And 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 that David Bowie himself.
And they call me beautiful.
And I kill with my cunt.
This is a very unhappy movie. Russian/Israeli director Slava Tsukerman’s vision of the New York underground reminds me of a Victorian anthropologist coming to terms with an island full of cannibals. While often referred to as a punk rock movie, this assessment isn’t accurate. It’s a forerunner of a fashion/music trended termed New Wave. This aesthetic impulse was the final iteration of commercial culture that attempted a breakout from conventional paradigms, only to find there was nowhere to go. Heavily influenced by the dehumanization of modernism and the delusions of postmodernism, this movie takes viewers through the nightmare underworld of a culture desperate for innovation, yet only succeeding in alienating people from their art as well as one another. And, it contains one of the coolest science fiction concepts I have encountered.
First, let’s do the trigger warnings. This movie is deeply embedded in the culture of addiction and the main protagonist Margaret (played beautifully by Anne Carlisle) is the subject of repeated nonconsensual sexual encounters. I am not a big fan of rape scenes, particularly when they are presented as a lame excuse for titillating nudity. That is not the case here as the scenes seem to be symbolic of the manner in which beauty itself has been raped by the modernist aesthetic. Interestingly, there’s no nudity in the film as all of the sex scenes take place with the participants fully clothed, almost as if they are simply vignettes pulled from the pages of the vacant fashion magazine that still adorn American shelves. While these scenes are not gratuitous from a nudity or violence standpoint, there is something authentic in the dialogue and blocking that make them very disturbing. But the movie rewards the viewer with moments of poetic insight, marking those moments where the mass culture shatters against its own drive toward novelty.
The film is about a flying saucer landing on a rooftop in New York. The aliens in this ship begin harvesting the dopamine produced in the human brain during orgasm and/or heroine highs. Carlisle’s portrayal of a fashion model named Margaret is inspired. She beautifully navigates the relentless, plodding universe of banging synthesizers and self-indulgent performance art. Her character begins the movie someone laconic, almost like a mannequin in a store window, then slowly blossoms into full-blown mania toward the climax of the film. Carlisle also portrays Margaret’s narcissistic, sneering, drug addict alter ego, Jimmy. While this is not the first movie to play around with androgyny, it portrays issues of sexuality and gender in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. It also imbeds these conversations in the aesthetics of market exploitation. Think of Project Runway on PCP after three days without sleep. The film is also worthwhile for a really memorable performance by Paula Sheppard who plays Margaret’s performance artist girlfriend Adrian. “I always wanted to fuck a dead body,” she says when the corpses begin piling up in their apartment. Their relationship is sick and tenuous, reminding us that, in this world, all human covenants are brittle.
There are aspects of the movie that modern viewers will find difficult to connect with. The pacing is steady and the lingering shots of the New York cityscape may not appeal to a contemporary sensibility. It should be noted that some of the acting in a couple of the subplots is wooden. Also, while Margaret is adorned like some exotic bird of paradise, many of the costumes in the clubs date the film. But, if you have ever wondered why the popular culture has reverted to endless repetitions of remakes, sequels and prequels of predigested narratives, this film gives you one answer. Humans can only innovate so much. When art is purely self-referential, it becomes a nightmare where people consume one another for nothing more than an orgasm. As a result, Margaret’s attempts to bring beauty to the world of steel and glass are met with violence and degradation. This was the nightmare underbelly of the New Wave, destined to be torn apart by an unholy alliance between modernism and individualism. At least Margaret finally finds her own means of transcendence, but at what cost? When there is nothing left to consume, one is left to devour oneself.
Rating: 4 Hits