Liquid Sky (1982; Slava Tsukerman) is about aliens, both human and extraterrestrial—and is pure unadulterated 200-proof Cinema of Weirdness: a practically autobiographical No Wave/sci-fi murder mystery/comedy of manners.
This is no Flash Gordon-style space battle sci-fi, oh no: it’s much, much more: a sui generis rara avis all the way, baby…
Made by and for people for whom “weird” is “normal,” Liquid Sky expects the audience to be capable of doing some heavy lifting.
Liquid Sky is an earnest film, with a dry, droll sense of humor. Never winking at the audience or trying to be “camp,” even while the dialog is spiteful and nasty like an English-to-Russian-back-to-English translation of a 1970s John Waters flick.
The film begins discordantly as New York City-based dirt-poor New Wave/No Wave fashion model Margaret (played by Anne Carlisle) is desperately trying to prepare for a show. She’s also having an argument with her bitter, possibly psychotic lesbian lover, as well as her bête noire and fellow fashion model, the heroin-addicted Jimmy (also played by Carlisle; gender roles and “polite” sexuality mean nothing in this film—even necrophilia is performed at one point!).
Everyone we meet that is involved in the fashion world is a creep: selfish and opportunistic—which is very dispiriting to Margaret. She came to NYC to escape the petty hostility and hypocrisy of her suburban family.
Meanwhile, a flying saucer about the size of a large dinner plate lands on the roof of Margaret’s cheap apartment.
The aliens inside look like electromagnetic eye surgery photos—and crave the endorphins secreted by the human brain during either orgasm or the ingestion of opiates, like heroin.
They scan and search for their “dope” via psychedelic videographics, and wind up killing the human in the endorphin-extraction process (a plotline “borrowed” by the offbeat Dolph Lundgren actioner I Come In Peace).
At the same time, a Berlin astrophysicist and UFO hunter arrives (via jetliner) in NYC, trailing the aliens and their murderous hunger.
As it turns out, the UFO hunter’s only contact in NYC turns out to be Margaret’s old college drama teacher—and off-again-in-again lover (not that the two men make the connection; characters are interconnected to the point of absurdity in this flick, but rarely—if ever—connect in any helpful way).
In fact, later, during coitus, the drama coach gets zapped in the back of the head by the UFOnauts’ glass spear—which helps the aliens absorb those yummy brain chemicals.
The German ends up being the houseguest of junkie Jimmy’s horny and shrimp-obsessed mom—as he keeps trying to save the world, she keeps making plays for him.
(And are the shrimp and interconnectivity themes in 1984’s Repo Man a tribute to this?)
As the story progresses, various and sundry sordid and transgressive types cross paths with Margaret, often engaging in/forcing upon her humiliating, violent sex.
These assaults all end with the aggressor getting vaporized with some effective no-budget aluminum-foil-effects animation—and Margaret starts to believe she has a guardian angel.
When Margaret finds the saucer on the roof, she knows it to be true…and will kill to protect it…
Liquid Sky is not an easy movie to “get.” It requires the audience to be open-minded and experimental, as well as extremely patient (those familiar with the pacing of Eastern European cinema will have an easier time of it).
The film completely eschews H’wood style plotting and pyrotechnics, and is no way “mere” entertainment.
It is also a very personal tale, and that’s where Transrealism comes in—
In his “The Transrealist Manifesto,” written in 1983, author/scientist/mathematician Rudy Rucker presents a bold new form to help literature to grow and improve, to move out of entropy-increasing navel gazing and into a bright future.
Using the Transrealist template, you can see that Liquid Sky is star/co-screenwriter Carlisle and director Tsukerman’s interpretation of their individual “Journeys to The Big Apple,” where the Empire State Building is the biggest hypodermic in the universe.
Carlisle is from bourgeois white-bread suburbia, and Tsukerman was an émigré from the Soviet Union—from their combined culture shock and disillusionment (“This is New York?!?”) comes the soil for Liquid Sky.
And if while reading the quotes below, you replace “book” and “novel,” with “movie” and “film,” you’ll find that a template for Liquid Sky has been provided.
“The Transrealist writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way.” (Life in NYC as sci-fi: makes sense; Men In Black made billions saying the same thing, but not as realistically.)
“The tools of fantasy and SF offer a means to thicken and intensify realistic fiction. By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF — time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. — are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception.” (Flying saucer as fairy godmother.)
“The characters should be based on actual people.”
“In a Transrealist novel, the author usually appears as an actual character, or his or her personality is divided among several characters.” (Co-screenwriter Carlisle playing multiple roles.)
Rucker continues: “The idea of breaking down consensus reality is even more important. This is where the tools of SF are particularly useful.” (Honestly, the entirety of Liquid Sky is an attack on consensus reality!)
Rucker isn’t a complacent artist; he likes to stir things up. “Transrealism is a revolutionary art-form,” he writes.
“A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality.
Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person.’
There are no normal people — just look at your relatives, the people that you are in a position to know best. They’re all weird at some level below the surface.
Yet conventional fiction very commonly shows us normal people in a normal world.
As long as you labor under the feeling that you are the only weirdo, then you feel weak and apologetic. You’re eager to go along with the establishment, and a bit frightened to make waves — lest you be found out. Actual people are weird and unpredictable; this is why it is so important to use them as characters instead of the impossibly good and bad paper-dolls of mass-culture.”
Not that there are many of them, but Liquid Sky might be possibly the first Transrealist Film (actually, the film predates the Manifesto by one year)—meanwhile,
Rucker himself calls Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch a Transrealist film.
Other Transrealist Films? Possibly Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation; and maybe Woody Allen’s very acidic Deconstructing Harry.
With a great stretch, you could also include The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse—where the authors are tortured and killed by their creations. (Any other potential transrealistic film suggestions, readers?)
By the way, Rucker is one of my favorite authors, and I cannot recommend his work highly enough. Some of my faves include The Hollow Earth, Mathematicians in Love and So Above, So Below, a novelized biography of 16th century painter Pieter Breughel.
Of his Transreal novels, I prefer Rucker’s The Secret of Life (which the movie Chronicle almost rips off), the utterly insane The Sex Sphere, and The Hacker and the Ants, which gives a ground-level look at “next stage” robotics.
Liquid Sky (one of heroin’s many nicknames, by the way) is certainly not about normal people; its characters “are weird and unpredictable,” and because of that, you’re rewarded with a very different sort of movie: hunt it down!
However, released to VHS about a million years ago, Liquid Sky is unavailable on DVD—except via the gray market…