Revisiting a Cult Classic of Russian American Sci-Fi, Four Decades Later

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Anne Carlisle plays Jimmy and Margaret in Slava Tsukerman's cult-classic sci-fi film, 'Liquid Sky.' (Slava Tsukerman)

When Slava Tsukerman and Nina Kerova left the Soviet Union and arrived in New York in the late 1970s after a brief stint in Israel, they struck up an unlikely friendship with model Anne Carlisle. The androgynous it-girl, who was in ads all over the city at the time, was more than a decade younger and became the immigrant filmmaker couple’s in to the punk and New Wave scenes percolating downtown.

Carlisle went on to co-write and star in Tsukerman’s cult-classic film, 1982’s Liquid Sky, which Kerova also co-wrote and produced. The surreal, neon-lit thriller is swimming with Reagan-era anxieties about sex, drugs, queerness, youthful rebellion and aliens, and was considered one of the most successful independent films of the time, even though it’s now relatively obscure. (Warning to potential viewers: Liquid Sky contains several scenes that depict rape and sexual violence.)

Although not explicitly about Russian-American relations, the film facilitated some interesting, only-in-New-York cultural intersections. Production and costume designer Marina Levikova came up with the characters’ color-rich, avant-garde outfits on a $500 budget, with D.I.Y. skills she learned while growing up exiled with her family in a prison camp near the Arctic circle. Her teachers there were some of the former Soviet Union’s top-tier artists, who were also imprisoned during Stalin’s brutal regime.

At the time of Liquid Sky’s release, music videos were a newly popular art form, and Levikova’s costume work in Liquid Sky earned her production and costume gigs for David Bowie and Nile Rodgers, and illustration jobs for Dior and Yves St. Laurent. (Levikova had almost convinced Keith Haring to create a backdrop for the film, but she’s said in interviews that the artist wasn’t interested in making work that he’d have to destroy the next day.)

Meanwhile, her husband and Liquid Sky cinematographer Yuri Neyman was responsible for some of the film’s analog special effects (Carlisle played female and male characters, Margaret and Jimmy, who appeared together via a very old split-screen technique). Neyman went on to teach at SUNY and UCLA, and co-founded the Global Cinematography Institute.

For Tsukerman’s part, he continued his film career with Stalin’s Wife, a documentary about the dictator’s spouse’s untimely death, and the post-Soviet immigrant drama Perestroika.

We, Monsters novelist Zarina Zabrisky interviews the director about Liquid Sky on Nov. 13 at 12pm in a virtual event presented by Globus Books, San Francisco’s only Russian bookstore. The interview will be available on Globus’ YouTube channel. The film itself is only for sale on Blu-ray and DVD, and can also be found on YouTube.