Fixer Upper

10.07.11

Slava Tsukerman, Liquid Sky, 1982, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.


NEW YORK HAS OFTEN been the setting for films about junkies: Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) are all gritty, cautionary portrayals of skag addicts tying off, shooting up, and nodding out. Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky may be the first example of heroin cheek, imagining an invasion of extraterrestrials drawn to a city where new-wave androgynes languidly hope to score and the Empire State Building looms as a giant hypodermic needle.

Tsukerman, a Russian émigré who arrived in New York in 1976, cowrote Liquid Sky with his wife, Nina V. Kerova, and the film’s star, Anne Carlisle, who plays both Margaret, a bisexual model-actress with a fondness for Adam Ant maquillage and extravagant peroxided hair, and her archrival, Jimmy, another bottle-blond runway vamper when he’s not seeking out his next fix. The director’s own downtown penthouse apartment doubled as the home Margaret shares with her sadistic girlfriend, Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), a pint-size performance artist and dope peddler whose warmest term of endearment for her lover is “uptight WASP cunt from Connecticut.” Their rooftop dwelling—seemingly equidistant from the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building—is also the landing spot of a Frisbee-size flying saucer, its occupants feeding off the rush humans feel after they inject horse, which, a Berlin astrophysicist explains, is similar to the effect of reaching orgasm. Those who have sex with Margaret, often nonconsensually, vanish right after coming, the preclimax rutting rendered through far-out solarized imagery and scored to the nihilistic drone of a Fairlight CMI.

Tsukerman’s fascination with his new city and its infinite subcultures—similar to that of the aliens in his movie—would leave its imprint on other Gotham-set mood pieces: The Bauhaus-scored, ominous pansexual chic of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) immediately recalls Liquid Sky’s avant-garde gender tweaking; Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) presents a much sunnier vision of New York’s weirdness but is linked with Tsukerman’s film through its supporting performance by Carlisle. But one line from the highly ridiculous dialogue in Liquid Sky, which premiered one year after AIDS was first reported, suggests the real-life terror that would dominate the city for the next three decades: “If you fuck me, you’ll die.”

Melissa Anderson

Liquid Sky screens October 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.