I remember clearly the impression that Slava Tsukerman'sLiquid Sky (1982) had on me when I first saw it in 1987 (back in those pre-DVD and Internet days, underground cultural artifacts travelled a bit slower...). It was a thrilling experience and it looked like nothing I had ever seen before.
A 'sci-fi' firmly entrenched in the New-Wave/Post-Punk scene of early 80s New York, it is a visual fest of early video graphic effects, Warholian bad acting, performance art and lots of bored posing. One way to describe it would be that it looks like a long photo shoot for the now defunct Face magazine in its infancy. As a time-capsule film, it evokes the period when Klaus Nomi became a star, Laurie Anderson was a semi-pop star and dressing up meant looking like an alien. Yet, in retrospect, despite the nihilistic surface of the film, the historic moment in which Liquid Sky belongs looks a lot more fun and innocent than the speedy post-Y2K era.
Made on a budget of half a million dollars, "it would be laughably bad if it weren't so good" as Jeff Vorndam wrote back in 1999 on AboutFilm.com in connection with a rare screening at the 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival. Starred by the impossibly beautiful Anne Carlisle, who also plays a male character, the absurd story revolves around aliens arriving in a what seems a plastic flying saucer, landing on the rooftop above the flat occupied by a young model called Margeret (Carlisle), who everyone wants to have sex with. As it happens, the aliens (who of course we never get to see) had come to Earth searching for heroine, but it turns out that the chemicals released by the brain during orgasm are even better, so Margeret partners start to disintegrate when they reach climax. This is signified by a crude 'vintage' effect whereby they are blipped off the screen, not before we get to see a crystal shard sticking out from the back of their heads.
There isn't much point in describing the storyline - the narrative is a composed of rather seamless sequences hinged around Margeret's alien connection. But there is a pivotal moment towards the end of the film when Margaret gives oral sex to the David Bowie look-alike junkie Jimmy (also played by Carlisle), one of the most original filmic allusions to the myth of Narcissus. But the reason that the film stays in the memory, and the one that has turned it into an underground classic, is the sheer visual pleasure it offers, the outrageous costumes, Carlisle's unforgettable screen presence and Liquid Sky's intriguingly catchy and poetic-sounding title.
The mobile phone revolution makes inroads into moving image-making. NPS Korte Film Online and the International Film Festival Rotterdam this year have created the One Take Competition. All directors present at the festival have been invited to participate in this experiment during the first five days. The task was to make a film in one, single take with one of the newest generation mobile phones.
Here's another example of how the documentary format currently often offers more than fiction as far as drama and humanism are concerned. Werner Herzog's much lauded Grizzly Man arrives in the UK after international acclaim and it's bound to please fans of the veteran German director who began his career with the New German cinema of the 1970s. Herzog has always been fascinated by individuals with an obstinate sense of mission in the middle of nature and Grizzly Man fits right in Herzog's vast oeuvre, which includes classics like Fitzcarraldo and Aguire: The Wrath of God. But what is most impressive is that he managed to make a film completely his own despite the fact that Grizzly Man was assembled out of video footage shot by the man who is the subject of the film, except for a few segments shot by Herzog himself. He showed with this film what a good director with a sense of integrity can achieve with even an amateur source.
Grizzly Man is Timothy Treadwell, on the surface quite a typical American blonde dude who, after a failed attempt at acting - he used to say he lost the part in the sitcom Cheers that went to Woody Harrelson - proclaimed himself the guardian of the grizzly bears of the Katami National Park in Alaska. For eleven years, up to his death in October 2003, Treadwell would camp out in the park to 'protect' and study the bears that became his reason to live. He become a minor celebrity in the process, the subject of a Discovery Channel series and even appeared in the David Letterman show as a guest. During those years he shot over 100 hours of footage.
Because of the unpredicted outcome of Treadwell's ursine saga, what we see is a very uncensored presentation of himself, often ranting, babbling and indulging in his puerile, Disneyfied vision of nature. Herzog constructed the film in such a way to create a compassionate portrait of a man. The film inspires sympathy and Treadwell's seeming lunacy comes across as a synthesis of modern misanthropy and discontent with the world as it is. The Western world is full of Timothy Treadwells and this is what makes this film so compelling as well as poignant.
Clearly, Herzog was not interested in exploiting the memory of a man who met a gruesome death in the hands of one of the animals he sought to protect; he was more interested in this man's symbolic search for communion with nature, which achieves a disastrously ironic culmination when gets devoured by a bear desperate for food before hibernation.
Extremely humane and impartial, Herzog comes across as a compassionate director with a philosophical clarity about the relationship between nature and man. It's a very eloquent film, full of unforgettable imagery and meditations on our place on this planet. In two words: utterly relevant.