Video on: the cinema in David Bowie

The late Starman put us all inside his show.

Frances Morgan

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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

David Bowie slumps in an armchair and flicks on a wall of TV screens. He adjusts the sound with a mixer placed on a nearby drinks table next to a tray of liquor bottles and glasses; ignores the pleas of his lover to turn off the TVs and talk to her. Cartoon explosions, an Elvis movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, nature documentaries. Bowie’s face approximates pleasure and interest as if these are emotions he has heard about somewhere. Animated horses snicker and flicker and a lizard munches a fly. A fighter pilot prepares for attack. Bowie’s smile becomes a rictus. He writhes in his chair but can’t look away. “Get out of my mind, all of you!” he whines. “Leave my mind alone. Stay where you belong.”

Not a chance of that – and Bowie, stuck to his chair, captivated by the war and sex and death onscreen, knows it. As the unhappy alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, he succumbs to the terrestrial addictions of booze and television with a weary inevitability that both echoes and contradicts his own relationship to the moving image. Bowie’s performance in Roeg’s 1976 film is undoubtedly that of someone who knows what addiction is like, betraying the dissociative brittleness of heavy cocaine use. But his attraction to the screen was not that of the powerless subject, overcome by images and hypnotised by their promises. It’s not just because he is an inexperienced actor that you don’t believe him when he tells the images get back to where they came from. Bowie knows – even if Newton doesn’t – that the images are part of us and they’re not going anywhere.

Following the announcement of David Bowie’s death on 11 January, tributes soon appeared to the singer’s film appearances, celebrating The Man Who Fell to Earth alongside Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger, Labyrinth and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me, as well as his turn as Andy Warhol in Basquiat. Bowie’s role in establishing the music video as more than just a marketing tool was noted too. He was one of the early adopters of the form who also recognised its reinvigoration in recent years via YouTube and Vevo, announcing his final singles, Lazarus and Blackstar, with two highly produced, enigmatic videos that forefront science fictional narratives rather than the singer’s own performance. Sonically and structurally, Blackstar the album is indebted to the cinematic, epic turn evident in recent hip-hop, jazz and electronica by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington. Meanwhile Bowie’s shifting artistic personae – Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Nathan Adler – were seen as further evidence that this was a musician uniquely at home in front of the camera, playing multiple roles.

But Bowie’s instinct for cinema is more complex than his appearances on film suggest. It was not unusual for a rock star of his generation to make a film. It is the extent to which film made Bowie that makes his death such a loss to the medium. Bowie’s songs are, from his very earliest releases, highly cinematic. His position varies: sometimes he’s the actor, of course, but equally he’s the director, and most often the viewer. He writes songs not about what happens in a film, as his contemporary Scott Walker does in the relentlessly synoptic The Seventh Seal (1969), but what it’s like to see one or be one or want to be in one. The girl in 1967’s Maid of Bond Street, whose “cares are scraps on the cutting-room floor”, is just the start of it.

You could trawl Bowie’s lyrics for days and find many references to film and video, and references that sound like they should be but are apparently not (like Sons of the Silent Age, which, given that interpreting pop songs is an inexact science, I still like to think is ‘about’ the transition to sound film). His breakthrough single, Space Oddity (1969), is a five-minute drama with Bowie playing both Major Tom and Ground Control, obviously inspired not only by the Kubrick film the title makes a pun of, but space fictions more generally.

Basquiat (1996)

Basquiat (1996)

By 1971’s Hunky Dory there are songs that consider watching and thinking about film, and its use in art. Most famously, Life on Mars? follows a lonely girl who’s “hooked to the silver screen”, listing all the things she sees on it. Its surreal lyrics and bombastic, widescreen string arrangement, which surges in at the song’s end as if to announce the credits, signal a relationship to popular cinema that’s both affectionate and critical. Already the images refuse to leave his mind: Garbo’s smile surfaces among the esoteric and Fascistic references in Quicksand, the second stanza of which begins “I’m living in a silent film.” Meanwhile the album’s tribute to Andy Warhol suggests that Bowie sees the artist as a kindred spirit – someone for whom blurring the boundaries between the real and the screen is necessary and compulsive.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Bowie, who was born in 1947, would be shaped by the medium that defined the twentieth century like no other. Yet he also belongs to a generation for whom the unifying activity of going to the pictures was about to be superseded by TV and for whom Hollywood’s dominance was fading fast. In Fetishism and Curiosity, Laura Mulvey recalls how “exchanges of fantasy criss-crossed the Atlantic, creating an intricate cat’s cradle during the years of Hollywood’s decline”. Again I can’t help thinking of Scott Walker, an American singing about Bergman and Amsterdam, and Bowie, a Londoner fascinated by America: both the emergent New York underground scene and the still monolithic popular culture of the US.

David Bowie performing Cracked Actor

David Bowie performing Cracked Actor

In 1973, Aladdin Sane pokes at its myriad fault lines with Cracked Actor, on which Bowie, himself not in great shape, channels a dissolute Hollywood star (the title was also used for Alan Yentob’s 1974 tour documentary); and the weird, sad, synthesised doo-wop of Drive-In Saturday, with its references to “the video-films we saw”. The 50s-styled song is set in a dystopian future whose subjects have to re-learn how to have sex from watching videos from the 1960s. As Chris O’Leary of the Bowiesongs blog writes, here Bowie predicts “that the 60s would be enshrined, in the following decades, as the unsurpassed height of glamour and sexual freedom”.

The song is notable for its ironised nostalgia, suggesting a history of an ephemeral form – video – in advance of the fact. Bowie’s preoccupation with film in his early career makes me wonder if he wanted to speed up the process by which a similar history would be created around pop music – if he in fact envied the manner in which film, as it supposedly declined, became mythological. If there is not exactly a violence in Bowie’s obsession with the visual, there is at least an understanding of its historical use as a means of control. In the mid-70s his widely reported statement that Hitler had been the “first pop star” revealed a fascination with totalitarianism’s visual aesthetics. Film and public spectacle were integral to the Nazi propaganda machine, and to rock and roll; Bowie’s twisted logic here conflates the two, reduces everything to performance. But this understanding of the importance of the visual spectacle to pop, even when expressed in inexcusably crass terms, was prescient. Emerging at a time when the old rules of showbiz performance were being rewritten to favour the ‘authentic’ figures of the singer-songwriter and the rock and roll band, Bowie opted for neither identity, instead assuming the role of an auteur.

The cinema’s ability to create and populate worlds was in keeping with not only Bowie’s numerous personae but also the discrete environments created with each successive album. 1974’s Diamond Dogs, a kind of abject re-imagining of Orwell’s 1984, was mooted to become a stage production and possibly a film; Bowie reportedly began to shoot test footage for it, but it came to nothing, and that was probably for the best. The suite of tracks Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing condenses an atmospheric mise-en-scène, a tense, driving action sequence and a bittersweet resolution into nine dazzling minutes: a song within a song that recalls the convention of a film within a film. “My set is amazing, it even smells like a street,” Bowie promises, his lyrics directives, all in the future tense: I will, you can, we will. It follows that the song itself actually sounds directed, not merely arranged (by this point, Bowie was able to hand-pick the best crews to realise his vision). Diamond Dogs was far from the only daft universe created on a concept album in the 70s, but it is one of the most thrillingly self-aware and thoroughly observed.

Although Bowie’s connection with David Lynch was not made until decades later, when he appeared as FBI agent Philip Jeffries in Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me (1992), his music throughout the 70s and 80s shares Lynch’s instinct for the subversive power of genre, in both pop music and popular cinema, which in Lynch’s case is demonstrated in meetings of film and sound that are melodramatic, awkward, sometimes horrific, sometimes hilarious, and often carry an unexpected emotional or psychic impact that can floor the viewer/listener who thinks they’re in on the critique and know what’s going on. Both artists are equally fascinated with cinema’s physical past and the fragmented future of the image, eventually coming to revel in its dematerialisation in their respective work in the 1990s and 2000s. I’m Deranged was not written for Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), but for 1995’s Outside, an album on which Bowie returned to his formula of combining then-new musical and sonic forms with fantastical world-building and characterisation. The concept behind Outside revolves around an investigation into grisly ‘art crimes’ committed by those in search of ever more extreme aesthetic experiences, and sees Bowie attempting some accordingly extreme sonics, albeit within the body of characteristically neat songs.

I’m Deranged is now inextricable from the Lost Highway’s credit sequence. “Funny how secrets travel,” Bowie’s voice drifts down a minor scale as the yellow lines and white headlights flash past to a distorted drum ‘n’ bass rhythm. The song is a harbinger of the adrenalised synthetic-industrial idea of film music that Trent Reznor, whose band Nine Inch Nails toured with Bowie at the time of Outside and who produced Lost Highway’s soundtrack, would go on to compose for The Social Network in 2010. And for once, the performer is visually absent. Following Bowie’s death, music critic Maura Johnston wrote that the singer, “through his use of eye-popping visuals in concert and on film, forced people to look at him as they listened, to take him in fully, watch as he shape-shifted in accordance with rhythms that were all his own, defying boundaries of gender and genre.” The Bowie of the new millennium made fewer of these demands, as if in acknowledgement that most music would soon be consumed via screen-based devices and we would not need to be forced to look at anything. In a TV clip from 1999 that’s been widely circulated this week, Bowie enthuses to a sceptical Jeremy Paxman about the internet. “We’re living in total fragmentation,” he says. “The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crash our ideas of what mediums are all about… that grey space in the middle is what the 21st century’s going to be about.”

In some ways this process of detachment and dispersal had started many years before. In 1977 Bowie released Low, which was recorded in Berlin and demonstrating the influence of kosmische bands such as Cluster. The album, on which Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno for the first time, engendered a more subtle approach to how sound and vision – yes, the headlines for this piece write themselves – could work together. Many of the tracks were written initially for the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell to Earth but, ironically, Roeg went with a more conventional score by John Phillips. For Eno, cinema has always been about mood rather than narrative, and Low’s instrumentals conjure ambiguous, evocative images of depopulated cities rather than a cast of characters or an emotional arc. Lyrics become fragmentary and dreamlike, flashing up sinister but ambiguous images in grainy black-and-white (“Don’t look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it”).

It is around this time that Bowie’s aesthetic stops reflecting films so much as it starts to seep into them. His directorial vision becomes less dictatorial, more shaped by the viewer, as film gives way finally to video and image-making is in easier reach. Here is the first Bowie fan on film, in Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979). The German version of Heroes plays out over the drab flats and rooftops of London as David Beames’s protagonist undertakes his own European existential odyssey down the M4 to Bristol. He is playing at Berlin-era Bowie, probably well aware that the Bowie he is playing at was playing at Wim Wenders, Fritz Lang, Rilke, Isherwood, Cold War espionage and queer intrigue.

Radio On (1979)

Radio On (1979)

To be a Bowie fan is often to feel oneself to be playing at something, becoming actor, camera, director and costumier in a collaboration between the listener and the artist. Many of us become fans precisely because his music allows for this inherently cinematic transformation of our surroundings, even after the need for this kind of escapism has passed.

The day his death was announced I went to see Le Mépris, which contains a quote that Godard misattributes to André Bazin: “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desire. This is the story of that world.” To some extent, all pop music does the same thing: it is about nothing if not the search a perfect state in which the world is in harmony with our desires. Bowie’s songs reassure you more than most that a belief in those harmonious worlds can be sustained even when their workings are revealed; perhaps even more so. That night I remembered watching Le Mépris almost 20 years ago, in the same cinema, and remembered how it felt to begin to piece together sound, image, text and self. As the lights went up in the auditorium, Starman was playing quietly, not Five Years, but still, it was cold, and it rained, and I felt like an actor.

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