a region 0 Blu Ray/DVD box, only it was a fearsomely expensive import, and I ummed and I ahhed and eventually I decided that I had to, because every single other Great Elusive Film in my life I'd seen and there was only this one left, and dammit, it's been 29 years.

God, I was disappointed. Then I wasn't. Then I was. And then finally I wasn't. One thing is certain: I'm glad I wasn't 14 when I finally saw it. I wouldn't have had a hope of appreciating it, not least because it is an exceptionally sweary film.

Alter egos.
A tiny flying saucer, the size of, well, a saucer, lands on an apartment block. And its bodiless and/or amorphous inhabitant watches the inhabitants, and its attention is drawn to Margaret.

Margaret (Ann Carlisle) is a model and socialite in the New York club scene, and it's the early 80s,so that means New Romantics, so Margaret looks like a Patrick Nagel painting, only much, much more so and so does her nemesis, male model Jimmy (also Ann Carlisle). Jimmy is a sponge. We first meet him trying to get some free drugs from Margaret's dealing girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Shepherd). Shortly after he will trash Adrian and Margaret's flat looking for the stuff, while Adrian is downstairs in the club performing bad scene electro for a crowd of appreciative New Romantic hipsters and Margaret protests ineffectually. And that's pretty much Margaret's life. People walk over her: and she's not a doormat exactly, she's just used by people, and although she fights, she keeps losing. So a guy from the club tries to drug her and ends up raping her in a stairwell, and Jimmy trashes her flat, and Adrian is just abusive, and her old drama teacher Owen (Bob Brady) drops by, supposedly to give life advice, but you know all he wants is a fuck. To be honest, Owen is the only person in the film Margaret really seems to like, and so the sleaziness of his intent is presented with a sort of odd complexity. But it's still sleazy.

So far, so trashily exploitative. But then she finds Owen dead after the fact, with a six inch long razor-sharp crystal sticking out of his skull.

A scientist from Europe, Johann (Otto von Wernherr) has arrived in New York hunting the aliens. He explains to the people he meet, who, bizarrely, just believe him, that the little flying saucers are all over the place right now, and they're feeding off the chemical hit that comes from opiate use, except some of them have found that orgasms are as good. And I appreciate that this was a sudden change of subject but it's no less abrupt than any transition in the film.
Not the kitchen implement.
Margaret soon realises that everyone she has sex with dies at the moment they orgasm, and figures out that there's an agency shooting these arrows (her “Indian”) and tries, with some success, to come to an accommodation with the aliens.
Margaret: Hey, you! Hey, you! What's with these glass arrows, Indian? I can't have all these bodies. Corpses! All these corpses here! All these dead people. Please, no more bodies!
Margaret becomes a sort of tragic spirit of vengeance: “I kill with my cunt,” she keeps saying.

The odd, and let's be kind and say affectless, acting is initially pretty hard to watch. It's not wooden, exactly, because nothing whatsoever in Liquid Sky is made of wood. So you have to call it plastic, I guess (and I don't think it's an accident how much Jimmy looks like Plastic Soul-era Bowie).

It's hard to take Liquid Sky seriously, and no one who has ever seen the Electro episode of The Mighty Boosh (2004) will, I guarantee, be capable of that, which I think is more an indicator of the extent to which Liquid Sky nails down the clichés of scenester New Romantic electro fashion of the early 80s and how the worst excesses of the early 2000s electro revival unironically picked up on those clichés, so that the half-satirical electro girls from the Boosh (and the actors were in fact in a terrible, terrible real life electro band) wouldn't look out of place as extras in Liquid Sky.
They'll stab you up.
But of course you can't take Liquid Sky seriously, because it's not serious. The whole premise is ridiculously silly, and the web of coincidence that powers the thing (a thread picked up in both After Hours and Repo Man) isn't the province of Serious Drama.
For example, unaware of his connection to Margaret, the first person Johann visits is Owen, apparently an old colleague; later, Johann enlists Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the woman in the flat opposite, to help him watch Margaret and the aliens, and Sylvia (who spends most of the film trying and failing to get Johann into bed) is also Jimmy’s mother. It all the gives the impression of a tiny, incestuous scene, where everyone knows everyone.

No one really behaves like a human in Liquid Sky. Johann rocks up and is all, “Aliens are after our skag, and possibly also our orgasms,” and people just nod and accept it. And in the nearest thing to a big set piece, we see Death/Disintegration by Blow Job, followed literally a couple of minutes later by Death/Disintegration by Scissors (not the household implement) and in front of a hipster fashionista entourage who all just stand there with an “Oh. Shit. OK,” look on their faces and then listen silently to Margaret monologue bitterly while she's doing her makeup, and who then, when she says, “OK, let's go to the club, guys,” all just tag along as if they haven't just seen two of their own inexplicably annihilated.

And that's not how drama works, and from every indication I've seen from the various interviews and such, Slava Tsukerman, the director, knows that's not how drama works, and that he (and Carlisle, who co-wrote) are making a brutal point about these awful jaded hipsters doing what awful jaded hipsters do, that they're the sort of people who probably would just watch stuff like this nearly unfazed.
Back in its day Liquid Sky had some considerable success among the hipster market, but it is not a film that has anything positive to say about hipsters. The scene, it's saying, is populated with vile and hateful people. Ann Carlisle, at the time the film was made, a pretty successful model, was part of this scene; I wonder how many of the awful people in the film are based on people she knew.

And I wonder how much Margaret's monologue represents Carlisle’s true feelings. The biographical details of Margaret are also Carlisle's, certainly, (and I think it's telling that Carlisle would eventually get sick of the scene, and throw over modelling and acting and become a drama therapist). Even though it's surrounded by people reacting improbably to improbable events (or maybe because of that, because hell, I don't know what to do with this movie) that monologue is quite frankly the best part of the film, and the bit where I finally decided, after wavering back and forth between love and hate, that I do actually on balance like Liquid Sky.
Margaret: So I was taught that I should come to New York, become an independent woman. And my prince would come, and he would be an agent, and he would get me a role, and I would make my living waiting on tables. I would wait - till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught 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 cunt. Isn't it fashionable? Come on, who's next? I'll take lessons. How to get into show business: be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: fuck women instead of men, and you'll discover a whole kingdom of freedom – men won't step on you anymore, women will.
Margaret is perfect for the aliens’ purposes because her experience of her sexuality and womanhood is uniquely miserable. She doesn't derive any pleasure from the vast amounts of sex she has, and so the aliens can use her to harvest plenty of orgasms without harming her. But the aliens are just using her too. Margaret has the cyberpunk equivalent of a vagina dentata, but once she has taken revenge on her various abusers (and not always willingly) she finds no fulfilment in it. Her sexuality is an instrument for others’ ends, and while she's able to get her own back, it's only through those others using her, and she has limited control.
Come and teach me.
But she says, “Isn't it fashionable?” and that, I suppose, is at the heart of why those awful electro hipsters don't really react in any real way. Because sex is a weapon for all of them. It's a means of control, a means of punishment, a distraction from addiction, a tool. And the used don't get to enjoy it.

Eventually Margaret will find a way to get her moment too, knowing full well annihilation will result. But in that, at least, she finds agency.

Liquid Sky is a right wonky old film. Its look is very much of its time. The music, synthesised, was state of the art in 1982 and hasn't aged well. The script has entire tranches that don't make sense. The acting isn't great. There are some really jarring edits. And yet, even so, something about this film is really compelling, compelling enough that I went back and watched it a second time. It captures a moment, but it also deals with what we ourselves become when our sexuality is weaponised, when it is twisted for another’s ends.

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