January 19, 2013

"Liquid Sky: Cinderella, Take 10" by Lisa Janssen

Liquid Sky is an anti-fable and the film’s heroine Margaret in an anti-Cinderella. One of the standard plots of American films is the story of Cinderella, who finds her prince. Today this dream, like other ideals from the not so distant past, is in a state of crisis.

-- Slava Tsukerman, Interview magazine
In the 1980s I was going to high school in a Colorado town that was barely more than a truck stop. I lived on magazines like Creem, Vogue, and Interview which I read on the floor of my walk in closet, and maybe it was in one of those that I read about Liquid Sky. I would see any movie about the big city or music or artists. Liquid Sky was like all of these rolled into one big missive from the “real world” that I so craved to be a part of, the one I thought I’d find my prince in.

The real world would have to be a city, like New York City, where it was the 1980s too. At the time, the backwash of punk was giving way to the No and New Wave scenes. I had read Edie about twenty times and life was still cheap. It was easy to think a girl like me might find a happy ending there.

Liquid Sky is very much a New York film set in the wake of this convergence. It is a low-budget anomaly, the director a troll-like Russian documentary filmmaker named Slava Tsukerman who had dropped into this wake very much like the flying saucer in the movie, by accident. He and his expatriate colleagues had been casting another film that was never made. When that project went south and he found himself in the midst of all these exotic flowers, Tsukerman got the idea to make a mock sci-fi flic cum fairy tale based on the washed up Hollywood plotline of Cinderella.

One of the most exotic flowers of them all was Anne Carlisle, who became the star and co-writer of the film.  After her audition, Carlisle moved into the loft shared by Tsukerman and his wife Nina Karova, and the two women began writing a new script about a woman who can’t have an orgasm.  Tsukerman had the idea about the UFO. As Anne Carlisle really was a new wave model, he decided that she would make a “very good character for a woman who is attracted by a small UFO from outer space.” You will see the loft they lived in if you watch to movie. It looks to be little more than one room, very cramped for three people to be working out their psychological hang-ups about fairy tales and UFOs.

Their scene became thick. Tsukerman says, “For Anne it was like a self-psychoanalytic experience because she used a lot of her own life.” Carlisle wrote herself in two parts: first Margaret the protagonist, beautiful club goer and victimized Cinderella stand-in; second, Jimmy, male doppelganger of Margaret and a beautiful junkie who despises her. Margaret and her compatriots wear outrageous costumes and make-up; they don literal and figurative masks.  Thanks to the part-Russian film crew, it is a strangely Eastern European approximation of the youth culture. A dance club that was supposedly inspired by the Mudd Club looks like a hyper-kinetic, Weimar-era nightmare. 
So this is a Cinderella story.

Over one night/day/night cycle, Margaret is used and abused by a string of unfazed and listless exploiters, club and fashion world denizens.  They are drawn from the type I probably saw pictures of on the last page of Interview magazine: a jerk-off club-goer who offers her ‘ludes and a Hollywood connection, a junkie client of Adrian’s who quotes Cocteau, her former acting teacher. A real parade of modern day princes.  Adrian, her heroin dealer girlfriend, is the one who comes closest to taking Margaret away to happily ever after, but she is no prince.  

Tsukerman provided the UFO and special effects, beautiful drug-vision interpolations in dark/bright hues that invoke 1980s NYC in its all waxing waning glory. But the flying saucer is just a new wave prince charming. It has come to earth to feed on heroin too, and zeros in on the loft because of Adrian’s stash. The UFO finds that the human brain produces the same high in orgasm, and seeing as there is a lot of sex going on in the loft is able to siphon off those chemicals every time someone fucks. To their extreme detriment. The characters that waft through this parallel plot goof on a gallery of other NYC types, and offer a campy levity that offsets Margaret’s travails.

As the night advances Margaret wears ever more beautiful gowns to the ball. The ball takes the form of a big fashion shoot, Jimmy and Margaret in the loft amid a Brechtian cast of sadists and in-jokes. At the behest of a reporter for Midnight Magazine, Adrian brings out a photo album of Margaret’s past. She tells the story of Cinderella as the soundtrack plays a robotic merry-go-round waltz. Meanwhile, the photogs, stylists, and hangers-on antagonize and goad each other, drugging up for the devastating finale. The crowd, in true crowd-psychology style, turns on Margaret en masse, and incites a debased fairest-of-them-all battle between her and Jimmy. When we think we can go no lower, Adrian, the last human prince standing deals the final blow. “How many people want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”

At this, the party is silenced. Margaret can now tell her own Cinderella story. And the whole rotting gut of contemporary female experience comes pouring forth:

You wanted to know where I’m from?
I’m from Connecticut, Mayflower style
I was taught that my prince would come, and that he would be a lawyer
and I would have his children, and on the weekends we would barbeque
and all the other princes and princesses would come, and they would say
delicious, delicious
Oh how boring

And 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
and I would wait, ’til 30, ‘til 40 ‘til 50
and I was taught to be an actress, one should be fashionable
and to be fashionable was 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 to 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
So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me?
This monologue carved its way into me, in one of those pivotal moments of taking in art when my teenage heart and brain were super-absorbent. “Delicious, delicious.” Things had such weight then. Even though I was living at home with my parents, and had never met anyone like the people in this film, something unspoken in me deeply identified with Margaret.

I knew that the world’s expectation for me was to get married and barbeque. My parents had no idea what I was reading about in the closet downstairs, that I dreamed of people and places that would disgust and shock them.

The movie thrilled me and scared me and confirmed the subterranean truth of the real world.

I even got some of the jokes.

P.S. There is some dispute over who actually authored the script, who did the styling, and who wrote and performed the soundtrack of this film. I have read that Tsukerman did nothing, that Carlisle wrote the entire script and that the styling was done by two Americans from Cinandre, a New York salon.  

PPS. The soundtrack is truly remarkable. Released on Varese Saraband, it’s a sort of an electronic music buried treasure.

The DVD of Liquid Sky is out of print but you can watch the whole film on Youtube here:

The official Liquid Sky website maintained by Slave Tsukerman is here:

Anne Carlisle has willfully and sadly dropped out of sight. According to Slava Tsukerman, “She married a very religious Jewish man and is living in Florida.”

Lisa Janssen is a writer, archivist, and film school dropout. Most recently, she edited film director Curtis Harrington’s memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, which will be published by Drag City in 2013.  

1 comment:

Gene Booth said...

I remember this one coming out when I was in high school. It was at the Biograph, which at the time, exuded a vibe fairly analogous to what you've described in the film. It housed Rocky Horror on Saturdays, had recently played Christiane F. and Smithereens (two more plastic post-Cinderella visions) I think and most important was right by Wax Trax records so the site added to the plastic glow. I hated everything that seemed like this, was disgusted by my first glimpses of Bowie and Costello around this time at Sounds Good record store near my house. I think the fashion first celebration of style over substance freaked me out. Later I realized Bowie was more authentically "rock and roll" than Neil Young and this whole Warhol worldview became a lot clearer, but at the time the forbidden jokes about sex and NY culture of Mad magazine were more relevant/interesting to me.

And actually now I'm remembering the low-rent version of Liquid Sky that I WAS able to absorb: Hazel O'Conner and (Quadrophenia's) Phil Daniels in Breaking Glass. Totally cool, one of the first VHS tapes my brother and I rented. Cool and scary were such huge enticements for me. Nice article Lisa Lisa.