This excerpt from author Keith Banner’s blog 2 +2=5 gracefully expresses what the loss of David Bowie means: “Bowie was a weirdo that somehow found a way to make weirdness majestic, worth putting up with. Of course it’s January when David Bowie dies. Cold silvery light, frosted-hard glass, that sense of loss locking into place: roads, tree-branches, ditches, power-lines. He was silvery like that somehow, frosty; you didn’t know him, you just experienced his atmosphere. That’s exactly how I remember him. Just enough cold to make you shiver, just enough strangeness to make you feel scared, just enough glamor to make you understand, just enough video to freak you out. Once somebody like him goes, you get what he means, and it’s startling. You’ve depended on his strangeness to get you through. I have. Truly. Depended on David Bowie’s oddness and fearlessness and creepiness, his shapeshiftingness, his ability to disappear and reappear. It gave me hope. Gives me hope still. He pursued a swarm of off-kilter notions that turned into a kingdom.”
Bowie’s music is going to be covered for quite some time, but for this site, we will cover his second career as a celluloid actor. Apart from The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976),The Hunger (1983), and Labyrinth (1986), his films have not received the same kind of publicity and exposure as his music. Indeed, Bowie rarely spoke of his film acting, and repeatedly turned down roles that others competed for (he once rejected the role of a James Bond villain, saying with shrewd sarcasm, “I don’t want to get paid watching my double fall off a cliff for five months”). Although Bowie possibly considered his body of film work to be a dabbling in the medium, his screen persona was (to borrow that overused, suave cliche) chameleon-like. In sharp contrast to the cement tradition of everyone from Bing Crosby to Madonna, Bowie did not rest on his musical laurels or rely on his celebrity status to forge a zombie-like cinema rendition of his pre-existing persona. Indeed, Bowie is probably the pop music icon who has been most successful in establishing himself as a legitimate actor. His stage personality, as a reflection of his life, was restlessly birthed from a highly refined sense of the absurd and a razor-sharp perception of artistic trends. When he immersed himself in the medium of film, he did so with concentration and humble thoughtfulness.
Bowie’s first authentic performance of note was in Nicolas Roeg‘s cult classic The Man Who Fell To Earth. The film is vintage Roeg. Roeg was a more uneven director that his cultists are prone to admit, and The Man Who Fell To Earth presents an uneven landscape. Bowie’s persona as fashionably weird is in full throttle. It’s an inspired bit of casting. Like a certain populist myth, Newton (Bowie) is a wannabe planet savior, which requires chastity (Roeg and Bowie play cynical havoc with the Western notion of an androgynous deity). Newton is a pragmatic messiah who does not subscribe to any of that redemption language business. Rather, like a malnourished cockroach, he seeks water for his drought-stricken planet. Newton is far from infallible, developing a taste for white trash hotel maids, evil spirits, and the rituals of unfettered capitalism. Bowie is an additional facet of his Thin White Duke persona here and when he caves into sins of the flesh, Roeg, as per the norm, films it naturally. Roeg’s trademark fractured composition is perhaps at its most extroverted in this film, which opens doused in introverted pathos.
It would be easy to imagine that Bowie fulfilled a dream by co-starring with both Weimar legend Marlene Dietrich (in her last film) and Kim Novak in David Hemming‘s big budget German production, Just A Gigolo (1978). Unfortunately, the film was an expensive flop. Hemmings blamed the producers, who slashed it by nearly an hour. Later, the film was restored to its 147 minute glory, proving that the producers had been generous. Even the appearance of Nazis and Bowie as a derelict Prussian veteran cannot salvage this train wreck, which only Sydne Rome survived (barely). With his trademark glamorous sarcasm intact, Bowie summarized the film as “my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.”
Few who saw it can forget Bowie’s harrowing 1980 performance as Joseph Merrick (sans makeup) in the production of the play version of “The Elephant Man” which opened in Denver (clips are available on youtube). This performance inspired numerous establishment critics to start taking Bowie’s acting work seriously. In her review for the Denver Post, Barbara McKay wrote: “Bowie seems to have been sculpted to order for the role – his slight, angular body clearly defining Merrick’s distorted body. There are moments in Bowie’s movements that are stunning, particularly when he is rising, from the bath or from a chair, fighting the forces of gravity that seem to suck Merrick’s body to the ground. Bowie’s voice is flexible enough as he contorts it into Merrick’s halting, clicking, unnatural speech, shifting from the thin, hollow voice of an inquisitive child to the garbled, tortured sounds of a tricked, caged, animal… Elephant Man demands a more than ordinarily repellent anti-hero. Only that will emphasize Merrick’s immense emotional appeal and heighten the contrast between him and the normal world.”
Coming at the tail end of his famous “Berlin cycle,” Bowie’s next film role, as himself, was a considerable improvement over the 1978 Hemmings fiasco. Uli Edel’s bleak Christine F (1981), like the source material, is a harrowing descent into pedophilia, drug addiction, and degradation circa 1970s Berlin. Despite being top-billed, Bowie’s role is brief. It was an effort by the producers to draw in the star’s built-in fan base. It didn’t work for feel-good craving American audiences, but was a huge hit in West Germany.
Bowie’s next appearance was in a 1982 BBC Television Movie adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” which received mixed reviews from the few who saw it. That same year, Bowie sublimely narrated the Oscar winning animated short version of Raymond Brigg’s “The Snowman” and provided the hip theme song for Paul Schrader‘s remake of Cat People.
Bowie’s next big screen appearance was in Tony Scott’s hyper-slick The Hunger (1983). Mainstream critics dismissed it as late-night MTV masquerading as a movie. Regardless, it developed a cult following and belatedly lead to a spin off series (1999-2000), which Bowie hosted, despite his unhappiness with Scott’s finished film. Buried under a mountain of old age makeup, Bowie is charismatic in an all-too brief role. The opening Bauhaus song “Bela Lugosi Is Dead” and the erotically charged scenes between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon made this thinly-disguised, glacially-paced reworking of Daughter Of Darkness (1971) appealing to the Goth subculture.
Bowie took on the lead role in Nagis Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). The actor gives a remarkably direct and adventurous performance in this ambitious, masochistic variation on Bridge On The River Kwai (1957). Although the film received a mixed reception and did poorly at the box office, Bowie’s work was widely praised.
Bowie had back-to-back cameos in the dismal Monty Python effort Yellowbeard (1983) and the even worse Into The Night (1985, directed by perennial hack John Landis). Thankfully, the actor scored wonderfully with one of his best musical works for Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986). Bowie had worked previously with the MTV video director and does well personifying an innovatively eccentric variation on jazz maestro Gil Evans’ palette. While lacking the depth of the Colin Macinnes cult novel on which it is based, Temple’s highly stylized opus has become a cult favorite, aided considerably by Bowie’s delightfully dark-hued thesping.
Less understandable is the more expansive cult status that has surrounded Jim Henson’s‘s Labyrinth (1986). Written by Terry Jones, directed by Henson, and executive produced by George Lucas,Labyrinth feels more the influence of its producer, which is not necessarily a good thing (although, Lucas was at least aware that Hensons’s strength was not in directing). By this time, Lucas had gotten lazy, which is painfully obvious here. Bowie is charismatic as the dreaded goblin king and the iconography that followed his performance is to be expected, even if the film itself is a lesson in unimaginative, paint-by-number tedium.
In sharp contrast, Bowie delivered a brief, often overlooked performance in Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988). As Pontius Pilate, Bowie frighteningly and stoically sums up the tents of imperial capitalism and corporate Christendom when he tells an outcast Nazarene beggar/rebel: “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.”
Richard Shepherd’s The Linguini Incident (1991) was barely released, despite a prismatic ensemble cast including Bowie and Rosanna Arquette. The actors received the only good notices, despite complaints about their pronounced eccentricities. The film remains obscure, never having been released in any home video format.
David Bowie and David Lynch would seem a match made in cult heaven, but Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) was booed at Cannes and some fans of the series inexplicably hated it. The film flopped and created a sea of controversy, but all the hubbub about Lynch’s self-indulgence now seems curious. Bowie’s role as southern fried agent Jeffries was brief, but was expanded upon in the 2014 Blu-ray box set. Understandably, the actor long expressed pride in his creepy contribution.
Bowie was ideally cast as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996). Being a painter himself, Schnabel (debuting as a director) was probably the best choice for a film about his late friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bowie delivers a shimmering, cool-toned performance that is an essential, full-of-surprises experience (as much Picassoe-sque harlequin as pop art maestro).
It was inevitable that Bowie would appear in a western. It is equally predictable that Il Mio West (aka The Gunslinger’s Revenge), directed by Giovanni Veronesi, could hardly stand as a model of the genre. Low budget, low-keyed, and lethargically paced, Bowie’s personality is submerged in his portrayal of a chilling, silvery rapist. Although flawed and hard to find, this experimental independent film is worth exploring.
Andrew Goth’s B.U.S.T.E.D (1999) is an equally, unorthodox, low-key indie, but this British gangster drama falters, despite a commendable supporting performance by Bowie as a drug runner.
Refusing to establish any kind of screen pattern, Bowie shifted gears again in Mr. Rice’s Secret (2000), sweet family fare from Nicholas Kendall concerning Magic and terminal illness. Cast in another supporting role, Bowie blends well with the Canadian milieu.
Ben Stiller’s cringe-inducing Zoolander (2001) can only be taken as a post-911 tonic, and for Bowie’s scene-stealing Judge.
A massive heart attack, a quadruple bypass, and a slow recovery kept Bowie off-screen for four years. He returned to television with mixed results, appearing in the much panned “Nathan Barley” (2005) and the highly praised “Extras” (2006). Bowie’s small role as veteran magician Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan‘s heavily plotted The Prestige (2006) earned the actor critical attention. It certainly helped to be surrounded by a sky full of electrical currents.
Increasing health problems limited Bowie to two final film appearances, although only one would qualify as an authentic performance: the old money capitalist in Austin Chick’s August (2008). Bowie’s performance is the sole spot of color in a drab pastiche.
Bowie departed the big screen in a whisper of a cameo (as himself) in Todd Graff’s Bandslam (2009). Although harmless, it was hardly an ideal coda. For that, Bowie instead left us the newly released album “Blackstar.” Hollywood never knew what to do with Bowie and he, in turn, didn’t need any of that tinsel town shit. Instead, he primarily experimented in the indie scene, and when that well inevitably dried up, Bowie turned to his best resource: himself. But that was always the case.
To experience Bowie as a crooning, symbolic freak flag, paradoxically generating warmth and hoisting the danger ahead sign, we have Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, and his “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” duet with Bing Crosby, filmed for an annual Christmas special. It is telling that this thing of beauty, which will outlive both its participants, proved to be an object of provocation. In December 2003, I was working at a jewelry store in a mall when we received instructions, via the mall owners, to remove the duet from our in-store playlist. When I inquired into the reason, I was informed that the mall owners felt that the song, performed in 1977 (during a time of peace), could be mistakenly seen as a lack of support for the Iraq invasion. Similarly, a replica of Picasso’s “Guenrica” was covered with black cloth when George Bush’s ambassadors visited the United Nations to sell the president’s war. Bowie, Crosby (of all people) and Picasso penetrating national consciousness. Oh my.
There were, of course, critics who claimed that Bowie lost his relevance in the 80s, that he had shot his wad in the 70s, ending with the album “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” By his own admission, following the megahit album “Let’s Dance,” Bowie went through his “blonde pop star phase.” The success of that album had taken him by surprise and, like any worthwhile entertainer, he felt obligated to his new, larger audience. That obligation was brief, but even in his lowest outings, there was always something worthwhile to retain (case in point being the beautiful title track to the critically panned 1987album ‘Never Let Me Down,’ which was an emotionally charged tribute to John Lennon, whose murder Bowie mourned for the remainder of his life). The 90s represented a decade of experimentation, and while he never again attained the aesthetic high or productivity of his Berlin trilogy (“Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger”), missteps were no greater than twenty years before.
The early 2000s were a sort of renaissance for Bowie with the excellent albums “Heathen” and “Reality,” and just when we thought he had vanished after a ten-year absence in the music scene, Bowie re-emerged with the album “The Next Day” in 2013. Accompanying that was the video of the Steve Reich remix of “Love Is Lost.” It stood with some of his best work in the music video medium (“DJ,” “Ashes, To Ashes,” “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”). Even more shocking was the release of “Black Star” so soon after “The Next Day.” A trio of videos were released in conjunction with his 2016 album, including “Lazarus,” which we soon tragically discovered was Bowie’s epitaph. Curating his own exit, Bowie dies as an artist—chilled and visceral, remaining authentically cryptic, unsettling us, enigmatically inching his way into sainthood.
Forty-five years earlier, Bowie sang: “And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” Bowie was our anthem, our spiritual brother and aesthetic barometer, reflecting our wounds, our sexual ambiguity, our quirkiness, our profundity, our superficiality, our angry protest against the puritanical status quo, and even our self-destructiveness. Banner writes of the music from Bowie’s Berlin period: “You can’t escape their importance, nor their interstellar drag, a music that defines a secret era through saturation and slurred loveliness. It’s the late 70s and very early 80s, but also it’s just Bowie: disco refashioned into robotic trance, punk recalibrated into thoughtfulness, rock’s warmth and stir disconnected and rewired into beautiful crooned terror. It’s the kind of music so connected to life it feels foreign to it; you just want to ride inside the spaceships he’s made, close your eyes, find that planet of ladies rubbing lipstick off their faces, the planet of furious D.J.s and harlequins entrancing bulldozers.”
In “Lazarus,” we witness Bowie sinking with sacramental honesty: “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings from his deathbed. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Look up here, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose. I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl. Dropped my cell phone down below. Ain’t that just like me?”
RIP David Bowie (1947-2016)
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