Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Take me to your leader, Anne Carlisle in Liquid Sky

To sound the depth of 80s inspiration, I recommend Liquid Sky. Though to be perfectly frank, the plot and the acting of this 1982 movie make watching it rough going at times. It's the sort of underground cult film that interested me more as a young'un, when my life maintained a veneer of bourgeois respectability. Now that life is quite seedy enough, I prefer to go to the opera. But despite these caveats, Liquid Sky has a beauty of its own that you must not miss.

Many images from Liquid Sky are permanently burned into my brain. The most famous one, of course, is the androgynous Anne Carlisle, who co-wrote the screenplay (or possibly wrote it entirely), in Bowie-esque face paint dancing with a preying mantis on her arm. Unfortunately this scene from the film is not available on youtube.

Set primarily in the perpetual twilight of Manhattan's nightclub Danceteria, Liquid Sky is populated with such thoroughly unpleasant people that no one really cares when their friends are vaporized by aliens right in front of them. The dialogue, such as it is, is delivered in affectless, dead-pan junkie-speak. But what Liquid Sky has going for it is low-budget spectacle. It is also a time capsule of early 80s counter-culture before New Wave was cleaned up and commercialized. Plus there is some nice use of heat aura photography and stop motion animation.

And the costumes, oh, the delight of the costumes. Puff skirts, portrait collars, pink and blue streaks in platinum hair, androgyny, over-sized mens wear, all paired with face paint that is equal parts Kabuki and clown. The film captures the playfulness and the aggression of it, where glam rock and punk commingled. There is also an unintentionally funny song, Me and My Rhythm Box, performed by Paula E. Sheppard.

The plot can be dismissed as risible, yet it has undercurrents of real William S. Burroughs-type Science Fiction as drugs, aliens, and violence are intertwined. Underground fashion model Margaret and her heroin dealer girlfriend Adrienne live in a neon-lit hovel filled with avant garde costumery. The smack is hidden behind something that looks like a blank template for a Japanese Noh mask. Aliens arrive in a tiny space craft and perch on the roof. The aliens are also after the heroin addicts as they thrive on the chemicals released by humans on the nod, until they figure out that vaporizing humans having orgasms is a better high. A whole series of terrible things happen to Margaret, who is used and exploited by everyone. But since she is unable to have an orgasm (sort of like the virginal final girl in horror movies), she finds that she can get the aliens to vaporize all those who have wronged her. And that's the short version without any spoilers, honestly.

Ms. Carlisle, who plays two characters (Margaret and in drag as Jimmy), carries this film on her back. Her performance is what makes the film watchable. Margaret is believably vulnerable (despite being about 2 feet taller than everyone else in the film) and Jimmy is petulantly slimy and churlishly real.

The soundtrack is pure early 80s electronica. Repetitive, mechanical and naive, it sounds like what a smacked out Phillip Glass might have composed for an orchestra of merry-go-rounds. More about the soundtrack here. It can really worm its way into your brain. (Full disclosure: I have this soundtrack on cassette tape somewhere. I used to think it was the perfect music for driving L.A. freeways.)

Enjoy the fashion show, goslings.



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