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My Rhythm Box

“Liquid Sky” director Slava Tsukerman on making one of the strangest feminist films of the 1980s.


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“Liquid Sky” is an early 1980s cult film like no other, one of those movies that some people hate, while others say it changed their life.

A psycho-sexual, sci-fi comedy filled with gender fluid characters, wild dialogue (“I kill with my cunt”) and set between No Wave and the start of the AIDS epidemic, the movie was ahead of its time with its own stylish, color-gel saturated look. I read that artist Keith Haring was scheduled to make sets at one point. The costumes by Russian Marina Levikova had an immediate influence on fashion and the minimalist soundtrack inspired electronic music trends.Not bad for a tiny cult film made by recent transplants from Russia.

The strange plot revolves around a New York woman played by Anne Carlisle with an androgynous New Wave look that surely inspired ’Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann (who's from Richmond). Carlisle, who plays Margaret as well as a male character named Jimmy, is raped by various men in the movie who are in turn killed during climax by an alien ship, or rather two paper dinner plates, hovering above Margaret's drug den apartment. You see, the aliens originally came for heroin from the Greenwich Village club kids, but found brain chemicals released during orgasm to be a better high … or something like that.

“Liquid Sky” ran for four years at the Waverly Theater (now IFC) in New York and was the most successful indie film of 1983. The movie was directed by Slava Tsukerman, a Russian Jew who had emigrated with his wife, Nina Kerova, who co-wrote the film with Carlisle and Tsukerman. It remains a cult classic today, having been rediscovered on blu ray and DVD and holding a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- an amazing feat in itself.

Style spoke with Tsukerman, who has been working on a “Liquid Sky 2” for a few years now, from his home in New York. His English was a little rough and the connection not great, but we did our best. This interview is edited for clarity and length.

Style Weekly: One of the first things you notice about this film is the minimalistic synth soundtrack. How did you compose this and what influenced you?

Slava Tsukerman: Well, there were no influences really because I had a strong idea what music I want. I wanted something primitive electronic, which would sound like circus music, like Fellini’s films, not traditional. Completely electronic, mechanical.

I tried to find electronic composers to do it, and I still have a big box of demo tapes. But I couldn’t get what I wanted from them. … I found a machine from a company called Public Access Synthesizer who would teach musicians to use their computer. … I love music all my life but never learned it. So they helped me feed [my] music into the computer. I knew very well what I wanted [laughs].

You’ve called the movie an “anti-fairytale,” did you also think of it as a feminist film?

Yes, I had in mind classic Hollywood stories, like Cinderella, but my model of Cinderella couldn’t find her Prince Charming, or only from outer space. Already the Spielberg film “Close Encounters” was made and there was already this feeling that people had lost their hopes to find heroes and were expecting something from outer space. So I took a semi-radical approach to this idea. I wanted to put all religions and myths of the time together.

Most of the extras from “Liquid Sky” were friends of Carlisle and casting director Bob Brady.
  • Most of the extras from “Liquid Sky” were friends of Carlisle and casting director Bob Brady.

There is a Soviet montage quality to “Liquid Sky,” was that from your education in Russia?

Well yes, I got it from my teacher Lev Kuleshov, who was a teacher of Eisenstein. I did not have much money, so I needed to use maximum artistic knowledge. … Before “Liquid Sky,” we had different science fiction low budget project in development (“Sweet Sixteen”). Casting director Bob Brady had a big group of students, Anne Carlisle was one of them. That film never happened. The production said there was no way the script could be made for half million, which is what our investor was prepared to spend. So I had to find another film. Anne started working with my wife, who needed help from someone good in English to work on the script. My wife had been working on a script about a woman who cannot reach orgasm.

I read that early on, you could not get into film school in Russia?

At this time in Russia, there was only one film institute where all the famous filmmakers were teachers and they had departments. For directors’ department, they were taking about 15 students a year from entire Soviet Union, Europe, Africa. It was a very anti-Semitic time, though many of the professors were Jews. … My parents and I wanted a higher education so I studied architecture and construction engineering for many reasons, but one was because that’s the education Eisenstein had. … I made my first 35 mm short [“I Believe in Spring”] which won first prize at a Russian national festival of amateur film and was released in theaters. I believe this was first Russian independent film released, back then they called it amateur, but there was nothing amateur about it. This was 35 mm film. At that moment you could not buy a good quality 16 mm camera in Russia. After that I became a student at film school. When you finished school, you couldn’t choose your job. They wanted us to work on science documentaries and educational films. I was sent to Moscow studio and I started doing films there that was a mix of genres and even used the biggest stars in Russia.

How do you view independent cinema today?

It’s much easier because of digitization, shooting is much easier. Much more people make films. Everyone has a pencil to write a book, but not everyone can write a novel. A good novel is even more difficult.

What do you tell young people who want to make films?

There’s nothing new about that, that’s always been the same. It’s very difficult. Only the people who really want it and are ready to sacrifice everything. A lot of talented people don’t manage to do it. In my life I know more people who became successful without talent, but persistence.

What is the current status of “Liquid Sky 2”?

We’re still working on this, I hope we’ll make it. I’m not very good with raising money, I hate this process. Anne Carlisle is going to be involved, we are now writing script together. Margaret is coming back to New York.

This event was originally scheduled to be a part of the James River Film Festival, which has been canceled. Some of the events may be rescheduled in the coming months, check for updates.

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