Our waning victimary era has been boundlessly indulgent toward crude renditions of resentment from those it identifies as oppressed. A recent example is Girls’ Town (1996), where a band of friends, led by the ineffable Lili Taylor, “empower” themselves by spraying graffiti and trashing the car of an abusive boy-friend; Leonard Maltin praises these resentful fantasies as “painfully unsentimental.”
Yet properly formalized expressions of resentment can go much farther than car-trashing. I recently saw on cable Liquid Sky, a low-budget production that, I was astonished to learn, dates from 1982-83. This bizarre but beautiful film, the unique work of its director (Slava Tsukerman), is an elaboration on “Pirate Jenny”‘s song in the Threepenny Opera, the source of the key phrase of Chronicle 1 : sie wissen nicht mit wem sie reden [they don’t know whom they’re talking to]. In this hotel maid’s song, a warship arrives in the harbor and shells the city as she presides over the execution of all its inhabitants (“Hop-la!”); the ship then departs with her on board. In Liquid Sky, the ship is replaced with a UFO. The use of science-fiction in this film confirms the thesis advanced by Markus Müller in his recently completed doctoral dissertation (see his “Reconsidering the Fantastic: An Anthropological Approach” in Anthropoetics II, 2) that the fantastic is a mask for human violence. Aliens don’t kill people, people kill people.
Here is a plot summary of Liquid Sky written for the Internet Movie Database (us.imdb.com) by Marty Cassady (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Invisible aliens in a tiny flying saucer come to Earth looking for heroin. They land on top of a New York apartment inhabited by a drug dealer and her female, androgynous, bisexual nymphomaniac lover, a fashion model. The aliens soon find the human pheromones created in the brain during orgasm preferable to heroin, and the model’s casual sex partners begin to disappear. This increasingly bizarre scenario is observed by a lonely woman in the building across the street, a German scientist who is following the aliens, and an equally androgynous, drug-addicted male model. (Both models are played by Anne Carlisle, in a dual role.) Darkly funny and thoroughly weird.
The aliens manifest themselves only in the distorted vision of their “eye,” as revealed through brilliant low-budget special effects (it’s a lot cheaper to modify the image in the camera than to photograph large-scale models a la Titanic). Margaret, the main Carlisle character, is a girl from an upper-crust (“Mayflower”) background whose terminal boredom with family expectations of marriage and barbecues has led her to the City and thence to drugs and bisexuality. In the first scene that gives a picture of her passive, resentful personality, she is raped after being lured back to the penthouse apartment she shares with her lower-class drug-dealing girlfriend “Adrian” on a false promise of cocaine. The next sexual sequence, with her former professor-lover, ends with the death of her orgasmic partner. The professor (professor of what? this is the comic-strip world of professors without departments) does not “disappear” as per the summary, but is killed by what appears to be a long glass shard through the back of his skull; the same is the fate of her succeeding partner, a drugged-out writer.
The sci-fi explanation may be “weird,” but it clearly follows the principles of the fantastic transformation of mimetic desire. If the aliens are seeking the pheromones of orgasm, they won’t find them in Margaret, who is sexually indifferent to the men she copulates with. After the second death, she addresses the aliens as friends. Realizing that sex with her is deadly, she begins, as she puts it, to “kill with her c…,” seducing and dispatching her “male” double-rival and finally the rapist of the first scene. On the way, she also regretfully disappears her street-tough roommate, who insists on having sex with her despite its obvious danger.
Margaret’s last kill owes nothing to aliens or to magic powers; she stabs the German scientist in the back after he goes to her apartment to warn her of the dangerous aliens. In the final scene, we watch her through the eyes of two “straight” women climbing onto (and above?) the roof during the departure of the flying saucer. She flutters in a kind of cosmic wind, but is not destroyed, and we are led to imagine that, like Jenny’s “ship with eight sails and fifty cannon,” the saucer has carried her off in some new and unimaginable form.
The brilliantly eerie music and psychedelic images convey the heroine’s resentful imprisonment in endlessly repeated simulacra. Her roommate Adrian (played with raw power by Paula Sheppard), who recites a chilling poem over the dead body of Margaret’s professor-lover, exudes a fully believable ferociousness. That it is passive Margaret rather than tough Adrian who survives, killing off in the process all the masculine characters including Adrian herself, reminds me of one of my favorite movie moments, the conversation in Visconti’s The Damned (La Caduta degli dei) between the macho SA-man and his decadent-artist cousin who has joined the (victorious) SS. The latter informs his soon-to-be-dispatched interlocutor that real power lies not in self-indulgent bluster but in the icy submission of one’s will to a higher necessity. What the Führer is for the SS-Man and the pirate ship for Jenny, the aliens are for Margaret: a force outside herself that realizes, better than she could hope to herself, her own resentful desire.
What is it that inscribes the deaths of Margaret’s lovers within an esthetic experience where the car-trashing is mere barbarity? What allows the stylization of resentment to reveal rather than disguise its violence? Are we merely dupes of the “narcissistic” image, or does this image have its own truth to reveal to us?
The hoary esthetic paradox that the ugly repels us whereas its artistic representation satisfies us is resolved as soon as we reformulate it, as all esthetic questions should be reformulated, in the ethical terms of the originary hypothesis. To defer through representation the ethically ugly, that is, the violent, is to perform culture’s essential function.
But “representation” is not a simple given. To represent the collective trashing of a car as a form of valid self-assertion, drawing us in from timid kicks and scratches to the “courageous” heaving of a cinderblock through the window, is to invite us to join the ugly mob. To find this esthetically valid reflects, if not simple moral degeneracy, then submission to PC (which is a second-level form of moral degeneracy). One turns a blind eye to the formal parallel between these girls and a lynch mob from fear of appearing to condone the sexual abuse for which their act is presented as retribution. Such “revolutionary” attitudes provide a poor basis for art–and, as our century has abundantly taught us, an even worse one for politics.
In Liquid Sky, despite our sense that genuine and understandable emotions of hatred are being conveyed, our participation in them as desire-objects is never justified or explained away. On the contrary, the “fantastic” deaths become increasingly voluntary, leading up to the quasi-murder of the rapist, and Margaret’s alibi disappears altogether at the end when she kills the German scientist. The latter is Margaret’s “double,” and her superior in his lack of hedonism; he is able to deliver his warning only because he has steadfastly resisted (in a schlock-comical sequence) the advances of a lonely woman, the mother (?) of the “male” model, from whose apartment he observes the flying saucer and deduces the activities of its alien inhabitants. In murdering this innocent truth-teller, the heroine assumes full responsibility for the previous deaths as projections of her desire.
I am not claiming that the spectator does not “identify” with Margaret. To show us an esthetic image is by definition to propose it to our desire and thereby to construct ourselves as its subject . But identification is not irresponsible participation. Margaret’s revenge, like that of Pirate Jenny, is something we are made to understand, even to sympathize with, but we experience resentful desire as destructive of the self rather than therapeutic of it. Margaret’s final disappearance is not apotheosis but annihilation as a human being.
The final ambiguity as to whether she is really on board the ship brings this home. In the real world, there are no violent aliens, only resentful alienation. The film figures the latter by means of the former; this is the structure of all fiction. But it cannot figure the paradoxical transcendence of the human to which resentment ultimately aspires. The UFO can only exist in relation to the human world; to represent it as a utopia where Margaret can realize her true desire would deprive the film of all moral seriousness. Liquid Sky becomes a work of art by resisting the temptation that all art must resist: the fall into an imagery of mass resentment that prettifies participation in the sparagmos.
The ultimate figure of resentment, like that of divine love, is disappearance from the human world. The transcendent universe of signs as the end of our desire takes us beyond the human. Artworks that realize this going-beyond of all imagery reproduce humanity’s originary construction of a formal sign of the Being that we cannot possess–that, as the Mosaic tradition reveals in its interdiction of “graven images,” we cannot even figure without destroying ourselves through mimetic violence. Liquid Sky‘s “weirdness” is the sign under which it faithfully performs the function of all art: to demonstrate that the figuration of this violence is at the same time the de-figuration of the self that would embody it.