Content notice: The following article discusses sex and sexual violence, AIDs, drug addiction, death and dysphoria. Some video links contain flashing lights. You can watch Liquid Sky in full here.
It’s not hard to grasp the concept of a faciality machine if you’ve ever used facetune, put on make-up, done drag. More and more we’re tasked with working at our faces on a micro level day to day. We assemble our faces from a palette of faciality traits, capturing the sheen of lip gloss or the suggestive depth of our cheekbones. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, regimes of power provide faces, or least parts of them, for us; by controlling faciality in this way, power can accept and reject, control and arrange different subjects according to its needs1. Is this face a man or a woman? Old or young? Black or white?
Faciality machines are not just technologies which operate on us, but processes which we participate in. We shop our faces, as Sophie puts it. [link contains flashing lights] In the music video ‘Faceshopping’, Sophie plays with her faciality machine for messy, screwy and flashy effects. A 3D model of her head stretches and folds into impossible shapes and substances; it falls to bits like sliced fiberglass; it inflates and deflates like a crumpling balloon; its melts into thick goo. Strobing images of make up wipes and wet skin underlie lyrics about being ‘real’, glibly rendered in Coca-Cola font. Sophie performs a kind of digital dandyism, in which she constructs her own reality by picking out endless new faces, a frenetic queer shopping spree which glitches out the faciality machine.
Heavy electronic beats, freaky special effects and queer aesthetics are subjects I want to consider here with reference to Salva Tsukerman’s 1982 film Liquid Sky. The film is a peculiar cultural relic, a cult classic which combines New York subculture, speculative fiction, sexploitation and a uniquely Soviet perspective. Tsukerman was born in Moscow in 1940, and travelled globally as film maker before coming to America to directa science fiction film which borrowed the aesthetics of queer New York subculture. Owen Heatherly has explained how the film expresses eccentric Soviet fascination with Americanism for his old blog Kino Fist. Here I want to talk about the film queerly, as a lost reflection of an alien subculture.
‘It’s just like Threepenny Opera!’ someone exclaims towards the end of the film. Except what we see seems nothing like Bertolt Brecht’s epic anticapitalist theatre. In the film, Anne Carlisle plays Margaret, a femmedrogynous fashion model in an other-wordy version of New York’s underground club scene. Carlisle also plays a gender-flipped counterpart to this character in Jimmy, a cynical fashion rival of Margaret’s who looks like Dorian Electra. Margaret’s life is thrown into confusion when tiny, hyper-hedonistic aliens land on her roof and infect her with the power to kill anyone she sleeps with in a crystalline burst of orgasmic energy. Meanwhile, an eccentric astronomer seeking extraterrestrial life talks about shrimp and starts a love affair, and people jerk stiffly about in empty warehouse clubs to tuneless electro-noise. The loose plot which unfolds resembles B-movie antics, but wrapped in a threatening atmosphere of sexual violence, drug addiction, AIDs and late nightlife fatigue.
If there is there is a common aesthetic shared by Liquid Sky and Threepenny Opera, then, it could be called the estrangement effect. Brecht designed theatre to throw the oddness, the novel historical nature, of current society into relief. Marxists concerned with science fiction have since argued this is the genre’s special function: SF presents us with the new and the strange in a way that we can conceptually grasp and apply to our own circumstances2. Here, I want to consider a sequence from the end of Liquid Sky with this in mind. I want to focus on the idiosyncratic style of the film, and so bring out what’s still relevant for a world where we are always faceshopping.
A fashion shoot crew crowds Margaret’s gloomy, post-punk-plastered apartment. Here, after an hour of wandering through miserable (and murderous) sexual encounters, the bystanders’ manipulative interrogation of her style finally drives her to abstraction. Bitchy make-up artists spat as they fiddle with Margaret’s wig, and a journalist with tape recorder in hand leans in awkwardly to coldly interrogate the model about her style. This is intercut with pics from the fashion shoot – which are in fact fire. She’s a chrome mime hanging in suggestive cruciform with a plastic-silk blue scarf drapes across her; the camera swoops to catch her in a winged orange and black dress as over-exposed skylights twirl across the frame; she eyes us moodily in blue against a sunset sky. Her make-up is all soft blooming colours against sharp lines which sculpt and cut her facial structure. Margaret’s invented style combines sparkly glam rock androgyny with harsh, abstract shapes and random New York street paraphernalia.
Meanwhile, the journalist pesters Margaret about her ‘tacky’ and ‘weird’ clothes; a vocoder in the soundtrack picks up and loops these hollow insults, producing a clipping, pitch-shifted electro track. Liquid Sky has been building to this freaky clash between the babbling judgements of the fashionable, the weird sheen of DIY aesthetics, and elctro-alien experimentation for an hour. (The shoot’s director punctuates the sequence by loudly toasting ‘America!’ from the blurry background, in a typical moment of off-kilter satire.)
The tension continues to escalate in a confusing and awkward way. The scene becomes a slow build up to a stiff sexual encounter between both of Carlisle’s characters, which is both dreamlike and pornographic in its thin dramatic motivation. A debate between bystanders about whether Jimmy or Margaret qualify as ‘Ms America’ turns into an argument about sexuality; this somehow ends up with everyone singing ‘Old McDonald’ at Jimmy to coax him into fucking his doppelgänger. Margaret seems to have been hollowed of her will; she bends quickly to the desire of the crowd, and implores Jimmy to hit her. He does, stiffly but violently, as she coldly stares him down, before he uncaringly positions her for a blowjob.
The sex and sexual violence in Liquid Sky are actually disturbing. This isn’t just bad porn or groaning, fleshy exploitation. There’s bad sex, beatings, and assault, and all are filmed with the same cold detachment. Bodies clamber over each other desperate and numb; there is no seditious pleasure, only miserable discomfort. Margaret may be anxious about ‘killing with her cunt’, but in many senses sex in this world is already creepily numbed.
There’s a suppressed AIDs metaphor in this film, which came out just on the verge of the American crisis. The aliens come seeking terrestrial heroin, but find an even greater pleasure in sex. It turns out that this hedonism is deathly however – something is being transmitted through the underground queer scene that endangers everyone. The metaphor remains obscure and confused, however. The deadly sexually transmitted infection is something monstrous and foreign, never pictured outside of tippy lights and colours. An awareness of the complex geopolitics and demographic politics of AIDs doesn’t really emerge from behind the special effects.
So, Margaret awkwardly rubs her face on Jimmy’s pinstripe trousers for the photographer. The crowd creepily implore Jimmy to ‘look at himself’, and the director holds up a mirror so that Jimmy can catch his own sneer in the mirror. The symbolism is direct, but strangely complex. The looming, shadowed face of the director watches us watch Jimmy watch himself fucking for the camera(s). Or, we watch Carsilse watching themself fucking themself. This is a mis-en-abyme of narcissistic desire. The flat spectacle of queer sexuality short circuits, folds up, implodes, and Jimmy melts into a haze of molten colour.
In some ways the commentary is all too familiar to us to who live always under the gaze of online visual culture: fashion, pornography, and the beauty industry are killing us with their demands to perform. (In fact, we are killing ourselves through performing.) But the cheap and freaky special effects, Carsile’s uncharismatic double-act and the film’s unpredictable late Soviet imagination combine into something that feels far from mundane today. The people and objects are so beautiful, strange and attractive, and yet we’re viewing them through a lens which can only appreciate them from a distance, as make-do DIY versions designed after eccentric fantasies.
The scene rattles on through unpredictable climaxes. Margaret’s housemate Adrian implores Margaret to fuck her to prove some point (about being alien? American? lesbian?). More violent clambering ensues, but now the crowd simply look on in confused silence. Like the unwitting fashionistas caught up in this impromptu alien death orgy, we’re simply agog, struck silent by the scene. Adrian too crumbles into crystal dust. Now Margaret is left, alone with everybody, to face herself.
A lathargic, clownish melody fades in as Margaret get backs up. The camera closes in on her; we watch from crowd’s viewpoint as she backs away, and begins to pull the plugs on various neon lights. She’s cornered and in a sense defeated; the sexual violence and public scrutiny seem to have flattened her will to desire anything different. She begins a monologue with the same cold tone she’s kept throughout the film: “Do you want to know what I am? I’m a killer.” She confronts herself as something murderous and abused.
As she crosses the room, she collapses a spotlight from the shoot; in close-up, we see crystals around the room catch its falling light. Earlier, the various men who are killed by Margaret’s sex collapse into flecks of crystal like this. These crystals are final twinkling reminders of the deadly desire which swirls around Margaret as she dims the lights for her final monologue. In a room full of mirrors, lights, cameras, and judgemental spectators, this glittering fall into darkness gives her a brief sense of seclusion. She has taken over the set.
Once the room is dark, she sits down at a make-up table, and we see her hand in tight close-up reach for a palette of luminescent face paint. A bright blue hand then reaches into a dark frame, before making a smear which reveals the bottom of a face in glowing blue. She begins to re-paint her faciality.
I find this imagery unexpectedly moving for a number of reasons. It’s loaded with emotion in a way that only a brilliant scene in a janky film can be – the whole sequence feels like a glistening moment of inspiration amongst the nonsense that surrounds it. The visual concept is brilliant: make-up, hair and clothes have been fusted with and minutely detailed throughout the film, but now we this face-work expressed in a strikingly abstract form. We see the faciality machine of the film in action: the process which combines planes of darkness and light to make a recognisable face in close-up. Camera, mirror, paint and trembling hand combine to demonstrate this process in streaks of shocking colour. The face becomes a touchscreen.
Margaret talks about how she was born in Conneticut, and told to wait for a Prince to come and take her to ‘deliciously boring’ barbecues with all the other princes and princesses; yet in moving to New York, she simply ends up waiting for another Prince in the of a talent agent. She is told to be fashionable, which means to be ‘as androgynous as Bowie himself’. The subculture which you escape to simply had its own acceptable faces to exchange for the old ones. You end up working as a waitress, insecure and stuck in the demands of yet another fantasy. Unusually for an underground science fiction film, cultural novelty and surprise here are muted, strained. There’s not hedonistic indulgence, only ambivalent fascination. The real advent of the new in Margaret’s life, being invaded by sex-seeking aliens, turns out to be a deadly trap.
In this sense, Margaret doesn’t escape from social control. Even as she takes the faciality paint into her own hand, she is telling the onlookers a story about how her struggle to liberate her desire fails:
How to be a woman? Want them to want you. How to be free and equal? Fuck women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom; men won’t step on you any more, women will.
The camera pans loosely across the silhouetted faces that continue to judge her. Margaret isn’t liberated or empowered by the end of Liquid Sky; she has simply fallen out of our cosmos, sent over the edge by a morbid alien sex drive.
This cynical frustration seems very contemporary. We are all well aware how queer subcultures can produce their own norms, their own constricted faciality, which can be all too easily picked up by the commodifying gaze on mainstream culture. Skinny, white, androgyny is a profitable costume to wear, and strictly maintained. An encounter with our commodified reflection leads back to the alienation which we were promised could be resolved.
In this sense, the film has a warm stream and a cold stream. (Ah desire! It’s icy then it’s hot as fire… [link contains flashing lights]) There’s quirky humour, zany special effects and jarring gaffs; but its world is also alienating and deflated. Tsukerman expresses his fascination with New York city and its inventive alien subcultures in this film, but also outlines a harsh critique of these alternative ideals. Liquid Sky as a whole is uneven, stiff, meandering. It’s a low budget attempt to retool the aesthetics of a niche section of American capitalism, and shows its lack of resources in production, though not imagination. And when Margaret sits down in front of the mirror, we have reached the eye of the duck. In a moment which is moving yet outside human emotion, beautifully colourful but full of shadow, she produces a strange new abstract faciality.
Instagram recently released a filter which uses facial (re)mapping technology to picture what you would like ‘as a man or a woman’. This is a binary faciality machine in the most obvious sense: the camera and live image editing program fix faces into the two genders. When a friend of mine showed me the effects of the woman-ing filter on her own face, I found it unnerving; she had grown her hair to shoulder length (from being bald) and every line in her face had been smoothed and raised into a flat pretty smile. Surely this was not a machine with much to offer for trans and queer people trying to renegotiate their selfhood in digital culture. Someone else put it to me that trans people (supposedly) have discovered themselves as trans through the app – suddenly you find you like how you look as a woman. I’m not sure if this means that the app offers a chance for excitement and joy on the part of the gender-non conforming, however. Apps, make-up, mirrors, and cameras can change your face in a way that opens up new ways of being. But this self-estrangement is also a giving of yourself to the screen, the mirror, the machine. Even as you sit down in front of the mirror, your face seemingly a void to fill with colour from your own hand, you still end up reciting a norm, a function, a style. We’re never really alone with our faces.
1 Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari, ‘Year Zero: Faciality’ in A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) trans. Brian Massumi, pp. 195 – 224.
6 See Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.