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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Definitions, categorizations and comparisons fill the world of art theory. When it comes to Film Art there seems to be an almost endless stream of terms. Defining “cinema” and determining what films truly achieve “cult” status is not always as easy as it would seem. A great Cinematic Master gave a definition that I’ve always found inappropriate and insulting. However I am forever returning to his definition in much the same way I am constantly re-watching one of his many masterpieces.

"Oh, you ARE sick." Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

“Oh, you ARE sick.”
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

Federico Fellini once described the art of cinema as “...an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.”

There is a good deal of validity to this definition. Film has become an integral part of our culture and is quite possibly the most valued art form which screens 24/7 all over the world. It is also based on a model so firmly grounded in marketing and profit earning that is impossible to talk with any filmmaker and not end up discussing the costs to make them and how much they earn. Of course even while money is the requirement and the goal, it takes a backseat to the pleasures it provides to us, its John. And we are a constantly returning customer.  No matter how bad the weather or strapped for cash we might be. This is one service most of us seem to need and we constantly run the risk of being disappointed.

Lonely, isolated and sad. Donald Sutherland Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Lonely, isolated and sad. Mid-1970’s audiences did not know what to think of this strange Surrealist take on Casanova. Three decades later, a whole new audience eagerly awaits a refreshed print. Criterion Collection?
Donald Sutherland
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Sometimes one of the these movies seems to pull us back again and again. We can’t get enough. This of course is not a hooker. This is a film that develops a loyal following no matter its profit margin. And no matter how hard it is to locate. We pursue it. Welcome to the Cult Film. David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an exceptional Cult Film. It is not a bad film. I would argue that this 1977 film represents years of work, dedication and is ultimately a fine work of American Art. But how can a films like Eraserhead and Grey Gardens be lumped into the same category as Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row or Mark Robson’s painfully bad, Valley of the Dolls? Well, it is pretty easy actually.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me." Valley of the Dolls Mark Robson, 1967

“They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.”
Valley of the Dolls
Mark Robson, 1967

Wikipedia prefers to apply the term “Cult Classic” instead of “Cult Film.” The definition provided is “…a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major studio productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. The term cult film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that. Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value…

"A good football coach can get away with murder." Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than... Pretty Maids All In A Row Roger Vadim, 1971

“A good football coach can get away with murder.” Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than…
Pretty Maids All In A Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

The definition goes on to discuss the fact that Cult Classic is not limited to the campy or the failed. It is often reserved for films that are acclaimed but never quite move into mainstream success. There are some exceptional Cult Classics, or Cult Films as I prefer to call them. These are artistically solid works of Film Art that may not have broken box office records or secured the false acclaim of The Academy Award. In fact there are some fairly new films that are brilliant and are already achieving Cult Film status. There are also a number of God-awful movies that have over the past decade have begun to return to our attention as Cult Films.

Both Roger Vadim’s deeply odd Pretty Maids all in a Row and Mark Robson’s big-budgeted major studio Valley of the Dolls have enjoyed the status of Cult Films for decades. These are both examples of unintended camp. When it comes to Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s hugely successful novel, the idea of Cult Film is turned every which way but loose. This film was actually a huge box office hit. When watching this infamous movie it boggles the mind that our parents and grandparents were rushing to local movie theaters to watch this astoundingly bad film. But they did. Drag Queens should be given credit for catching the camp value of this film first, but over the past couple of decades those of us who love a great bad movie have come to love it just as much. At once shamelessly lewd and contradictorily innocent, from start to finish — VOD is continually amping itself up to a seemingly endless escalation of camp.

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film's star. Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film’s star. Another painfully bad film that is so desperately horrible it becomes an endless source of fun! 
Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids was designed to cash in on the idea of the T&A movie merged with once major Hollywood Players. Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson quickly tossed cautiously crafted on-screen personas to prove they were hip to the grooves that had spread across middle America. Keenan Wynn, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowell were also eager to strap it on for the ride. None seem to be embarrassed as they romp about with semi or fully nude nymphettes. Nor do any seem to be bothered by the fact that the sexual teases were also mixed with serial murder killings. The film was also intended to be a dark comedy. The film flopped. It was decidedly not hip and most certainly far from cool. It was not particularly funny. It did however open a door for Telly Savalas by inspiring the idea of what would become Kojak. After the tragic death of Rock Hudson, this film began to be re-evaluated. It was still bad, but oh so much mind-blowing fun to watch.

As bad as these two major studio films are, neither can top Berry Gordy’s ill-advised star-vehicle for Motown’s own, Miss. Diana Ross.  That film is Mahogany. A hit song did not a hit movie make. When news that the film was being released to DVD, fans rushed to pre-order it. So unwilling to have to even think about the movie, Diana Ross herself held up over 500,000 newly printed DVD’s hostage (!) until someone convinced her it would be cheaper to let the film out. Those of you who know the fun that is Berry Gordy’s Mahogany hold that DVD close to your hearts. Of course it was this film that inspired Rupaul to become the persona she is today! But Mahogany merits its own post. There is not enough room here.

"Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” An example of profound Surrealism that verges toward that of Cinematic Masterpiece is now considered a Cult Film or Cult Classic. As well as a beloved member of The Criterion Collection.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

In the early 1980’s David Cronenberg finally secured a modest, but decent budget when he made Videodrome. Featuring Pop-Icon, Debbie Harry, in a pivotal role — this controversial and surreal examination in body horror and paranoia was acclaimed and achieved a slight success in cinemas. Far too grim, graphic and controversial to achieve major box office success — this film was admired. By the time it was released to VHS, Cronenberg’s dark vision had already built a solid fan base that would continue to grow. Videodrome is now rightly viewed as somewhat of a cinematic masterpiece. It is also a member of the esteemed Criterion Collection. This is a Cult Film that is brilliant and some 30 years on — it still threatens to bite. Despite the fact that the technology key to the film’s plot has long been left behind in the dust, this movie remains disturbing, visceral and horrifying. Interestingly, this film also remains controversial in its depiction of BDSM.

But I’d like to shift focus forward to a couple of more recent films that are quickly establishing themselves as Cult Films. One such movie is Evan Glodell’s 2011 independently produced, Bellflower.

"Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland." Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011

“Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland.”
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011

From the first moment Evan Glodell’s writing/directorial debut, Bellflower, starts – – the audience knows that they are about to watch something at once slightly familiar and yet remarkably unique in almost all aspects. Bellflower is not quite like any movie you have seen. Without giving away any spoilers the film begins as a rather humorous and sad take on a relationship between two late twenty-somethings one of whom is a man obsessed with apocalyptic movies and creating weapons in preparation for the end of times.

The main character fill his days and time with his best bud day dreaming about the ultimate apocalypse in which they will each play roles of the Mad Max/Road Warrior types. These two men share a child-like joy in the planning of playing these roles in the Hell that will be left after the world as they know it ends. All the more interesting is the fact that these two “dudes” do not even have any sense of their own immaturity or the irony that their adult feet are planted so firmly in adolescence.

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow's mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow’s mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

The plot takes a turn for the romantic when Woodrow, played by director/writer, Evan Glodell, meets the beautiful and equally odd, Milly. Like Woodrow and his close pal, Aiden, Milly seems to be stuck in a rut of narcissistic immaturity. Milly and Woodrow fall in love but both lack the maturity to navigate the wild woods of a romantic relationship. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a dead end turn. At that point Bellflower pulls the audience into the darkest corners of damaged heartbreak and rage. Bellflower becomes a devastatingly disturbing apocalyptic journey filtered through the eyes of drug-fueled insanity. Glodell has cleverly created a highly artistic and powerful study of the Love Wounded Boy-Man Walking. As this metaphor that when merges with the stunted emotionality of the character, Bellflower comes close to the trajectory of Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. In fact, Bellflower almost manages to make Apocalypse Now seem like a Disney movie. This impact is quite a cinematic feat.

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken -- Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken — Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Evan Glodell’s film deals with pain and frustration that every young adult feels in his/her first loves and quite literally blows them to oblivion. It is a gut punch that would make the strongest of people bend over or, at the very least, squirm in their seats. While this film garnished Film Festival attention, it did not fare so well at the box office. Since it was released to DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, this film has emerged with a fierce following. While it is about as dark as any film can get, it resonates.

This movie is tapping into a current vibe shared by many as we enter the 21st Century. So much is unknown. So much is uncertain. Uncomfortable change and misadventure seem to be in the air. Bellflower plays with that creepy societal feeling to an extreme that turns to an almost manic glee of vengeance. The failure of the characters to have grown into mature/adjusted men and women is presented as a reflection of a generation weaned on TV, bad movies and low expectations. Bellflower grinds into the psyche as a blistering reminder of our shared creation of a generation of people largely misplaced and lost.

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Bellflower, like Woodrow’s amped up car called Medusa, speeds, twists, turns, shoots out the very flames of fury and spins out of control into crashing oblivion. Horrible heartbreak speeds through the veins of Woodrow without the boundaries of emotional understanding to know when to put on the breaks or slow down at corner. This is spectacular feature film debut. Fingers crossed that Glodell will emerge with a new film soon. But no matter what he does, this dark film lives on in the minds of those who see it. And see it again.

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” Her delivery of these improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to go fetal with dread. This film was inspired by a dream Altman experienced. He assembled his cast out in the desert and began filming. While there was a very loose form script, he encouraged both Duvall and Spacek to come up with their own voices for their respective characters. The entire film feels like a hazy dream that offers a glimpse into the psyche’s darkest corners of loneliness, insecurities and unsure identity.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

The majority of film critics of the time loved the film. Sadly there was one exception. That exception caused a great deal of damage to the film’s potential for success. This would be the first Robert Altman film that Pauline Kael would dismiss. The film’s initial release was fairly limited to major cities and on to the Art House screens. Kael’s odd disconnect to this brilliant film kept many intellectuals away.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste. Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste.
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. His two lead actresses’ visions blend, but most importantly they successfully morph into Altman’s disturbing dream world. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director's dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here... Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director’s dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here…
Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Despite the fact that the film was available on only inferior VHS tapes and in loose fragments online — much of which focused on Duvall’s scenes featuring only the eccentricity and comic aspects of her performance — 3 Women has never been short of devoted fans. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, the film was beautifully remastered and issued for all those devoted to grab. And of course, the film has since snared an even bigger audience and reappraisal. Some like to frame this film as an American answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but that is a poor framing device. 3 Women is far less tight in construction. It flows over the viewer. While Duvall may make the audience laugh, she also slips in under the skin. Millie‘s awkwardness feels a bit too familiar. Spacek’s Pinky slowly begins to take on a sinister edge. By the time we become aware of the third woman played by a mute Janice Rule, the spell has been cast. This Cult Film goes deeper with each viewing.

"Dreams can't hurt ya." Or maybe they can... Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“Dreams can’t hurt ya.” Or maybe they can…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

In many ways, Altman’s 3 Women almost seems more tied to the American Underground Film of the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s. So many interesting works emerged from this Underground. One of the most interesting is also a film which has attracted a huge following over the past 20 years is a notorious epic called Thundercrack!.

"And don't go telling me it's some kind of a popsicle!" Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“And don’t go telling me it’s some kind of a popsicle!”
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Thundercrack! is truly one of the oddest films ever made. An odd mix of dark humor, surrealism and hardcore pornography — it can be a difficult viewing for some. A movie never intended for all audiences, this movie aims both cerebrally and very much below the belt. This film is a tripped-out work of art by the most bold artists’ of The 1970’s Bay Area. The level of Surrealism and Absurdism should not be denied. And on top of everything else, this twisted epic of a movie is often very funny.  This is a film that makes John Waters’ early films seem tame. Make no mistake, this film plunges into the full-on hardcore porn found in the mid-1970’s. It is like an experimental theatre company gone to seed and given a camera.

The thing about Thundercrack! is that while it is all of these things, it manages to step up toward a twisted version of Art House Cinema. This may be a part of The Underground Trash Cinema subgenre, but it is clearly an artistic venture. Directed by Curt McDowell and co-written with Mark Ellinger (who also serves as the film’s composer and sole musical instrument player!) — the script would also feature some added ideas from the infamous George Kuchar. McDowell was a Queer Artist going places. Tragically, AIDS would steal him away from the world far too soon.

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert's. Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert’s.
Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Marion Eaton is the film’s “star.” She plays sad Mrs. Gert Hammond. A wealthy, constantly drunk/drugged eccentric, we find Gert drunkenly yelling at her radio. A horrid storm is raging and she soon opens up her home to a wild and often sordid bunch of strangers who need shelter from the raging storm. Each character has a dark secret, but none have a secret that tops the two Mrs. Gert Hammond is keeping. Gradually each secret is revealed until the film builds to its insane crescendo when Gert’s secrets are revealed. Interestingly, this motley crew is willing to accept every secret except for the two belonging to their host. Mrs. Gert Hammond simply goes too far.

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970's Sexual and Cultural Revolution. ...with plenty of lube. Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970’s Sexual and Cultural Revolution. …with plenty of lube.
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

 

All manner of things happen. Conflict and melodrama run amok. In between strange scenes of banter, the film features a wide range of sex acts. Leading us back to The Bay Area of the 1970’s when sexual experimentation and exploration were still free of dangers, nothing appears to be off-limits for these characters. This is fluid sex at it’s most hairy. Never actually erotic, the sex scenes seem to serve more as an empowering statement of sexual rebellion and freedom. These actors don’t just go for broke, they are out to break. The most impressive member of the cast is Marion Eaton. Every movement, line and gyration is delivered with theatrical sincerity. The late Ms. Eaton even finds moments of poetry which she delivers as if her life depended upon it.

"Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?" Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?”
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Heavily censored and often difficult to find, Thundercrack! has a running time of close to 2.5 hours. It will be too much for many, but for many it is an unexpected, strange and wild trip. Thundercrack! ‘s road to restoration and Blu-Ray/DVD has been a long one. But Synapse Films has finally released it to the Cult that has been waiting patiently. This film is not for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous you will discover a movie that can still leave a viewer God-smacked some 40 years since it first screened. This is a film that defies categorization, time, space and your judgement. It does not care what you think. 

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations... Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations…
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

As Spencer Susser film begins a middle grade teacher tells his class, “Now today we’re going to talk about ‘metaphor.’” Welcome to the world of  TJ played by Devin Brochu. TJ’s father (played exceptionally by Rainn Wilson) has fallen into a deep depression following the death of his wife and TJ’s mother. They are now living with TJ‘s elderly Grandmother. Piper Laurie delivers a touching performance as an elderly woman who feels helpless as she sees her son vanishing and her grandson losing control.

"Today, we are going to talk about 'metaphor.'" Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010

“Today, we are going to talk about ‘metaphor.'”
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010

Everything takes a very fast change for “the better” when a stoned-out, psychotic, metalhead and ‘pyromatically’-inclined dude named Hesher appears. At first he is a threat to TJ, but soon he becomes a hero. Hesher takes it all on for TJ. Spinning wild tales of drug-fused adventures and sexual escapades. Hesher is sort of like a very sick and twisted id personified. Hesher quickly leads the boy into a string of dangerous, profane, violent and sexually charged situations. Essentially this film is about rage. In fact, it is one of the most interesting explorations of rage I’ve ever seen.

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child's world vacant of hope. Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child’s world vacant of hope.
Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

TJ has seen his mother killed in a violent car crash, his father is fading away, his Grandmother seems to be on the verge of dying, he is bullied, he is lonely and he is lost. This child is in a deep grief that he can only express through rebellion and righteous anger. Small and unsure, he needs a way to channel his rage.

Enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.

This film is full of strong performances. The mix of realism and surrealism is intentionally vague. It is also one of the key reasons the film begs for repeated viewings. Each revisit reveals a bit more of something that we either did not notice or interpret correctly. Sadly the film’s use of the perverse and its steadfast refusal to hold the audience hand, seemed to cause indifference from film critics. Some dismissed the film as “unbelievable” and others accused it of being unnecessarily offensive. These opinions were short-sighted. It’s valid R-Rating also kept Gordon-Levitt’s mass of young girl fans from gaining access.

A creation of rage and survival. Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

A creation of rage and survival.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Of course, Hesher is almost all metaphor. It is doubtful that any aspect of Gordon-Levitt’s character is even real. Spencer Susser created a surreal film that many didn’t seem to realize was surreal. Much of this film is in TJ‘s mind — and the rest is propelled by bravery he finds in his imaginary Death Metal Hero. This is an angry and defiant movie told from the perspective of a very sad and traumatized child. This was not a sanitized cineplex movie. This is an Art House Cinema with unexpected edges. Sharp and threatening potential danger, Hesher continues to attract fans. The film is already being reevaluated and gaining a rightful Cult Following.

This year saw the release of some original, innovative and amazing films. One of the best films to find its way to cinemas this year was John Magary’s feature-length debut, The Mend. Magary’s film presents itself as one thing, but works its way under the skin. A brilliantly conceived and constructed film, The Mend is not simplistic. Always potent, the film’s power grows with each viewing. It has been gathering a following since it’s first screening.

"Hey! Can we go get ice cream?" The Mend John Magary, 2014

“Hey! Can we go get ice cream?”
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

John Magary’s feature length film debut is so impressive it is hard to believe that this is his first movie. Despite a low budget, this is a masterfully constructed work. Assured and rigid in its refusal to dumb itself down or fall back on cinematic trope, this odd dark comedy is sharp. It is cutting and it cuts so fast you do not realize you’re bleeding until well after the closing credits. Josh Lucas, an accomplished actor by any standard, delivers the performance of his career.  Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other seems to have slipped into an empty world of rage and damage.

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA? Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA?
Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

As cruel as it is often deeply and artistically insightful. The brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or pulled into their own psyches. This idea of being genetically dysfunctional hoovers over the brothers. While it is often very angry and dark, it is also somehow always funny. The Mend feels a bit like a French film in the way it applies intellectualism and unexpected comedy. The film also has no problem of utilizing an often off-kilter style that doesn’t seem to match the content. Yet as we follow the eccentric narrative of these two broken men, the obscure stylistic leanings begin to make sense.

The Mend automatically lends itself to repeated viewings. Ideas and scenes haunt the viewer long after seeing the film for the first time. The second viewing offers a more firm understanding of what we have already seen. This is not a flaw. This is a brilliant move by Magary. There is nothing surface or easy about this smart film. So much is presented that it is hard to take it all in.

Giving an e-cig a run for it's money. Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

Giving an e-cig a run for it’s money.
Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

What could have easily turned out to be yet another in a long line of familial dysfunction and tormented boy-men who refuse to grow up, is actually a brutally realistic glimpse into the human instinct to survive. It is this same survival instinct that trips our two lead characters up as they each realize that they want so much more from life than what they are receiving. While each comes to realizations, it is unclear if either has the ability to escape each other or even their respective selves. Cynical but never satirical or unrealistic, these two brothers know they are sick and getting sicker, but getting well is easier discussed than achieved.  This movie works brilliantly.

A man on the verge... Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015. The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A man on the verge…
Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015.
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

The Mend is still new enough to be seen before it reaches full Cult Film status. However you better hurry or you will be joining the party late.

I realize I should end this rambling post on positive note. I could easily discuss Alejandro Jodorowsky, Slava Tsukerman, John Waters, Andrzej Zuławski, The Coen Brothers, The Brothers Quay, Ed Wood, Peter Greenaway or Terry Gilliam. But instead I would like to turn my attention to the ultimate in my favorite type of Cult Film: The major studio cinematic error and the film that most best embodies the endless possibilities of its results. Yes, I must discuss the demented alchemy of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest.

"I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt." Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level... Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981

“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”
Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level…
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981

Shortly before the movie premiered, Faye Dunaway gave a couple of interviews in which she explained that she felt as if the spirit of Joan Crawford had possessed her. At that time one thought this was just an actor marketing her latest film. Who could have known that there was more truth to Ms. Dunaway’s statement than anyone could have imagined. Unless you are old enough to have sat in a crowded cinema during the first several days that Frank Perry’s legendary Mommie Dearest, you have no way of understanding the way in which this film hammered its way into the film viewing experience. I was still somewhat new to being a teenager as I sat next to my mother watching this doomed movie unspool.

"The meanest mother of them all..." Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

“The meanest mother of them all…”
Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

It was jarring, odd and it often almost scary. There were smatterings of laughter, but mostly it was a communal jaw-dropping two hours of shared confusion. Mommie Dearest is essentially an epic cinematic error. Constructed in a clumsy manner with dialogue more fitting for a bad 1940’s melodrama and almost all of it delivered with mind-numbing bad performances.

There is a major exception to the bad acting.

That exception is Faye Dunaway. Stuck in a mediocre script better suited for an ABC Made-for-TV Movie of the Week and being led by a director who was clearly in over his head — Dunaway delivers one of the most memorable film performances of all time. That might sound like a good thing, but this is a performance beyond unrestrained.

Part impersonation mixed with passion, theatrical by the way of Kabuki Art and fused with a level of adrenaline that would have killed most athletes — Faye Dunaway goes to a place I’ve never seen another actor go. Fearless and with no net, this is an operatic show of force that threatens to melt the film on which it was captured.

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway's performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net. Faye Dunaway Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net.
Faye Dunaway
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

This transformative take on one of the most iconic movie stars to ever splatter on the screen, Faye Dunaway’s take on Joan Crawford is all persona and moves itself into what can only be called Avant-garde Performance Art. Sure it is funny to watch, but there is an artistic spark here that simply does not allow the audience to dismiss it. Faye Dunaway is more Joan Crawford than Joan Crawford could have ever hoped to be. There is no way this actor can fit nuance or even hint at vulnerability. This is a bold experimental sort of acting turn.

Dunaway is playing it legit, but totally untethered and constantly running it in high gear. And as she held onto balance in spike high heels, there was no net waiting to catch her if she fell. As campy as it gets, this is powerful performance. Her career would never recover. The damage was done, but this is the stuff of legend. Even all these years later, Ms. Dunaway continues to refuse to discuss this movie. And while this is a bit of a bummer, it also adds to this Cult Classic‘s credentials.

Pushing into it’s 35th year, Mommie Dearest remains a film that is impossibly entertaining and is forever cemented as the ultimate in Cult Film. Dialogue from this movie is firmly imprinted in the shared Pop Culture Brain. Wire hangers, rodeos and warning “‘Barbara, ‘PLEASE!” stay with us in darkly comic ways.

While John Water’s Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show might have created the concept of The Midnight Movie, there can be no doubt that this is most likely the most important example of a big budget mainstream movie gone so far off the rails it offers endless hours of viewing. It is fair to call Mommie Dearest a bad film? Yes, but there is no denying its power and entertainment. Sometimes a bad film can come around to a whole new definition of good.

A different kind of Chorus Line... The Rocky Horror Picture Show Jim Sharman, 1975

A different kind of Chorus Line…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jim Sharman, 1975

If cinema is as Fellini perversely defined it, an old whore, then I’m more than happy to get lost in the magic of an ever-evolving aged sex worker. Dim the lights and start the movie.

Matty Stanfield, 12.10.2015

 

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets -- there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway's iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets — there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway’s iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann