Film

A Post-Punk ’80s Sci-Fi Film Explores NYC’s Nightlife

The only surviving 35mm print of Slava Tsukerman’s cult film Liquid Sky will have its final public screenings at Quad Cinema before being permanently retired.

Still from Liquid Sky (1982), directed by Slava Tsukerman (image courtesy Photofest)

On May 27 and 28, filmgoers will have their final opportunity to enjoy a precious artifact of New York City’s post-punk culture: The only surviving 35mm print of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult film Liquid Sky will have two public screenings at Quad Cinema before it is permanently retired. In recent years, this deteriorating print from Tsukerman’s private collection was the only readily available means of seeing the film; currently out-of-print Laserdiscs and DVDs are uncommon, and the film is unavailable on streaming platforms. A yet-to-be-announced digital release is planned.

Despite its limited availability, Liquid Sky’s impact on contemporary popular culture has been vast. The colorful costumes and makeup are said to have influenced the personas of pop stars like Lady Gaga and Sia. In a recent phone conversation, Tsukerman — who will be present for a post-show Q&A at the screenings with star and co-writer Anne Carlisle — explained that the film’s unique look grew from the era’s fashion and then veered in a more futuristic direction. “We really tried to catch the style of the time, but I deeply believe that you cannot just take something from reality. It should be transformed into art,” he said.

A plot description alone hardly conveys the sublime degree to which Tsukerman and crew transcend reality in this film. But it stars Connecticut-born fashion model Margaret (Carlisle), who lives in a Manhattan penthouse with her girlfriend, performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E Sheppard). Early in the film, a small flying saucer perches on the roof of their apartment, attracted to Adrian’s stash. But the aliens soon discover a more potent means of harvesting the dopamine they need to survive: the human orgasm. Margaret realizes that something is dissolving and absorbing her sexual partners at the moment of climax. She quickly weaponizes this discovery in her struggles with the assorted creeps and predators she meets in the fashion world, including rival model Jimmy (Carlisle in drag). With Liquid Sky, Tsukerman consciously constructed a cult film that offers a unique perspective on the early 1970s/late ’80s Downtown New York City arts community that uses the fantastic to stand apart from more traditional films about the scene, which typically focus on some combination of Basquiat, Haring, and Schnabel.

The film’s exploration of New York culture and nightlife was far removed from Tsukerman’s early life in Moscow. He wanted to make films from a young age, but his Jewish heritage kept him from being selected for the country’s one film school, which only accepted 15 students per year. The indefatigable film fan instead pursued his career of choice through an alternate route: enrolling in engineering school to mimic the path of his idol, pioneering Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. His technical background led to a career directing science documentaries, though his approach indicated a preference for circumventing stylistic norms that would come to fruition in Liquid Sky.

“Instead of making real documentaries, a couple of my friends and I created a new genre, a mix of everything: fiction, documentary, animation, special effects,” he said, attributing this innovation to the difficulty of conveying abstract concepts like quantum physics.

These tendencies are fully apparent in Liquid Sky, where mixed media are employed to portray unreal situations. When Margaret and Adrian’s alien visitors arrive, the screen fills with multicolored, kaleidoscopic animation. A sphere shooting lightning-like squiggles sits at the center of the tableau. While this abstract imagery is used throughout to represent the aliens, documentary techniques are crucial to the narrative; fashion shows in small dark rooms are framed like tribal rituals captured by an ethnographer, and performance art is recorded at a fixed, objective distance. Tsukerman uses a patchwork of tools from different genres, heightening the viewer’s sensation that he or she is watching a singular cinematic work.

The most noteworthy technical aspect in a film bursting with noteworthy technical aspects is the atonal synthesizer soundtrack that ploddingly propels the action from scene to scene. Composed by Tsukerman in collaboration with Brenda Hutchinson and Clive Smith, the consistent, mechanical music of the opening, coupled with several slow, steady zooms, offers the feeling that the film is gradually progressing toward a goal or a reveal, but its discordant melody creates a sense of unease regarding the destination. Despite the score’s haphazard appearance, its effect is very calculated.

“I take music in films very seriously,” Tsukerman said. “In most cases, I know what music is going to be in the film very early, even during writing the script or before shooting. In the case of Liquid Sky, I wanted a kind of circus music, but electronic because it was about aliens. I wanted an electronic circus, very primitive.”

As the film’s standout actor, Sheppard builds on this sonic tapestry with her art, which fuses electronic music and poetry. Her performance of the song “Me and My Rhythm Box” — chanting nonsense stanzas like “My rhythm box is sweet / Never / Forgets / A beat” over digital percussion — makes her the nexus of insanity in this bizarre world. The actor’s work teeters on the border between meaningfulness and incomprehensibility, seeming like a parody of the stereotypical, unhinged performance artist. However, there is an authenticity in Sheppard’s feralness that attracted Tsukerman.

“[Adrian is] a very typical character as part of the punk and post-punk culture,” he recalled. In auditions, “a lot of very good actresses were mimicking punk, but I couldn’t believe them. They were hypothetical. Not real. I knew that Paula, who didn’t look like a punk with her long hair, has a very strong acting quality and projection. That was the main thing which made the character”

While excited to share anecdotes from the past, Tsukerman is currently focused on Liquid Sky’s legacy and future. As the 35mm print makes the transition to digital, he is finishing a documentary about the film’s production, complete with video recordings of rehearsals. A sequel is also on the way, once again written in conjunction with Carlisle. Although the Quad Cinema screenings close one door in the life of Liquid Sky, Tsukerman’s loving custodianship of his masterpiece will open several more, leading many new cinephiles to discover this cult time capsule in the years to come.

Liquid Sky screens at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, Manhattan) on May 27 and 28, followed by Q&A with director/co-writer Slava Tsukerman and actress/co-writer Anne Carlisle. The events are part of Quad’s series Immigrant Songs, which features films that capture the immigrant experience in America.

Correction: This piece originally claimed that the film was never released on DVD; this has been amended.

comments (0)