Info

Art Opinions

Posts tagged Dystopia

Choose another tag?

Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures a cultural moment. And, sometimes, that same movie can also offer insights into subcultures long forgotten. And, with a backward glance, the moving images and sounds seem to act as a unified predictor. A film like this becomes a touchstone to our past. A link from our current to a past that often feels foreign and alien. This is one such movie…

"This is as far as the elevator goes." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982

“This is as far as the elevator goes.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982

It was in August of 1982 that Slava Tsukerman’s notorious cult film, Liquid Sky, debuted at Montreal World Film Festival. Heads were turned, jaws dropped and the festival awarded the Special Jury Prize to the director. The film went on to receive several other key Art Film Festival awards. Sadly the movie received a minimal theatrical release. In the US it did manage to strike a chord and secure a following via its VHS release. Liquid Sky has become an essential Cult Film. The fact that it continues to be challenging to track down and watch have only added to its allure within the Cult Film Cannon.

This is not your average low-budget movie. The filmmaker, his wife and his cinematographer were fresh from The Soviet Union. They had managed to find a way to New York City to make a movie. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating with a performance artist who seemed to be on the fast track to stardom within the underworld of the Post-Punk/New Wave club scene. This history of the film’s 28 day production story can be found across the span of The Internet. The key here is understanding that this Russian filmmaker captured a moment both fantastic and scary. He may not have had a big budget, but he most certainly had a big cinematic vision filled with ideas and aspirations.

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

There are a couple of crucial elements which blast the viewer within the first three minutes of Liquid Sky:

  1. A human face framed within a sphere of neon light that reveals itself to be a mask of sorts.
  2. The music sounds vintage early ’80’s, but is just slightly off-key and deeply odd — even a bit altogether off.
  3. The Twin Towers / Empire State Building skyline (the lower midtown perspective?) is not only familiar — it is iconic. And yet, there is a myst of fog that seems sort of wrong.
  4. A flying saucer hovers toward the screen.
  5. Unhappy people in a darkly grim club jerk and dance about. The beats indicate fun, the melody warns danger and the people look more focused than happy.

Welcome to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. This cult film is respected for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important and immediate is the use of electronic music. The often discordantly familiar mixed with unique samplings of dialogue and other bits of music make it completely unique. We are hearing one of the earliest uses of the first true digital sampler keyboards and it is scoring the entire movie. These are the sounds of the Fairlight CMI Series 1 that pulsate out from the screen. The music manages to be at once primitive and complex. It is sinister, but with the slightest twinge of pop happy beats.This very well might be the first example of ElectroClash. The Fairlight CMI Series 1 was not actually new, but not many musicians owned them and even fewer knew how to play/use the digital sampling keyboard.

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day. EMI, London, 1978

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day.
EMI, London, 1978

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were among the first few musicians to actually purchase and pursue the use of the instrument. The Fairlight CMI gave life to Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album and his 1982 Deutsches Album. It played an even stronger role in giving Kate Bush’s sonic visions live for both Never for Ever and The Dreaming albums. And in fact it is easy to state that the sounds and looks of Liquid Sky have served as influence for a number of creative artists.

When actress, Paula E. Sheppard, takes the club’s darkly lit stage — she is straddling a cumbersome sort of electronic box. It might appear that her mic is broadcasting the inner workings of her chest, but her heartbeat has been sampled. It pulsates from her electronic box. As she lifts that microphone up towards her vexingly beautiful and malicious face she begins an odd bit of what I would call “Slam Poetry.” She seems to threaten her club audience with her words. While the verses to “Me and My Rhythm Box” might be pretentious — they are also oddly effective. In another actor and filmmakers’ hands this scene could have been painfully bad. But here, within the confines of Liquid Sky — this drone and wail of a song plays energetically and deeply weird. This is electronic music with a purpose. The cheesy happiness of 1980’s MTV is not present. Nor will you notice any of the ironic No-Wave disco-threat of Blondie. Slava Tsukerman and his synth composers — Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith — are in total and complete step with their filmmaker’s vision. Liquid Sky ‘s musical score is totally unique, worrying and unforgettable.

"Me and my rhythm box. Are you jealous, folks? My rhythm box is sweet. Never forgets a beat..." Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Me and my rhythm box.
Are you jealous, folks?
My rhythm box is sweet.
Never forgets a beat…”
Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

I suppose some might disagree, but it isn’t a far leap to realize that what we are seeing and hearing would go on to influence artists lucky enough to secure a copy of Media Home Entertainment‘s highly prized VHS tape. You should not jump to judge my assertion until you have seen this movie and compared it to early sounds/looks of artists like Fischerspoon, Miss Kittin & The Hacker as well as pop-sensation Lady Gaga.

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash "Hi Huh-I Hyper Hyper-media-ocrity You don't need to Emerge from nothing You don't need to tear away! Feels good Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too..." Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash
“Hi Huh-I Hyper
Hyper-media-ocrity
You don’t need to
Emerge from nothing
You don’t need to tear away! Feels good
Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too…”
Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Paula E. Sheppard’s Adrian is performing not on a set, but in a very real Post-Punk/New Wave NYC Underground club. The Pyramid was where Tsukerman filmed all of the movie’s club scenes. This club is legendary and has served as home to a number of NYC subcultures for decades. The lower East Village hole-in-the-wall could tell us an unlimited number of stories. At one time a home to NYC PUNKS then to their Post-PUNK / New Wave offspring and on toward to both the American Hardcore and GLBTI NYC communities.

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia... No wave here. The Radicts and The Bruisers Pyramid Club advert, 2006

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia… No wave here.
The Radicts and The Bruisers
Pyramid Club advert, 2006

Adrian’s musical performance and jaded delivery hold up to the likes of Miss Kittin and The Hacker. While she may not have the ability to fully utilize her rhythm box as well as Miss Kittin or Fischerspooner — both owe this film a nod for their sounds that would lead us into the ElectroClash sound of the early ’00’s. And it makes sense. Adrian is attempting to thrive within the dystopia of post-70’s NYC. This is Ed Koch’s nightmare of a city. As grim as it was — it did provide some surprisingly cheap housing options and opportunities.

Liquid Sky inspires... "Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra? He's dead..." Miss Kittin & Hacker The First Album, 2001

Liquid Sky inspires…
“Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra.
Do you know Frank Sinatra? He’s dead…”
Miss Kittin & Hacker
The First Album, 2001

It was not off the Manhattan grid, but it was not an area that most would have cared to have roamed after sunset. The club offered risk of danger and lent an edge to an evening of clubbing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the cruel leadership of Ronald Reagan. As Debbie Harry sang on her 1989 album:

“Darkness falls like a black leather jacket and melts into the sidewalk like a sleeping drunk. In the streets, the wind throws yesterday’s headlines around.
Another night comes and goes. So, for awhile back then there was someplace to go.
Somewhere more home than a house. A family of choice, not an accident, but sometimes as soon as something gets started it’s over.

Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now.
I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again…” Debbie Harry, End of the Run, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave Debbie Harry Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave
Debbie Harry
Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

Now Ms. Harry would have been referring to CBGB‘s or MUDD Club, but it is important to note that Pyramid Club might not have been on the radar of the darlings of the NYC PUNK / POST-PUNK or New Wave of 1981 — but in perhaps an even more important way — Pyramid Club was home to the many clubbers who couldn’t quite make it to the big rooms of those more anti-popular clubs. And it was within Pyramid‘s walls that some very real shit went down.

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her. Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her.
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

It is likely that Blondie’s lead singer walked through Pyramid doors at some point. Most certainly it is likely that Madonna ventured there. Liquid Sky features Otto von Wernherr in the role of the German astrophysicist who is the only person aware of an alien presence that has invaded the home of the film’s two main characters. Wernherr was a musician / actor / artist and fixture of the late 70’s / early 80’s NYC Downtown Scene and an early Madonna collaborator. That collaboration was already happening as Liquid Sky was filmed.

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky... Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000 Cinematography | John McNulty

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky
Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat
Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie
Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000
Cinematography | John McNulty

If Liquid Sky‘s Adrian character is the symbol of artist, then the character of Margaret is more closely tied to the artist who yearns for success and validation that is almost impossible to secure. We know immediately that Anne Carlisle’s Margaret is a model. She is also Adrian‘s promiscuous lover and flatmate. As Adrian performs with her rhythm box, Margaret is backstage prepping for a fashion show. A show that will be taking place in the club. The other models seem only to be in background of Margaret‘s beauty. The only model who challenges her is an effeminate gay man, Jimmy.

"Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?" Anne Carlisle x 2 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?”
Anne Carlisle x 2
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first glance he seems to be Margaret‘s doppelgänger. The then up and coming performance artist, Anne Carlisle, is playing both Margaret and Jimmy. To Slava Tsukerman’s credit, the dual roles are only obvious when the film wants it to be. Tightly and cleverly edited, Margaret and Jimmy are two very different characters. Margaret and Jimmys’ fashion show takes place within minutes of the film’s beginning.

Striking a pose... Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Striking a pose…
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

This fashion sequence serves as not only a set-up for the film’s oddly complex world, it also pulls us into the era in which the film was made. While these models look like what we might associate with the very early 1980’s — it is important to note that these “looks” were ahead of the cultural curve in 1981. When I first saw this movie in 1983, these models/actors looked absolutely other-worldly. Their painted faces, geometric clothing and posing were all new to my eyes. While they might have shared some similarity with Adam Ant, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow, Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — the people on the screen offer no semblance of charity or fun. This clique is hard-edged and seemed almost intent on menace.

"Something strange is going on here." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Something strange is going on here.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

These hipsters want your attention, but they are not willing to beg for it. Just the opposite, these models and their respective looks are daring us not to give them our attention. The colors may be bright neon and they might be covered with make-up, but these danger boys and girls are out for blood. This is not just a fashion show — it is almost a declaration of war.

Dare you not to look and love me... Benjamin Liu Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Dare you not to look and love me…
Benjamin Liu
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Also within minutes of the film’s start we figure out that there is a lot more going down than performance, fashion and clubbing. Adrian is an established heroin dealer. That human face mask hangs in she and Margaret‘s penthouse apartment. This work of art offers dual meaning. It is the same face shared by both Margaret and Jimmy. It is also not a mask — it is the holding/hiding place for Adrian‘s supply of heroin. A supply that she sells to everyone from uptown artsy folks but to everyone within her orbit. Margaret might be the only person in Adrian‘s world who has no interest in the power of her powdered sky just waiting to be heated into milk for injection.

So here we have a film that is about clubbing, strutting and drugs. Where does the Sci-Fi element come in?

"Are you sure this has something to do with UFO's?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you sure this has something to do with UFO’s?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No one can ever accuse Slava Tsukerman of constructing a slow-moving film. We witness the arrival of invaders from space within minutes of the movie’s beginning. Liquid Sky‘s construction is tight and unusual. Things happen simultaneously. They also happen with minimal explanation or character development. In most cases this approach would stunt a film, but it is one of Liquid Sky‘s magical elements. I should note that I first saw this film when I was 16 years of age. This might seem a great trip movie, but it is not. As trippy as the film is it is not conducive to positive altered state viewing. The paranoia, cruelty and perversities work against the fun aspect of a stoned age viewing. It is most likely due to my state at the time I first saw Liquid Sky that I did not understand the invasion from space plot twister.

"In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures -- punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures — punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

We see the alien flying saucer arrive at nearly the same time we meet Adrian, Margaret and Jimmy. We also are given the alien’s perspective as it approaches the rooftop of Adrian and Margarets’ penthouse apartment. Most cleverly we are also given a view of the alien itself. The alien and its space ship interior. Both perspectives are truly psychedelic. But how does the introduction of alien invasion, surveillance, fashion, music, drug use/abuse and sexuality anchor Liquid Sky to the subcultures within which the film is placed?

"Where are the drugs?" Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Where are the drugs?”
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Most likely it was never Tsukerman’s intention to create a film that we can now view as a sort of chronicle of the NYC Post-Punk/New Wave subculture. And it is most certainly sure that he never intended the movie to serve as a signal predicting the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Wether intentional or not, there should be no denying the film’s ability to do both things. Liquid Sky is a low-budget film with big budget aspirations. It is essentially a science fiction horror movie, but its genre goals are almost buried beneath a polarizing depiction of the New York City Underground Club scene of 1981. It is a depiction that stings and slips under the viewer’s skin.

"Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first, in 1981, it seemed that a disease was being caught / spread by members of the gay community. It was quickly becoming an outbreak. Initially the sicknesses was coined as The 4H Disease as the syndromes seemed to be inflicting homosexual men, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Despite some obvious signs, that initial name did not catch on as well as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) It wasn’t long before the CDS realized this was not an illness restricted to any one segment of the population. Certainly those living in cities like New York were realizing this long before the tragic epidemic was assigned the name AIDS in July of 1982. But in 1981 the young people populating the New York City Underground had not yet fully grasped the meaning of what was beginning to strike their respective communities. Paranoia and fear were already running rampant for a number of socio-political reasons. Liquid Sky captures an artistic world caught in the magic and the horror of the era.

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn't depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don't you think? Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don’t you think?
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The world of Liquid Sky takes place in the rag-tag world of the Artist as Outsider. More specifically, the world of Tsukerman’s film is concerned with outsiders and misfits. As in reality, the world of the arts is populated with youth, creativity and sexual experimentation. Sexuality is either fluid or leaning toward homosexuality. The Post-PUNK/New Wave NYC subculture is tightly connected to the pulse of the NYC Gay subculture. And both are freely connected to sex, drugs, music and art. Liquid Sky has a morality, but it is based in humanism rather than in the political.

Early on we watch Margaret attempt to seduce her male counterpart, Jimmy. It is here we are granted a cruel view of misogyny. It isn’t that Jimmy is just turned off by the idea of fucking a woman  — he makes it fairly clear that he detests women across the board. He treats Margaret as if she were nothing more than a link to drugs. Margaret has a tough shell, but something about Jimmy‘s cruelty eggs her on toward him. This seems to be a girl who is not used to being turned down. Despite his cruelty she is unwilling to write the mean queen off.

The only character who seems concerned with any other’s sexual preference is Adrian‘s uptown client. A failing artist who seems to have once clung to the idea that heroin will spark his artistic vision is now just uncomfortably numb. He finds Margaret’s androgynous beauty alluring, but he is far too concerned regarding her sexual preference. To Margaret and Adrian this junkie is normal and dull.

"What kind of drugs will you have?" Anne Carlisle Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“What kind of drugs will you have?”
Anne Carlisle
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Adrian clearly identifies as lesbian and seems to be disgusted by Margaret‘s promiscuity. And like Margaret she too has dreams of fame and success. Both women are damaged, but while Margaret has soaked up her sadness — Adrian funnels an insane level of sadness and rage into her work. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship beyond reason, but they seem to cling to each other. Sex is merely fun and a tool. All of these characters trade in sex and shared works. Adrian is repulsed by the idea of her client wanting to have sex with Margaret but is totally cool with sharing her spoon, syringe and rubber band. Margaret attempts to procure cocaine by snuggling up to straight dude at the club. In the end she is brutally raped. She seems to accept this act of cruelty as a dark part of her life with which she must deal. She also seems totally committed to being mistreated by her girlfriend.

"I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?" Otto von Wernherr Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?”
Otto von Wernherr
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Both Anne Carlisle and Paula E. Sheppard are highly effective in their respective roles. We may not know these two characters but they feel genuine. The same is true for much of the cast. Otto Von Wernherr would never win an award for acting, but he is believable as the befuddled West German scientist trying to understand what these space aliens are doing in this circle of artists. At first he suspects the aliens are only interested in the heroin which shoots so freely among these characters, but soon it is revealed that these invaders are even more interested in the chemical reaction that orgasm creates within the brains of these humans. The interesting trick of the film is that while the film is never formerly concerned with character development, it fully utilizes the skills and charisma of the actors.

"For me it's easy. Hell to Hell. I'm not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing  the world. I don't lie to myself that love can cure because I know I'm alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well."  The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep. Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“For me it’s easy. Hell to Hell. I’m not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing the world. I don’t lie to myself that love can cure because I know I’m alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well.”
The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep.
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Sex has become an empty act. It no longer means anything to Margaret. So when the people who force their way with her sexually begin to die at the instant of orgasm she has little to no concern for the deaths. She is more curious than concerned. When an older artist brushes aside her need for conversation, she barely puts forward an argument as he rapes her. Thing take on a perverse edge when Adrian walks in do discover the nude male body. She slips into a sort of trance and begins a grim sort of rap to the beat of her fist on her thigh. When she reveals her deepest sexual fantasy is to have sex with a dead man, Margaret is repulsed. However it takes a good deal of necrophiliatic  attempt before she tries to stop Adrian.

All the more upsetting when we realize that Margaret mistakes the aliens murdering her sexual partners to be a sign of power. For the first time in her life she thinks she is found her awakening. Her sex is no longer something to be traded or abused. Alien intervention has allowed her sex to become a threat. A threat she is more than happy to put to work.

"How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?" Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”
Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The characters of Liquid Sky are sick, twisted and sad. And yet we feel compelled to watch. This is not the sort of interest one experiences while watching a John Waters movie. Despite a few goofs and a low-budget, Liquid Sky is an interesting film. Once the movie begins, the viewer is going to be in for the long haul. The alien aspect of the film is largely secondary. We are concerned with the people. Margaret‘s misguided interpretation of the strange events that have started to happen all around her lead her down a very dark alley of self-examination.

And it doesn’t take deep thinking to discover that Slava Tsukerman’s film serves most effectively as horrific predictor of the AIDS epidemic.

"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 cult. Isn't it fashionable?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“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 cult. Isn’t it fashionable?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky is not a movie for the squeamish, but neither is it actually an example of “shock cinema.” Much of what we think we see is never really shown. And what is shown is potent. This is a horror film, but it is less a horror film about alien invasion than it is a horror film about human nature. Before everything goes inside out and upside down, Margaret is offered the chance to be interviewed for a cool underground fashion magazine. The reporter who would appear to be totally linked in with the whole gang takes a cruel turn when she interviews the would-be model. The aggressive reporter informs Margaret that her style of dress, make-up and living are tacky. Even though she is able to put the reporter in her place, her privilege is not granted or acknowledged. Margaret dares to be different, but ultimately she only finds power in what she thinks is her ability to kill.

"You wanted to know whom and what I am? I'm a killer." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“You wanted to know whom and what I am? I’m a killer.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky finds a surprising, clever and fitting conclusion. But the film’s resolution is not so easy that it makes the viewer comfortable. As low-fi as it sometimes is, Liquid Sky disturbs. It also entertains, informs and inspires. Going on 35 years, it continues to enlarge its following. Over the last couple of years there have been screenings held at BAM, MOMA and other venues. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle have always made themselves available to discuss the film, their work and their hope to find funding to restore and preserve Liquid Sky‘s original negative print.

It is decaying. Literally.

"This subculture is not like 'The Mods' or 'The Rockers.' The punks don't need help from the outside to kill themselves..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“This subculture is not like ‘The Mods’ or ‘The Rockers.’ The punks don’t need help from the outside to kill themselves…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The VHS tape still fetches a good price on the market. Several DVD’s are floating around, but the quality is not good. Unlike most film art, Liquid Sky has actually managed to become more controversial with time. It also has the rare distinction of having aged like fine wine. This movie is more interesting every time I see it.

Despite the film’s strong following and the fact that it continues to inspire new generations of audience, there have been no takers to restore, preserve and redistribute. When the 1970’s slasher film, Alice Sweet Alice, began receiving some delayed glory there was hope that it might help Liquid Sky find a new life. After all  Alice herself is one of the key stars of this movie and Paula E. Sheppard has a cult following of her own.

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was "Alice." ...And she was scarier than the mask. Paula E. Sheppard Alice Sweet Alice Alfred Sole, 1978 Cinematography | Chuck Hall

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was “Alice.” …And she was scarier than the mask.
Paula E. Sheppard
Alice Sweet Alice
Alfred Sole, 1978
Cinematography | Chuck Hall

However she has always run from attention and rumor is that she found the experience of Liquid Sky negative. And sadly, Alfred Sole’s under rated horror film is still more famous for featuring a young Brooke Shields than it is for being an interesting and unusual genre film.

Liquid Sky continues to flow... "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, "is it right or is it wrong?" If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here..." Lady Gaga Applause, 2013

Liquid Sky continues to flow…
“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, “is it right or is it wrong?”
If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here…”
Lady Gaga
Applause, 2013

Even still, there is always hope. Tsukerman and Carlisle have even scripted a sequel that is ready to roll. No matter what the future holds for Liquid Sky, it is a movie that deserves attention. Seek it out if you dare.

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

"Killing all the teachers..." Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Killing all the teachers…”
Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

“A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

004-the-devils-theredlist

Uh, oh. Trouble is coming from all sides as Ken Russell takes British Film into the 1970’s. Despite on-going demand, Time Warner still refuses to allow us to take a full-on second look back. Britain’s most infamous film actually belongs to a United States based corporation. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

When one thinks of 1960’s Film Art, the mind does not immediately jump to thoughts of British cinema. Most of us think of France’s La Nouvelle Vague, Germany’s Neuer Deutsche Film, Italy’s NeoRealism film movement, The Japanese New Wave or The Polish New Wave from which Britain did snatch Roman Polanski. Certainly there were groundbreaking British films that caught the spirit of London’s Swinging 60’s Era, but many of these films have aged rather poorly. Just think of Petulia, Morgan!, Darling, Billy Liar or Georgy Girl.  If honest, what really still works about these films is related to a time capsule interest. Many of these British films are quite valid (think A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Room At The Top, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Performance ) but the majority have not held up as well as one might hope.

This is not true across the board. Stanley Kubrick’s British work has only gotten better with time and Michelangelo Antonioni’s visit into Swinging London culture of the time, Blow Up, remains a vital work. However, are these truly British films? It would seem that both of these filmmakers were in a sort of transitionary position. Antonioni was visiting England. Kubrick was still fairly new to British culture.

606cf88ec8e02988256261155a0bd85f

The great Julie Christie is The Ideal Woman of 1965’s British satire of Swinging London, but the film barely registers beyond nostalgia now. Darling John Schlesinger, 1965 Cinematography | Kenneth Higgins

Most of the iconic British films of the 1960’s are simply limited to nostalgia. Guy Hamilton, Andy Milligan, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Shonteff are exceptions but much of what they were trying to convey would soon better estimated by the likes of Alan Parker and most especially Mike Leigh. Ken Loach would not truly find his voice until he entered his 50’s in the 1990’s. There was also a good share of attention to The Angry Young Man of the day. Tony Richardson had moments of brilliance but looking back he seemed to have been challenged by what style of film best suited his voice. Richard Lester certainly left a mark, but here again we are slipping into time capsule pop culture moments.

The British New Wave is also largely obscured by the mega-epics of David Lean’s heavily praised, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are considered to be a cinematic masterpieces. I’ve never been particularly impressed. To be honest, I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia without falling asleep. Carol Reed’s adaptation of the stage musical, Oliver! was another huge British hit of the 1960’s that pushed pass the more reflexive films of the day.

There were two particularly strong and solitary British Film Artists who were finding new methods of cinematic language. Nicolas Roeg would soon move from the cinematographer chair to that of director and change the face of film editing as it was known. Ken Russell’s work for the BBC and his adaptation of Larry Kramer’s adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love all stand alone and unique in offering new ways of using film to express ideas and to tell stories. And he really stole the anticipated reigns of the film biography when The Music Lovers slammed onto movie screens across the world in 1970.

devils11

Ken Russell welcomes us to the 1970’s via way of 16h Century France as “the wife” of a Priest makes her way past the destruction of the Roman-Catholic Church… Gemma Jones The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

As British Film headed into the 1970’s some firm and potent voices formed. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clock Work Orange is a British Film. All American cultural ideas have fallen off his cinematic map. John Schlesinger pretty much left England for America. Ken Russell defied all expectations with his searing and important 1971 film, The Devils. As it turns out Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick were not alone. The thing is some of the new British voices got somehow lost in the mix. Barney Platts-Mills’ may have only made one film in the 1960’s, but it is a powerful entry into British Film History. Three other filmmakers also created work not only ahead of the cultural curve — they challenged it and ran their work close to the edge of the rails.

As we stumble forward toward the third decade of the 21st Century, The British Film Institute has gone deep within the corners of their storage closets to re-release a couple of seldom seen motion pictures that capture 1960’s London in whole new ways. Most of these titles were dusted off, restored, re-released within the UK and issued to DVD/Blu-Ray between 2009 and 2011.

BFI_logo_972x426.3a026e90d1a61b0b9af3bad6901de543

The British Film Festival pulled several legendary but almost forgotten films and re-issued them to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2010 and 2011. These “lost” films of Jack Bond, Jane Arden, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq teach us that Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick were not alone in finding new ways to capture stories and ideas for the British Screen.

Two of these four filmmakers were actually Canadian born. Even still, these two ex-pats of Canada artists show no signs of unfamiliarity with the setting of their two crucial films that BFI re-issued several years back for the first time in over 40 years. The other two filmmakers are most certainly British and have cinematic voices which come close to that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. Like Russell / Roeg, these two British Film Artists were well-versed but often Anti-Intellectual in the way they approached their work. They were far more focused on the visual and the use of film editing. Rebels all, but each were reeling out their rebellion from different core identities. Unlike Ken Russell and Nicolas Roegs’ work of the 1960’s, all four of the other Film Artists will not appeal to a number of people, but it is hard to imagine anyone disputing their importance.

I’m currently exploring the work of a number of British filmmakers who are new to me. I plan on writing more on the art and collaborations of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. The work these two created almost defies terminology, but I’m going to give it my best shot!

But for this post, I want to touch on two films. The first of these two was born out of the mixed theatre and social service ideals of the great Joan Littlewood. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” devoted the second half of her life working with the young people of East London who were lost, without purpose or supervision. These young people were in constant threat of falling prey to all manner of trouble. Her idea was to create a space where these teenagers could be allowed to hang out and “act” out their issues, challenges and ideas. Firmly grounded in the arts but against what she viewed as Elitism of The National Theatre. Her Theatre Royal Stratford East was free of pretension and open to everyone. It was here that Barney Platts-Mills was inspired to scrap together a bit of money to make an amazing little film called Bronco Bullfrog.

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, "play" fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures. Bronco Bullfrog Barney Platts-Mills, 1969 Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, “play” fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures.
Bronco Bullfrog
Barney Platts-Mills, 1969
Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Bronco Bullfrog stars non-actors who had been working with each other under the loose guidance of Joan Littlewood. While the plot is deceptively simple, a great deal of information about the grimness of urban decay, lack of parenting and dystopian boredom come through loud and clear. Glam and style-free, this is a study of teenagers floating along without purpose, direction or hope. Interestingly, it is not all gloom and doom. The characters of Bronco Bullfrog start to find their way as the film heads to conclusion. This is a gem of a film that has never received the praise or attention it deserved. As good as this movie is, it can hardly stand-up when positioned next to Joseph Despins and William Dumaresqs’ ultra-strange and unforgettable twisted little movie, Duffer.

duffer_banner

A good 6 years before anyone had seen the dark surrealism and humor of David Lynch, this low-budget experimental film serves as welcome warning that the art of filmmaking is about to take an innovative, creative and altogether new turn. Kit Gleave as Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq crafted this weird and entertaining movie on a budget so low it is probably best not to state it. The camera work is surprisingly solid. Actually the cinematography is far more than solid, it is artistically sound. Cinematographer, Jorge Guerra, may not have had the best equipment but he most certainly knew how to use it. The shots are often brilliant.

There is no sound. The narration and voices were recorded by a different cast. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that the lack of sound was not going to be a deficit. In fact, the creative dubbing actually adds to this film in more ways than one. Comical and often horrifying, the dubbed dialogue serves exceptionally as an aide to the film’s surrealism, dark comedy, menace and horror.

"WoManAmal!!!" Duffer's junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.  William Dumaresq as "Louis-Jack" Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“WoManAmal!!!” Duffer’s junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.
William Dumaresq as “Louis-Jack”
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

The dubbing actually heightens the discomfort as we watch a young man attempt to reconcile the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his older junkie boyfriend by engaging in an affair with a female prostitute. Enduring the sort of sadistic torment one seldom sees addressed in film, Despins and Dumaresq were extremely clever in presenting it in very dark comical ways that disturb but never so much that one needs to run for cover. The kind but obviously more than a bit twisted herself, prossie called Your Gracie gives the lost teen some solace while fully utilizing him as a tool.

508

Erna May as “Your Gracie” is using Kit Gleave’s “Duffer,” but he hopes she is saving his masculinity… Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the KINK/BDSM with his male keeper becomes more severe and his trysts with his female lover decrease — Duffer is pulled into his male lover’s Horse addiction and begins to suffer one of the most bizarre psychosomatic delusions I’ve ever seen. The poor kid’s delusions continue to morph into what appears to be a psychotic break. This twisted, funny, unsettling and fascinating experimental film deals with almost every aspect of human cruelty and horror imaginable. And just to amp up Duffer’s already potent cinematic stew, we gradually begin to suspect that our protagonist may not be the most reliable narrator.

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.  Kit Gleave in his only film role... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.
Kit Gleave in his only film role…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the film unspools more perversities and jaw-drop moments at break-neck speed, we are constantly given an exceptional examination of 1970’s Notting Hill. You may think you’ve seen urban decay and dystopian-like settings, but Duffer presents an England few of us have seen. Filmed on location and on the very cheap, this is perplexing and truly extraordinary view of the state of things circa 1969-1970. I realize that some of you will be annoyed that I’m grouping this film into the 1960’s British New Wave, but Duffer is clearly set in the 1960’s. This is not the 1970’s.

The film begins with Duffer sitting alone by the water. A pretty young woman pauses as she crosses a bridge far above the handsome boy. As the film whirls to conclusion we find him once again in the same place. It is impossible to not ponder where the film’s reality begins or ends. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that none of it is real. However there are just as many clues that all of what see presented has happened in reality. I’m not dropping a spoiler here, the viewer begins to distrust poor Duffer almost immediately. This is a narrator we are unable to trust. But the most jarring aspect of this film is that it presents itself solidly within the Surrealist Context.

All alone in his thoughts... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

All alone in his thoughts…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

It is important to note that as much as I praise Duffer, it is not for all tastes. While never truly graphic, it is most definitely profane and very perverse. The humor is so dark that many will feel guilty laughing. This is one demented movie. It also features a deeply strange musical score from the composer who gave the world the 1960’s Broadway smash, Hair. Galt McDermot’s score plays like something you would hear in an alternate universe Tin Pan Alley. Just when you think you will only be hearing a piano — a quickly use of electronics starts to grind forward.

"Mind how you go..." No where in Notting Hill is safe! Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“Mind how you go…” No where in Notting Hill is safe!
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Duffer screams out for repeated viewings to understand, to ensure that what you think you’ve just seen was actually shown and for the simple fact that this movie is endlessly entertaining. And trust me, this movie gets under your skin. Once it slips under, it stays there. In addition, something about Duffer seems to be signaling the audience to watch out for David Lynch. Were it not so very British, it could easily be mistaken for something a young David Lynch might have created. Unique, innovative, disturbing, haunting, funny and altogether original, Duffer is a must see lost British Cinematic Treasure.

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover's home movies abusing you... Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal. Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover’s home movies abusing you…
Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal.
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

Just pulled back into darkness after being "fixed" for activities best kept there... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just pulled back into darkness after being “fixed” for activities best kept there…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

I loved this film, but the work of both Jane Arden and Jack Bond really blew me away. Blown out the window and lying on the pavement outside our San Francisco home, the collaborations of Arden and Bond require more than a little thought and meditation. I’m still letting their three films digest, but I’ll be writing about them soon.

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

By 1995 Communist Poland was long gone. The state no longer restricted the artist or oppressed it’s people. Capitalism was to be embraced. Along with this sudden shift in economy and freedom came many challenges. For the Film Artist, there seemed to be a freedom. A cinema without restriction.

In reality, the entire Polish infrastructure was unstable. The state no longer funded the arts. Film had to be funded privately. However, there was no real film studio or film producers wiling to fund much beyond silly comedies, biographies and other projects that criticized the former Communist regime. When Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland to film Szamanka (She-Shaman), he had to secure funding from France and Switzerland in order to bring his vision to the screen.

Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Those of you reading this most likely know who Andrzej Zulawski is, but despite his genius and success he remains a largely marginalized film artist. Best known and accepted in France, he obtained some degree of success there. In the US and the UK he is best known for leading Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil into the dark, disturbing, twisted and innovative cult film, Possession. If that controversial and infamous 1981 film is his most personal work, where does that place Szamanka?

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This might be one of his more philosophical films, but it is unquestionably his most sexually obsessed film. Looking at the movie from a strictly surface perspective (a mistake when it comes to the films of Andrzej Zulawski) this could be interpreted as a frantically impulsive sexual relationship between a wounded and angry Anthropologist and a clearly disturbed young woman. A sort of demented take on the battle of the sexes. However, this is far too simplistic a way to watch or understand this erotic film that hinges on apocalyptic horror.

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

If you’ve not heard of Szamanka or seen it, it is likely due to the fact that upon its release it faced an incredible amount of rage from the Polish Catholic Church. Censorship by the State of Poland may have ended, but a new form of repression had sprung up in the form of Post-Communist Catholic Poland. This tale derived from the ideas of Polish writer, Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his controversial coining of the phrase, Naked Soul and Zulawskis’s desire to wake up the Polish masses with his own sort of “Santanic Antidote” to his two contemporaries of Polish Cinema. While both Kieslowski Krzysztof and Zanussi Krzysztof were both brilliant filmmakers, from the ideology of Zulawski were playing into some spiritual idea to which he took exception.

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Filled with contradictory ideas around Catholicism, good, evil, sexuality and love this film faced a whole new level of censorship that Zulawski had never faced. Communist Rule was tough, but the unbridled adherence of Religion truly knows no bounds. The film is so graphic sexually that it probably would have been banned anyway, but the controversial ideas of this philosophical, mystical and erotic journey remain blasphemous. The Polish community almost immediately began to call this film The Last Tango in Warsaw. Even though they had not seen it, this was and remains the oft-mentioned joke about Szamanka.

The film has been compared to Lars von Trier’s controversial, Antichrist, in that it depicts a male who suffers the wrath and sexual rage of his female wife. Antichrist plays with ideas around cultural misogyny and grief in equal measure. Like Lars von Trier, Zulawski has been accused of misogyny. The problem with this accusation is that it doesn’t hold up when one watches Szamanka with some knowledge of where it’s maker is coming from and where the film ultimately takes us. It is also important to note that the screenplay was written by Manuela Gretkowska, a young Feminist and acclaimed writer who played a key role in founding The Polish Women’s Party. Certainly Andrzej Zulawski pushes forward his own agenda, but he never veered far from Gretkowska’s script.

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of "The Last Tango in Warsaw" Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of “The Last Tango in Warsaw”
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda was an established Polish movie star when he was cast as Michal, the unhappy and profoundly conflicted anthropologist who has just come into the job of investigating the rarest of anthropological finds. There are more than a few stories about the casting of the female lead. Zulawski was not known to work with “unknowns” or “untrained” actors, but something about Iwona Petry’s beauty and presence deeply fascinated Zulawski. She was just barely twenty years of age when he saw her ordering a cup of coffee. Described as a bit eccentric and a strict vegetarian, Zulawski convinced her that she was meant to be his star and to play the role of Wloszka / The Italian.

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras. Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA "The Italian" Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras.
Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA “The Italian”
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

While Szamanka was a huge critical and commercial failure in Poland — largely because the Polish Catholic Church. Honestly, the film was never even given a chance to screen much at all due to protests and the ultimate banning of the film. However the film scored incredibly well in Italy and France. It was expected that Petry would be a major and perhaps first true Polish female movie star. She didn’t. In fact she has become a huge part of this movie’s infamy. During production the Polish media had a frenzy in reporting that Zulawski was manipulating, forcing and abusing the young woman. Rumors ranged from beatings to forced sex to psychological torture.

Looking back at the situation, it would seem that Zulawski’s dark sense of humor had some fun playing with what were clearly rumors. When the film finally screened to great acclaim at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, Zulawski answered the charges with his typical blunt intellect. There was no truth to any of it. Yet another ploy to set the film up by the oppressive Polish Catholic Church.

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

However, Iwona Petry failed to show up for the premiere. She actually went missing for a short while. Apparently exhausted from the tough shoot and terrified by the media attention she took her money and ran off to India. In 1998 she gave a few interviews and admitted that the sudden brush with fame was far more than she had bargained. A roll of eyes to the rumors that continue in Poland to present day. She returned to university and is now a published fiction writer. She has no interest in returning to the world of acting.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This is a shame as her performance in the film is quite impressive. Iwona Petry had the presence of a movie star and she played the role of the She-Shamen with an almost insane level of erotic energy. One hardly has time to notice the well-trained middle-aged Boguslaw Linda. When Petry is on screen, it is she you watch. And, no. She is not nude the entire time. It is an interesting and terrifying performance. Once you see this odd film, you will never forget her.

Most importantly, you will never forget Szamanka.

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman  covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda’s Michal is a frustrated scientist about to marry a woman for whom he feels no love or passion. During an unseen excavation with his students, a mummy is discovered. It is determined that this mummy is close to 2,000 years old. Michal’s interest in this mummy goes far beyond the academic or scientific when he discovers this is the body of a Shaman.

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God
Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The body is incredibly well preserved. Covered in mystical tattoos, they also find a pouch full of what turns out to be  hallucinogenic mushrooms. While Michal and his team try desperately to understand the cause of the Shaman’s death, there is only one clue: the back of the Shaman’s skull is crushed. This does not signal the cause of death but an ancient pagan ritual in which after death, the Shaman’s skull is opened to release the potent spirit free.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s camera seems to be drawn to offering us views of the Shaman’s rather pronounced penis. And Michal is unable to hold back. He breaks protocol and touches the Shaman with his bare hands. Clearly there is a sense of connection for Michal, but the reason for this is not entirely clear to us or him. It is as if he wants to find a way to truly connect with this ancient dead being. This need verges toward the sexual.

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?  Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The Anthropologist and his mummy are a a constant subplot of the film. The main interest is on the strange young woman who captures the lustful attentions of the scientist almost as strongly as the mystical-pull of the Shaman. A rude and socially inept, but beautiful woman. We first see Petry’s The Italian as she lunges and plunges her way along a buffet of food which she shovels into her mouth and down her throat as if her hunger can never be satisfied.

Erotic desire beyond reason... Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Erotic desire beyond reason…
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

She is to rent an apartment owned by Michal. The modest flat was formerly occupied by his brother. The Italian wants the apartment. The deal is done, but signed with a frantic and brutal sort of sex that feels as angry as lust-driven. Like the mummy, Michal seems to want to somehow merge more into this beautiful girl than sexual penetration will allow. And like with her food, The Italian’s erotic desire seems to be unhinged and impossible to satisfy.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Between the ever-mounting frenzied levels of brute force, kink, domination, submission, pain and pleasure, Michal attempts to communicate with this woman of his sexual dreams. She, however, seems more concerned with her consuming passion and seeks more to “commune” than communicate. She is obsessed with him and seems to ache to form a possession of his desires. Not articulate, but psychical in her nature.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal is becoming more and more obsessed with her. He attempts to discuss philosophy with her but to not ready interest. He discusses religion with disdain. Here she seems a bit more interested, but it always comes down to sex. Our Anthropologist suspects his fever-pitched lover might be no more than a beautiful idiot. The Italian seems unable to offer him nothing more than hot sex. He wants more.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

You see, that’s why there are common saints, just God’s morons with a soul. No brains.

This sort of comment seems to cause a pulse within the ever-sexually-rabid woman. And as hard as Michal seems to want to walk away from her, he simply can’t. She mystifies him. Occupies his thoughts. Drives him to rage-fueled sexual encounters. The sex becomes desperate. Yet for her, the sex is almost magical. A sort of erotic ritual.

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more? Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

He finds himself more miserable with her than he had been with his loveless marriage potential. The mummy no longer holds the power over him. This crude, intolerant, polymorphously perverse, tyrannical and hysterical woman seems to offer an inexplicable power over him.

This is not just unrestrained passion, this is something sinister.

Or is it possibly something that offers our Anthropologist a meaning to his existentially challenged existence. He no longer fits in. Poland offers opportunity, but it seems a false promise. His mummy holds no answers. But there seems to be something bleakly powerful in these cruel sexual encounters. The Italian becomes transformed. Already beautiful, during sex she seems to become transformed to the level of sexual goddess. But the orgasm appears to be more like gasoline tossed on some spiritual fire.

There is no pay off or hope in this sex.

Defile. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Defile.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And as this deeply odd but impossibly fascinating Art House film pulls us deep into this mire of confusion, identity crisis, sexual obsessions, perversions and religious conflict. It is also as the film enters it’s third and final act that Zulawski and Manuela Gretkowska push us into the dark theatrical thinking of Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his outright Satanic symbolism.

For Przybyszewski there is no such thing as “love,” it is nothing but a magical illusion. When Michal meets The Italian he his helpless. There can be no free will here. Michal cannot turn away from his She-Shamen even when he seems to realize this girl’s insanity is something of a mystical and most-likely demonic nature. He is rendered to the state of the somnambulistic when it comes to this darkly magik lover who seems to have access to fully influence him to the very core of his being. This “love” is truly apocalyptic. It does not seem to matter if the She-Shaman influences for good or evil. If her ritualistic sex is served for healing or wounding. For Michal has no choice in the matter.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And, here is the clear separation from the Nihilistic turn of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Unlike the husband in that film, Michal is not meeting a mere symbol of angry female energy oppressed by centuries of human cruelty, Michal has fallen prey to a demonic sort of force. He is nothing more than a sort of life-force for the She-Shaman. He is one of those common saints. He has been deceived. His nothing more than brains for the She-Shaman‘s food.

As Stanislaw Przybyszewski might have appraised it, for this man survival is not an option. He must submit to the illusion and power of love. In a strange way, this intellectual is taking part in a consensual murder. In this odd bit of socially conscious cinema, everything is fucked.

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Without love. Without hope. Szamanka must be satisfied.

Even to write about this true cinematic anomaly makes one feel a little loopy. By the time Andrzej Zulawski’s grim film comes to it’s conclusion the viewer is left spent and more than a little dazed.

The folks at Mondo Vision have done an outstanding job at restoring this deeply weird but exceptional film. Sadly, there are no plans to issue it to VOD or Blu-Ray format. It is only available from them on region free DVD. But they have loaded it with extras. If you’ve an interest in Eastern European cinema or the work of Andrzej Zulawski, you really can’t afford to miss it.

You can find it, and several of Zulawski’s titles here: http://www.mondo-vision.com/szamanka.php

Matty Stanfield, 9.15.2015

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz