Guess who finally watched Liquid Sky? No, not her, she died years ago. It was me actually. As will soon be seen in great detail.
A quick warning from the off, Liquid Sky is an unusual film with some unusual themes and ideas. So there are going to be big swears (like c-bombs and everything), hard drugs, grubby new-wave synth music, a dash of necrophilia, aliens that feed off of the pleasure secretions of the human brain, androgyny and neon lighting-lots of neon lighting-from here on out. It will be worth it, but if that stuff doesn’t sound like your bag then I’d jump ship now. Why not try a taster with the opening minutes from the film? If you don’t like it you can read something else. I won’t mind. The rest of you, see you in five minutes.
INTRO TO LIQUID SKY
So the plot of Liquid Sky, such as it is, focuses on the bisexual Margaret, an aspiring actress and model. Her rival and nemesis is the homosexual Jimmy, who we first see hassling Margaret’s heroin-dealer come performance artist girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard) for drugs. Right of the bat, we have some gender bending going on. Gaylyn Studlar describes the characters of Jimmy and Margaret, both played by Anne Carlisle, as “fashion models whose sexual ambiguity represents androgyny as the undernourished, emaciated refusal of gender“. Overcoming the limits of gender is a point we’ll return to later. But first, back to the plot. The video below is of the fashion show featuring Margaret and Jimmy early on in the film and is a good example of the film’s wild look, as well as being a sort of pop-cultural time capsule of New York’s boho scene in the early eighties. Also the soundtrack is amazing and utterly deranged. It’s what the mind of a sentient but quite insane computer might sound like.
OPENING FASHION SHOW
Following the fashion show Margaret hooks up with Vincent, who is offering cocaine to all the women at the nightclub. Back at Margaret’s apartment she rejects Vincent’s advances and he rapes her. Meanwhile, across town, middle class Katherine objects to the heroin use of her boyfriend Paul. Paul tries to intellectually justify his use of drugs with the usual “it’s a key to creativity yadadyaddayadda, you could buy it down the shops in the olden days yaddayaddayadda”. You know, the usual (if not entirely incorrect) spiel. Anyway, we see Paul buying his drugs from Adrian and trying to seduce Margaret. Then we cut to Jimmy having an awkward lunch with his mother at the end of which he asks her for money.
Following this Margaret is seduced by her former acting professor Owen, a representative of the hippie generation. He dies as they make love. Cut to: Paul refusing to play host a party in his girlfriend Katherine’s loft, claiming he feels sick. She throws him out and Paul shows up at Margaret’s while Adrian is out, and rapes her. He too dies.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “I already hate this film, it just involves a model getting raped a lot“. But these scenes are fleeting and un-sensational. Despite Liquid Sky fitting in quite comfortably with the midnight movie crowd and containing many of the elements of classic exploitation movies-youth subcultures, drugs, gender-bending, aliens (we’ll get to them!)- it sits just as comfortably with the art house crowd. This is fundamentally a serious movie, a movie with a dry and mordant sense of humour, and, against all odds, a moral movie. My point is that these scenes, while they could have been played for salacious kicks, actually exist to illustrate what Studlar calls the film’s, “milieu of sexual brutalisation, masquerading as liberation” (page 11). As such, it ain’t pretty. The griminess of these moments also serves as a counterpoint to the flashes of psychedelic imagery throughout the film which can be seen in the opening credits at the top of the post and will be explained in due course.
Anyway, later a crew arrives at Margaret’s apartment for a big fashion shoot. Margaret is taunted by Jimmy. As the taunting culminates the eighties hipster crowd begin chanting for them to fuck (their words, not mine). Homosexual jimmy is disgusted withe the idea of sleeping with a woman and refuses. As the crowd continue to goad them on (“Do it! Do it! Fuck her!”) Margaret proceeds to go down on Jimmy while he stares at his own reflection in a mirror. As with Owen and Paul he dies at the point of orgasm and his body evaporates. Next, Adrian perversely encourages Margaret to have sex with her, saying she won’t die like the others did, despite Margaret’s warning that “everyone who fucks me dies“. Adrian also dies and evaporates. Margaret applies new make-up, deserts the crew and goes to a downtown nightclub. There she reconnects with Vincent, who previously raped her. Back at her apartment she seduces him, ensuring his death.
Now, I’ve edited that down so you might be wondering, why does everyone Margaret have sex with die? Well that’s because there is an alien spacecraft on the roof of Margaret and Adrian’s apartment.
After Owen dies Margaret asks out loud for the body to disappear. Her wish is then granted by what Margaret takes to be a benevolent Indian god possessing the Empire State Building (well you would wouldn’t you?) but is in fact the work of the alien of her rooftop. For the first time in the film Margaret is granted love and kindness (“Is that for me Chief?“). But this balanced with the knowledge that whoever she sleeps with will be killed and their bodies dematerialized.
The film’s main subplot concerns the alien. A German scientist named Johann Hoffman, who has studied the aliens in Berlin and tracked then to New York. early on we see him arriving in New York and taking out his equipment to observe the alien craft from the Empire State Building. Johan approaches the only person he knows in America for help. This turns out to be Owen, the professor we later see, coincidentally, seducing his former student Margaret.
From there Johann seeks access to an apartment building adjacent to Margaret’s. This turns out to be where Jimmy’s mother Sylvia lives. Insanely (well, not in the context of this film) Sylvia eagerly invites Johann to her apartment for dinner. From Sylvia’s apartment, Johann intermittently continues his observation between dinner and dodging Sylvia’s various attempts to seduce him. Johann reveals that the alien is extracting the endorphins produced by the brain when an orgasm occurs and that this process of extraction is what causes the victims to die. Johann sees into Margaret’s apartment and seeing she is in danger so goes across to help her. He explains to Margaret that she survived because she never experienced an orgasm. Margaret stabs Johann in the back and injects herself with heroin to induce a wild autoerotic orgasm to ensure the aliens take her with them. Sylvia and Katherine arrive at the apartment together and reach the penthouse in time to see Margaret vaporized by the aliens.
one early highlight of the film is when we see Adrian at the club performing Me and My Rhythm box, which is a genuinely great bit of avant-synth pop. Over at Breakfastintheruins they point out that Adrian’s performance
begins by sampling her own heartbeat, seeming to prefigure the style of everyone from Peaches to Crystal Castles to No Bra, whilst some of the outfits on display, for all their 80s kitsch, could have been pulled straight from the trash-glamour/global psyche aesthetics of Glass Candy or Gang Gang Dance. It’s, uh.. pretty awesome, actually.
And the scene is brilliantly captured by the overhead shots of the dingey New York club and its astonishing denizens. its worth noting that the director and cinematographer were both Russian emigres. The film has an outsiders eye for the alien landscape iof downtown new York in 1982. The clip is below and, for the sake of completion, I’ve compiled a playlist of the performers cited above (as well as the clips used in this post) over on Youtube.
ME AND MY RYTHM BOX
In this next scene Margaret is getting made up for a fashion shoot and interviewed for some trendy magazine. It’s a good illustration of the jarring effect caused by the juxtaposition of psychedelic sounds and imagery with the lack of affect displayed by the characters. Asked what her ‘bizarre’ clothes and make-up mean, Margaret flatly replies, ‘nothing’. We know that the alien is drawn to nihilistic subcultures because there tends to be a lot of casual fucking and drugs knocking about there. But the alien’s ‘ consciousness’, though we only know it non-verbally, seems to be the polar opposite of this lack of affect, something close to, or maybe the perfect form of, the styles and colours that characters in the film are adopting and the sounds they make and listen to. But for them it is simply display, another mask, a signifier of alien consciousness but not the thing itself.
After this we see Margaret talking with her former acting teacher Owen, in what is effectively a dialogue concerning the 1960s versus the 1980s. At one point the themes of the film are summed up in a single exchange:
Owen: All your costumes are just participation in some kind of phoney theater. I’m only telling you this for your own good. It’s a freak show.
Margaret: Oh, are you trying to say that your blue jeans weren’t theater?
Owen: It’s not the same thing.
Margaret: So your professor wore a three-piece suit and blamed you for your jeans. And your jeans were “too much.” And he didn’t understand that his suit was also a costume. You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality; we at least know that we’re in costume.
Margaret also tells Owen that her clothes are designed to warn people that “this pussy has teeth”. A statement that prefigures Owen’s death after he seduces her. I should probably add that Owen dies with a long crystal sticking out the back of his head that dematerializes when Margaret removes it. This, presumably, is how the alien ‘eats’.
Following this Adrian returns and upon discovering the corpse indulges in some impromptu performance poetry over the body of the dead acting teacher, representative and the ideals of the sixties counterculture and now, like the movement he represented, quite dead. Not that the film sets up the nihilistic eighties counterculture as superior. Studlar incisively reminds us that in having Margaret claim at one point, “I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself [sic]”:
Liquid Sky does not celebrate the appropriation of punk androgyny into the fashion statement of the 1980s as a liberating blending of male and female traits into an archetype of wholeness, but rather as another capitalist cannibilization of the signifiers of a cultural rebellion…the charade of androgyny only obfuscates ideology, as the dominance/submission agenda remains a powerful influence on any relationship under the patriarchy (page 11)
We’ll elaborate on that a bit later. For now here is Adrian performing the delightful You Go To Hell to a dead hippy.
YOU GO TO HELL
What the clip doesn’t show is the following scene where Adrian says she always dreamt she could a “fuck dead man“. Against Margaret’s protestations Adrian squats on the dead guys face and begins to gyrate in an almost ritualisitic manner. Necrophile cunnilingus as performance art. To be honest it’s not unsexy. Adrian then she tells Margaret- hilariously, insanely, but in a way that make total sense within the context of this particular movie-“don’t get moral with me“. Did I mention she was sitting on a dead guys face?
Oh, and then they have a knife fight.
I’m just going to put the whole scene up because frankly, its batshit crazy in a way that eludes language. See you on the other side.
Seriously, what can you even say about that? Other than, “that was ace”, obviously. The scene is defensible though I think. Thematically it highlights the utterly nihilistic nature of this environment. Sensation without meaning or moral direction.
The film culminates in a big fashion shoot. Booze is in full supply, as are John Belushi length lines of coke. Eventually things build up to a showdown of sorts between Margaret and Jimmy. he calls her old and ugly. She asks him to hit her. Shit gets crazy. The gathered hipsters goad Margaret and jimmy into publicly fucking and Jimmy dies at the point of orgasm. It’s all pretty intense and leaves you feeling dirty and weird. Luckily, I feel like that almost all the time.
Margaret warns the freaked-out gatherers that “I’m killing all the people that I fuck.” Finally Adrian decides to have sex with Margaret to prove she will not die. She does though.
Then some creepy electro-children’s music starts, the aural equivalent of childhood innocence becoming aware of its own diminishing status. The sound of wedding dresses in gutters spattered with blood and faeces. You know, that sound. Margaret then gives this amazing speech that sums up everything, kind of, and contains the immortal line, “I kill with my cunt, isn’t it fashionable“? all the while painting her face under neon lighting until she begins to resemble something non-human. “Come on, who’s next?” Margaret taunts, “who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right. Because they are all dead, all my teachers“. Studlar summarises it like this:
She recounts that she was first told to be a suburban housewife to her lawyer-prince, then she was told to be a successful (“free and equal”) New York model with a male agent. Her new identity proves as empty as the old, her new “family” as repressive as the old, her female lovers as willing, she says, to step on her as men (page 11)
The whole scene, from Adrian’s death-gasm to Margaret’s monologue is below. If you haven’t already, turn off the lights, turn up the sound and embiggen the picture.
Trust me when I say that these synopses and clips do little to get across the tone and mood of the film. It’s effective is cumulative.
Also, despite the alien it’s not a very science-fictiony sci-fi. Its more about character and place, counterculture and identity. Its got a touch of Phillip K Dick about it that way. In fact, the idea of an alien attracted to sub-cultural groups because it feeds on the chemicals released by the human brain during orgasm or drug use could have sprung from Dick’s mind. and if such a story does in fact exist then please get in touch tell me the name of it.
Anyway, interspersed throughout all of this are occasional glimpses through the ‘eyes’ of the alien. When people orgasm, a burst of colour and brightness centred in the head shows the appropriate chemicals have been released for the alien to feed on. We saw an instance of that in the scene above. It would be fair to say though that the film is on the side of the alien. Both gateways to death, sex and drugs, are food for the alien. Margaret, as Johann tells her at the end, has been saved from death because she has not, or cannot, orgasm. As Studlar points out, up until the final scenes, “Margaret’s lack of desire saves her from death. The blankness of androgyny transmutes into erotic blankness” (page 12). In her affectless lack of desire only drugs can make her sufficient source of nourishment for the extraterrestrial pleasurevore.
She dons a traditional white wedding dress. Begging the departing ship to take her along, she mainlines heroin, known in its best forms as ‘Liquid Sky’. Caught in a beam of light from the space craft, Margaret dances a tormented dance of erotic self-destruction as she dematerializes. In a transfiguring act of ‘merging into the nonhuman’ she finally finds erotic bliss, the ‘liquid sky’ of orgasm. (page 12)
In this much the film has some affinities with the ‘merging into the nonhuman’ I wrote about in my post Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex about the films of David Cronenberg. Certainly the almost exhausting, consistent drone of electronica throughout Liquid Sky, combined with the simultaneously grubby and garish neon visuals adds up to an experience far removed from typical cinematic presentation. Plot is subservient to the tone and mood. Motivation is oblique. Characters are deadened, cynical and unlikable, or, like the alien, unknowable. The bastard child of feminism, punk, new wave and 2001: a Space Odyssey, it’s an exploitation movie but with some real thematic meat on its grindhouse bones.
You don’t watch Liquid Sky, you experience it. So now the question is, are you experienced?