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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!”

As Dennis Hopper’s gritty and nihilistic film, Out of the Blue, we see and hear two things:

Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980

Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980

the first is an 18-wheeler speeding along a stretch of road. In it sit a Halloween-costumed little girl and her beer-drinking dad. The drunk father teases his eleven year old clown of a daughter. She gleefully revels in his attention. Not too far ahead is a school bus full of elementary school age children. These are the trucker’s classmates. Their bus has stalled in the middle of an intersection.

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

The little clown too lost in the bliss of her father’s attention and her father too drunk to allow for appropriate reflexes, the 18 wheeler crashes directly into the school bus. Suddenly this shocking action is ended as that same little girl some four years later bolts up in her bed. She has been dreaming. Linda Manz plays “Cebe” and we at once see the magic that this young actor was able to bring to the screen. She has no dialogue. She doesn’t need any. Her face shows it all. Confused, frightened and bemused. Cebe (clearly named after the Trucker mode of communication, the CB radio) appears to be uncertain if she has fully woken from the nightmare. But it only takes a few seconds for the audience to notice two visible scars on her face. This scene and whatever hope that what we have just witnessed by simply be a nightmare is killed with an instant cut to the cab of that 18 wheeler. Sitting in a ramble overgrowth of weeds, the cab is basically demolished. It is the dead of night, Cebe sits in the driver seat wearing her father’s Post-Hippie leather cap. She is talking into the CB radio transmitting a rant that we soon will realize fuels her ability to analyze and move forward in her life:

“Subvert normality. Punk is not sexual, it’s just aggression. Destroy. Kill All Hippies. I’m not talking at you, I’m talking to you. Anarchy. Disco sucks. I don’t wanna hear about you, I wanna hear from you. This is Gorgeous. Does anybody outthere read me? Disco sucks, kill all hippies. Pretty vacant, eh? Subvert normality. Signing off. This is Gorgeous. Signing off.” 

The listening truck drivers do not understand. Cebe doesn’t care. She simply needs to be heard.

Linda Manz as Cebe Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Linda Manz as Cebe
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Originally intended to be a Canadian film about a child psychologist who saves and offers redemption for a fifteen year old girl who has murdered her own father. If what one is to believe what has been reported, stated and written, this entire film was intended to be a star vehicle for Raymond Burr. The producers had been lucky to cast American actor, Linda Manz, as the teenager in trouble. The film’s original director was in over his head and working with a script that seemed more aimed at some sort of “white-wash” of cultural tragedy more appropriate for ABC’s After School Special than cinemas. Dennis Hopper had taken the job to play the murdered father. After the original director walked-off, the iconic actor was asked to make his first directorial turn since his infamous The Last Movie failure.

Dennis Hopper immediately set out to re-write the perversely tidy teenage murderer saved script into something attached to humanity and reality. Raymond Burr was a tax credit for the film’s producers. Hopper manipulated Burr into thinking that he was still the lead actor. He apparently filmed a great deal more than the two brief scenes in which we see him in Hopper’s film. The Child Psychologist is reduced to a half-heartedly sincere bureaucrat. Hopper switched the perspective from a Canadian Social Worker to that of the tormented teenage girl. He also rejected the general premise of “Cebe.” She was no longer just a one-dimensional child victim turned murderer. Hopper’s Cebe was a damaged teenage girl trying to make sense out of her situation, her life and her own identity. Hopper, a former Hippie and addict, quickly decided to have Cebe obsessed with two cultural touchstones: Elvis and the PUNK Movement.

Only her father's old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor... Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Only her father’s old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor…
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Suddenly, Linda Manz was given more to do than simply supply screen presence and predictable emotions cued by violins. She was given the lead role of an abused child hellbent on rebellion and pushed to the emotional edge of sanity.

Cebe seeks more than to subvert normalcy, she seeks to subvert life itself because it is the only way she can figure a way to motivate through the pain, grief, humiliation and confusion of her life. Born to two rebels, Linda Manz’s Cebe is essentially the manifestation of free love, hippie ideology, mind-expanding drug use and confusion. Her mother appears to be a kind, but painfully emotionally-stunted ex-Flower Child. Here, Mom is only physically grown up. She married her true love, a tough Hippie Biker type who quickly grasped onto the life of a heavy hitting trucker.

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents. Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents.
Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Cebe’s mother has forever give her heart to her husband, but she gladly hands over her body for some stability and a fix. We slowly figure out that Sharon Farrell’s Kathy is a closet heroin addict. She loves her daughter the best she knows how. Kathy doesn’t view her daughter’s rebellious nature as odd or worrying. Within Kathy’s limited understanding, Cebe is her father’s daughter. A natural born rebel. While Kathy has already hooked up with Dad’s best friend and former local nemesis, she is still married to Dad.

Kathy can’t wait for Daddy to get out of prison so that they can be a Happy Family again.

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

This was never a happy family. Cebe seems to be the only one fully aware of this.

She, too, is excited about her father’s release from prison and return to home. However, Linda Manz’s skill as a naturalistic actor allows her to show us that she is not so certain things will be getting better. She hopes that they will, but Manz’s forever perplexing ability to convey mixtures of emotions that often run against the very grain of her character’s dialogue and actions, we know she really expects that things for her are about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Her bedroom offers a great deal about the complexity of our lead character. Innocent childhood toys and 1970’s era children’s art remain in tact, but are almost buried beneath the impact of shrines to Elvis. Cebe has crafted old Elvis album art and magazine photographs into collages better suited to religious iconography. A huge amplifier, drum kit and an electric guitar take the front and center of her room.

While the Elvis art seems old and fading, newer posters, pictures and magazine cut-outs weigh down the walls. These are all related to PUNK rock. The Subhumans, Sex Pistols, Teenage Head & Public Enemy are among the iconic bands name-checked on Cebe’s walls. Linda Manz’s Cebe was something altogether new to cinema.

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

This is the child of an addicted murderous father and an Up With People hippie gone to seed. Born into a life of instability, threat and fear — Cebe is constantly seeking new totems and sounds to bolster herself. She must reinforce her strength and appearance of knowledge and power to stay ahead of the game.

She clearly does not possess a clear understanding of either Elvis or PUNK rock. But she painfully understands the messages conveyed.

She may not understand the joke that Elvis had become by the time she was old enough to know his music. She also may not understand the corporate ownership of “Johnny Rotten” / “Sid Vicious” or the tragedy of their lives, but she gets the over-all jest of what they and their music stood/stand for.

She can’t articulate what “pretty vacant” actually means, but she somehow understands it applies to her life and the lack of hope it provides.

Rebellion is all she has.

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz's performance. Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz’s performance.
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Upon her father’s return things around Cebe seem to take on darker aspects.

Her mother’s drug use is now done in the living room. Even though Dad is home, Mom is all the more open about pursuing her sexual needs.

Dad has taken his drinking to a new level.

Classmates and some parents view her father’s return as an injustice to the children who were killed by the drunken crash four years earlier.

Worse yet, mother loses her worries in H while Dad and his pal take matters into their own hands and murder the father of one of the children killed in the tragic accident.  The angry father feels the need for vengeance. Even a hint of his anger is enough to stir Dad to go into full attack mode.

Cebe runs away. She sleeps on the streets and ends up in a sexualized world of predators. Smart enough to run from this world, she still returns home.

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70's After School Special. This is dire and real. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70’s After School Special. This is dire and real.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When she gets back, she has hardly been missed.

The final straw arrives when a drunken argument between Mom, Dad and dad’s best friend, played by Don Gordon, lead to a non-sensical idea that Cebe has become too butch (or “a dyke“) to use Mom’s words. In drunken/stoned stupor it is decided that Don must have sex with Cebe to set her “straight.” Hearing it all from her room, Cebe begins to transform into a sort of asexual PUNK God.

Fighting off her father as if where a lion, her bedroom chair legs aimed at him like spears — the father retreats. After slapping the stoned out mom a bit, mom returns to Cebe’s side to help her into her nightgown.

So angry. So alone. So desperate. Cebe’s rebellion takes a very dark turn.

She opts to patricide and suicide as her ultimate “PUNK” revenge. Just as you would expect from Dennis Hopper, the nihilistic ending feels almost surreal. But it isn’t. This is a reality born of rage. No child psychologist can apply some words and therapy to take away the crime of her murders. If Cebe knows two things it is that she wants to kill her parents. It is hard not to relate to her conclusion. It is her suicide that is the tragedy.

Hopper’s film offers a grim view of a societal issue.

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father's sexual advances. Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father’s sexual advances.
Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

By the time the film was ready for release, several minutes involving the disturbing scene in which the daughter sexually taunts her father prior to brutally killing him had to be edited to secure an “R Rating.” Originally conceived as a Canadian film, the Canadian Film Board quickly demanded funds returned and denied Canadian approval. The film was not released to Japan until the 1990’s over concerns related to rebellion, patricide and suicide. In the US the film barely managed a limited release. While it was largely supported by film critics — even Jack Nicholson stepped out of the celebrity bubble to promote the film which he felt had something very important to say.

The film quickly became a source of infamy.

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Interestingly, it began to develop a misleading reputation as a PUNK Rock Movie. It is not.

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When AnchorBay was able to release the theatrical cut on DVD in 1999, the sales started off high. Driven by the rumors surrounding the film as PUNK Statement. Those sales quickly dwindled. Out of the Blue is not a fun movie. It is grim, gritty, realistic and offers the audience no easy way out. While the film does suffer from budget restraints. The crash into the school bus is not as potent when the film returns to the incident the second time and “goofs” can be seen. But mostly, this angry film remains a valid glimpse into human darkness.

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity. Linda Manz transforms... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity.
Linda Manz transforms…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Although I am unsure if he has ever publicly discussed this film, it clearly had impact on Harmony Korine. Any Knowledgeable film-buff will see this film’s influences on Korine’s work.

It also captures teenage rebellion with a cause.  

Technically, AnchorBay no longer has this film in print, but copies can still be found on Amazon. Sadly, many other versions of this film are out there on DVD. Be warned: most are of very poor quality. Most look as if second-hand dubbed from old VHS tapes.  And most of the non-AnchorBay prints are heavily censored. It remains to be seen if this film will ever find it’s way to restoration.

1969’s Coming Apart offers an equally realistic and dark journey to the heart of human self-destruction, but with a different sort of reason in mind.  Milton Moses Ginsberg’s much discussed film is one of style, human pain and classic NYC Method Acting. Often compared to  Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. In truth Ginsberg’s film has very little to do with McBride’s groundbreaking film beyond the use of “documentary” style and mirror metaphor. The idea of exploring identity and/or sexual identity is not really traceable to one work of art. What makes Ginsberg’s experimental 1969 film so important is that it captures more than just a time capsule moment within the 1960’s Counterculture Movement as it brings focus to the resulting identity problems that movement helped to acerbate. It also serves as a great example of the power to be found within filmmaking.

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of "Joe Glassman" Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of “Joe Glassman”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Having just survived a devastating end to a relationship which led him to securing an apartment in the same building as the woman who had rejected him, Milton Moses Ginsberg essentially found himself in an existential downward spiral. This experience drove him to create the script for Coming Apart. An almost shockingly detailed script, he also sought to utilize some of the most respected young actors trained directly under the mythic teachings of Lee Strasberg. Very few of the actors seen in this film were not members of the original Actor’s Studio. It’s three leading actors were among Strasberg’s most prized pupils. They were also known as his most fearless actors who fully embraced every philosophy of Strasberg’s ideology. Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors and Sally Kirkland may not have been the most famous, but they commanded a great deal of respect within the realm of NYC Actors and Method Acting. The easiest way to sum up Strasberg’s Method Acting was to understand and pursue acting as truth. Truth without filter. Truth without censor. Truth pursued at all costs and concentration. Essentially, Method Acting seeks to pursue the truth of the human soul to it’s deepest and often darkest depths. This was and remained the essential elements of all three actors.

Checking his hidden camera's perspective... Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Checking his hidden camera’s perspective…
Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Milton Moses Ginsberg once stated that the Coming Apart script served as a “vehicle for actors to reach into their souls and I found two actors who could reach deeper and better than any others at that time.” He was referring to both Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland. But the entire film is filled with Method Actors. This is particularly interesting to note as most who have seen Coming Apart walk away from the experience thinking that they have seen improvisation and even partial biographical film. This is not at all true. Almost everything in the film is scripted. While Ginsberg was not afraid of improvisation, he expected that each actor honor his script. They did. Each was fully invested in the three week project.

It is interesting to note that every single film snag, break, audio interference, audio loss and distortion is clearly listed and often even drawn into the script. When we are unable to hear or see something it is because Joe can’t deal with hearing or seeing it himself. The only post-production decision to deviate from the script was Rip Torn’s long rant into the camera. It was originally to be an articulated four minute rant during which Torn’s Joe experiences an emotional break. Ginsberg felt at looking at Rip Torn’s face was far more insightful than his own words. So he added unplanned chops and drops of sound during this one scene.

The idea of the film stems from the writer/director’s own self-destructive act of almost stalking a former lover, the premise is quite simple. A burned-out and emotionally ravaged psychiatrist rents an apartment in the same building as that of a woman with whom he had what he feels was a meaningful affair. However, this does not stop the doctor from pursuing an experiment in which he hides a movie camera within a mirrored box. Intended to look like a piece of modern art, he places this hidden camera so that it captures the goings on in the living room from one perspective. Trained on a sofa, “Joe” has placed the sofa in front of a huge mirror. In this way, the camera picks up all activity from two perspectives.

"What's this?" "Kinetic art object." "What?" "Modern sculptory." Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“What’s this?”
“Kinetic art object.”
“What?”
“Modern sculptory.”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

While he has set up the apartment as a sort of trap which will require his former lover to interact with him, he is also intent on filming his interactions with women. What at first seems like an extended and sick “bachelor’s weekend” soon devolves into an examination of sexuality and identity at it’s core root. Almost immediately the audience is placed in the role of Voyeur. It is an uncomfortable place to be. There is very little erotic about the goings-on, but it is quite sexual. It is also intense, provocative and disturbing.

When Joe’s former love confronts him for having crossed a line by moving into her building, Joe’s idea backfires. Viveca Lindfors’ Monica is not interested in Joe. If anything she pities him. But is Joe even worth pitying?

"Did I do this to you, Joe?" Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Did I do this to you, Joe?”
Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Joe’s first visitors are there strictly for sex. The first encounter comes the closest to being erotic. The second encounter with Elaine played by Lois Markle in one of the film’s few comical moments, presents Joe with a type of sexuality he has perhaps only studied or discussed with patients. When presented with a true sadist, Joe isn’t sure about what he should do. In both comical and realistic ways, Markle’s characters tries to turn Joe on by exposing the permanent scars caused by cigarettes. It would seem that Elaine enjoys being a human ashtray.

This does nothing for Joe. She quickly suggests putting on provocative clothing. She even quickly runs back to her home to return in full-on BSDM gear designed to entice. Joe seems more curious than turned on. As she shows off her spike heel shoes, Joe asks her if it is hard to walk in them? She advises that these shoes are not for walking. Just when it seems she is about to give up all hope of getting laid, Joe decides to feign interest. As he pursues her on the floor, we see her legs up in the hair and she returns to her cooing and moaning while yelling, “You’re raping me! You’re raping me!” We see Joe hesitate and Elaine reach up and pull him back to her. She then returns to pretending that Joe is raping her. This is the only “light” moment to be found in Coming Apart.

Are you sure you don't want to put a cigarette out on me? Rip Torn & Lois Markle Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Are you sure you don’t want to put a cigarette out on me?
Rip Torn & Lois Markle
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The entire film runs like a document of what we would now call “found footage.” The scenes cut off. The film appears to run out or break. The audio goes off and on. The light has impact on the quality of the film and the way in which we can see. This approach has an interesting sort of effect for the viewer. Even when we don’t want to see everything, we often strain to keep up with what is going on in front of us. It is inappropriate. It is far too private. Welcome to being the target of the film. We are somewhat seduced into an act of voyeurism. The problem is that the eroticism of this film is short-lived. The erotic quickly becomes heart breakingly neurotic. Coming Apart is just that. We end up watching two people falling apart — or as their connection is grounded in the sexual, they are both cuming apart.

When we first see Sally Kirkland’s Joann, she sits on the sofa slacked and bored. Far too young for Joe and not the sort of woman we have been seeing. She is beautiful, but clearly not sitting there waiting for sex. However, Joann comes to animated life when we see Joe actually take an interest in her. In what is extremely naturalist and real dialogue we discover that Joe and Joann have run into each other just outside the building. She is also a former therapy patient who had quit therapy. She claims to have no interest in therapy, but Joe insists that it would be inappropriate for him to see her. He explains that he has cut back on therapy sessions and has taken this apartment to work on a paper for which he has been given a grant to write.

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity... Sally Kirkland is disengaged as "Sarabelle" The Clown hits on Joe... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity…
Sally Kirkland is disengaged as “Sarabelle” The Clown hits on Joe…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

This only seems to serve to excite Joann. Sally Kirkland’s character seems to be literally morph into a sexual being. She begins to shamelessly flirt with Joe. She mentions that she is involved with a man who likes to experiment. He likes to watch her get it on with other men. As she is clearly exciting Joe, she begins to tell him about an orgy she recently attended.

When he asks her more about orgies she responds, “It’s wilder than you can imagine.” And, it is here that we start to understand that Joann is every bit as broken as Joe. As she continues to try and excite him, she stumbles onto her own issues and woes. They slip out more clearly defined than a tale of her orgasm. “Why am I telling you all this for? You’re not my doctor!” Yet, she can’t help but keep speaking. Her rambling becomes less erotic than tragic and filled with self-loathing. Her energy drained, Sally Kirkland’s Joann is heart-broken and filled with a confused anger. Her body has started to fold in on itself but she continues to attempt some idea of body flirtation.

She tells him that her lover likes to call her “Whore.” It is apparent that Joann herself is confused why she has shared with Joe. It is a source of pain for her.

An awkward lapse of silence follows. Without any sort of reasoning, Joe offers “I’m lonely, too.”

This of course is as if he has given invitation. Joann has now placed herself across the room, hand close to Joe’s crotch — soon her head rests there as well. After allowing her to sublimate her entire body poised to give him oral pleasure, Joe cruelly dismisses her, “You’ve got to go to work and I’ve got to go home to my wife.”

"Let's make the most of a bad thing, shall we?" Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland  Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Let’s make the most of a bad thing, shall we?”
Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

But Joe may have met his match. Joann quickly turns the tables on him by pointing out that she’s relieved he has a wife. A slight pause as she glances toward his crotch, “I thought you were a fag.”  This comment seems to have a far greater impact than we expect. Before long Joann is back an affair begins. Or at least, a sexual relationship begins. We see her consistently working hard to bring him sexual pleasure, but Joe seems to have lost the ability to achieve a hard-on. Drunk and nude, both Joann and Joe seem miserable. The camera unknown to Joann, Joe appear to start mugging at his camera — at us. It quickly becomes clear he is trying not to cry.

Later Joann returns, after a bit of an argument they end up attempting to have sex. She ends up masturbating against Joe’s leg. Sexuality between Joann and Joe seems to illicit impotence for Joe and rage for Joann. Just before his camera’s film runs out, he commands that Joann face away from him on all floors. The implication being that he can’t look at her to fuck her. Yet, Joann agrees. Four on the floor, Joanne waits. As Joe stands and removes his underwear, the film runs out.

A bit further into the film Joann returns with a whole group of people. All of whom seem to be in various degrees of intoxication. Group sex takes place, but it seems to present Joe and Joann with frustration. Joann seems angry. Joe seems afraid. When he mistakes a transgender female for a biological woman — this is 1969, but this person looks far more female than male. Later Joe is presented with a nude gay man who clearly wants to pleasure Joe. This is a returning theme in the film. Joe’s heterosexuality is consistently under scrutiny. It is never clear how much Joe’s developing sexual issue is related to the fact that perhaps he is sexually conflicted or merely depressed.

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The downward spiral for Joe and Joann continues. Joe is clearly experiencing a nervous breakdown. Joann has been kicked out of her home — she claims this is because she has become Joe’s sex toy. Yet he refuses her a place to sleep. Telling her she stinks. We know that they have just had another unsuccessful attempt at sex. Beyond abusive, we have entered the realm of human cruelty.

At one point, Sally Kirkland’s Joann tells Joe: “You’re not as strong as I thought. You’re frightened. You’re weak-willed. There’s no mystery about you. None!”

She aims this as a threat, but she doesn’t give up. She continues to pursue Joe despite repeated failures, insults and even physical threat. It is illogical, but feels believable real.

It is crucial to note that there is nothing amateur or limited within Coming Apart. Each and every performance is so authentic in emotion, sexual need, desperation and rage that the viewer feels uncomfortable watching the interactions especially given that Ginsberg films it all from a secret camera perspective. Filled with mirror reflections that capture information from all perspectives with limitation of being stuck in the position of a perverse voyeur. A limited budget does not matter. Nothing is boring. The opposite. However, very little if any of it is “enjoyable.”

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland's break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland’s break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Everything we see feels real. In fact, at the time the film was released many labeled it as pornographic. It carried an “X-Rating” and is still rated “NC-17” despite being tame in comparison to many films other than the entire movie just feels so real. And an even larger number of people refused to believe it was fictional. Even some of Rip Torn’s friends were convinced he had left his wife, Geraldine Page, for several weeks. Hired Ginsberg to take credit for shooting a film which was simply a drunken Torn having his way with women. This was something that was a source of both comedy and annoyance for both Rip and his wife. As for Sally Kirkland, she soon found herself being questioned about the idea of “Art vs. Pornography.”

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe's hidden camera... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe’s hidden camera…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The film was made at the darkest moment of the counterculture revolution. 1968 was indeed a tipping point for the United States.

Erotica was very much a part of the Counter-Culture Revolution in the New York City art world!” Kirkland explained during a Q&A of the film in the late 1990’s.

Coming Apart for many of the actors was a natural extension of the revolution that they were so deeply vested. The was a revolution against war, oppression, inequality and perhaps most importantly — the Counter Culture was acting out against the regimented cultural and societal perceptions of what normalcy was supposed to be.

Like Dennis Hopper’s gritty little strange 1980 movie, 1969’s Coming Apart was also a subverting normality. It is of particular interest that this was all captured in what most would consider the final year of the 1960’s.

Reality shatters Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Reality shatters
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

In the late 1990’s Sally Kirkland bluntly asserted to the audience for whom Coming Apart had just been screened, “People are still dealing with this revolution!

 

Nothing left to see or say. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Nothing left to see or say.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

While more than a few of her fellow artists would consider Sally Kirkland an eccentric, none would ever argue her intelligence. An esteemed, highly intelligent and articulate individual, Sally Kirkland really hit the nail on the heard. 46 years on and Ginsberg’s Coming Apart is still shocking and confusing viewers. In many ways, this film’s examination of sexuality, loneliness, desperation and human rage goes beyond authenticity. It pursues and touches the rawest of human nerves. For many, it might be easier to watch the extreme torture porn of Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film.

The film continues to polarize audiences. However most cinephiles, critics and actors now see this film as a masterpiece.

Kino had issued a great DVD of the film in 2000. I get contradictory reports about whether or not Kino still has the rights to continue to print their DVD of the film. However, while it has sold well a second reprint was never required. Or, it was never done. It can still be found on Amazon. There are no plans in place to give this historic and highly personal film a restoration it deserves. It would be a good time to more forward as all three of the key players for this film are in their 70’s and early 80’s. One of the challenges seems to be regarding the use of Jefferson Airplane music.

One thing is for sure — neither of this films should be forgotten.

Actually, I don’t think either will. Both Out of the Blue and Coming Apart carry a certain cred that is undeniable. They also both retain a level of curiosity. Neither fit into mainstream cinematic ideas. Both push the envelope without sacrificing artistic merit. These two films have respective followings.

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Matty Stanfield, 10.4.2015