by James Ramsay
A terrific update to this interview: After publication, director Slava Tsukerman clarified that, in Liquid Sky 2, the brilliant Anne Carlisle will return in the role of Margaret.
Liquid Sky is one of the most visually ambitious films ever made about fashion, heroin, New Wave clubs, UFO saucers, ordering Chinese food and having them put it on your tab, the Empire State Building, androgyny, neon and tin foil. The 1982 cult classic may be the perfect embodiment of camp. Unlike contemporary low-budget cinema, which prizes an aesthetic of apathy, Liquid Sky makes its efforts visible. Judgmental fashion reporters cackle straight into the camera. Catwalk scenes take place in rooms both comically small and accurately sized to real New York spaces. And the slang-heavy dialogue, which the director Slava Tsukerman credits largely to the main actress and co-screenwriter Anne Carlisle, is bold and delightfully stilted:
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. I would wait — till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is 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?
Tsukerman, who’s now an affable man in his mid-70s, came to New York from the Soviet Union, by way of Israel, seven years before making Liquid Sky. (He is the director of 42 other films, including the documentary Stalin’s Wife and the narrative film Perestroika.) In a way particular to the New York experience, Liquid Sky takes the perspective of both a knowing insider and a hapless observer of New Wave culture. He and his audience are just as deserving of admission to a junkie fashion shoot as Margaret, the “uptight WASP” from Connecticut turned alien host. And that’s what makes Liquid Sky a Gotham classic worth revisiting.
Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater screens the film this coming Friday at 8 p.m. — with Tsukerman in attendance.
At the time you made the movie, did you consider yourself a New Yorker?
I think so. But most New Yorkers are people from different places. That’s one of the quintessential qualities of New York, being an international place. But it has many sides which, after the release of Liquid Sky, I could see were known very well all over the world. Things that make it a global center of culture. Like, CBGB was a center of world music, and every Japanese singer dreamed of coming here to see CBGBs. While for us, it was a small room where people drink beer and listen to singers.
You don’t think there are places like that today?
Probably in the late 70s or 80s it was more active, more alive, more interesting. Maybe it’s because we were there. But really, every big off-Broadway production was a big world event. Now, you wait for theater to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Times Square and 42nd street had whorehouses mixed with art galleries. My friend was living on 42nd street in a building occupied by whorehouses. All the prostitutes were his friends, they’d come to his loft if they needed to borrow something. That was New York life.
Have changes in the city affected the reception of the movie?
It’s not only New York, because we’ve screened the movie all over the world — in Siberia — but a lot of young people are coming. Not just people who saw it in ’83, for whom it’s nostalgia. It’s a bunch of young people, and I can’t figure out how they learned about the film, because it’s not advertised. Not only is it not advertised, but I’ve taken really bad care in releasing the film, for many reasons. But it’s not easy to get the tape. Maybe they go through the pirates?
But the reaction is what’s important to me, and the reaction is raving. It’s better than it was in ’83. In 1983, one critic said all the laughs were non-intentional. It just happened, but the writers didn’t think it was funny. Which is complete bullshit! We never laughed more than the time when we were writing the script. Today’s audience doesn’t have this doubt, they understand that from the first moment, it’s supposed to be funny.
You’ve said you became friends with the real life inspirations for the characters of Jimmy and Adrian — were you going to clubs with them and stuff?
Yes, we did go to clubs from time to time. We were spending a lot of time with the girl here [at the apartment], drinking scotch and improvising music together, it was fun. And though her character was very close to what’s in the script, when the boy and girl read the script, they were shocked. They didn’t recognize their portraits. Which is natural, I think. And for many different reasons, I decided it was better not to try to push people who don’t like it to play it.
Was it your intention to portray them accurately as people, or where they representations of an idea?
No, they are pretty accurate. They are accurate to the last extent, I think. Anne considered it very personal even after shooting — she was living in this apartment but she moved out because she couldn’t stay here for psychological reasons. And she wrote a novel after that, because she thought she knew more now about Margaret than what was in the film. So she really identified herself completely. Still identifies, because we’re now working on Liquid Sky 2. But it’ll be very difficult for her, the fact that somebody else will play Margaret. UPDATE: Mr. Tsukerman clarified that in fact, Anne will return to reprise the role of Margaret.
What is Liquid Sky 2 going to be about?
I can tell you it’s about Margaret coming back from outer space today, and what’s happening here.
Does it take place in New York?
Yes. I had a lot of suggestions to shoot it elsewhere because it’d be much cheaper, but I think for most audiences around the world, it’s a quintessential New York story. So it would be wrong to move it out of New York. But in doing research for the subject, I discovered that the most outrageous nightlife moved from New York, it’s not in New York anymore.
Where is it now?
Places you’d expect least of all, like Germany and the Czech Republic. I think every year in Leipzig they have thousands of people in make-up and all that, for a big event. The most commercially successful countries for Liquid Sky were Germany and Japan. A Japanese distributor told me that no film influenced a generation like Liquid Sky did, it changed a generation.
Was there a Japanese influence to the film?
Well, Kabuki. And when the movie came out, I spoke with a Japanese guy who said that because of the Kabuki influence it would be hated by all the young Japanese kids. Because for them Kabuki was for old people. But what do I know about Japan?
How was the reception in Russia?
After Perestroika happened, in 1989 they had a program called “Sex in American Film” in Moscow. And the first day, one of the organizers of the program came to me and said, Listen, there’s a club here that wants to show the film very much, would you permit them to borrow the print? And I said, What kind of club? He says, Oh a film club, a club for film fans and film lovers. So he gave them the print, and we were going to the club after the screening to speak with the audience — it was sold out. And I asked the person out front who was in the club, and he said, Oh, it’s some police and KGB. It was a police club! And I thought, my goodness I’m going to go on stage now and speak with them, and they’ll lynch me! But an audience member stood up and said, “Listen, I read an interview where you said you thought Russian audiences wouldn’t understand this film. But I don’t know how American audiences understand it — that’s about our life!” That’s a Russian policeman.
It seems the fashion community is one that still has high regard for the movie.
Absolutely — it’s played at the Fashion Film Festival, once in London and once in New York. And in the years after Liquid Sky, Maria [the costume designer] and I would be walking down the street and see clothes in the window at Bloomingdales that looked very much like what was in Liquid Sky. From the beginning, we were very conscious of our attempt to influence the world’s style. And you saw the same technique of influence with Annie Hall, which really influenced the style of the world. But there’s a sense of humor to the fashion in Liquid Sky, like everything in the film.
Does the term “camp” apply?
A film like Liquid Sky, it’s consciously postmodern. That’s what people say now, it puts together a lot of different elements. They are consciously put there, and camp is just one of these elements. I wanted to put together all the myths of the time, and all the stylistic elements as well. And that’s why I was very impressed by New Wave. They were punks, but according to themselves they weren’t punks, because it was so stylistic and complicated, and people don’t usually understand it was complicated. It combined everything: the American 50’s, Kabuki, German styles. All of that was mixed together, but the people creating it probably did so unconsciously. But that style was the reflection of the complexity of the mentality of a new generation. So it’s not just camp — camp is one of many elements in the film. And that’s why it lives so long — a lot of camp films from that period, nobody remembers.