In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
– Stephen Crane
By: Blandsford –
Today, at approximately 10:30 AM, I stood in front of a group of children, sixth graders, and promptly started crying. I told them not to look at me. David Bowie is Dead. Long Live David Bowie. He passed this week at the age of sixty-nine. Some context before we start… the last article I posted for this site was a 4,000-word appreciation of Wes Anderson. Time, distance, and a teaching career, along with the respectability it requires, have kept me from boozing to too many movies. I have kept up with the site, but have not had much heart, or time, to write. That changed today. Many words will be written about Bowie the musician, Bowie the icon, Bowie the pansexual demon prince. Fewer, I think, will be dedicated to the man’s screen presence, a presence that, while not terribly prolific, is still important. I, like many of you, first encountered Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and subsequently found a path to his music.
Incidentally, I am also now totally gay and 50% goblin. True Story.
From the time that I saw Labyrinth as a child, I became obsessed with Bowie. I named my car “Major Tom”, I owned a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt that basically rotted off after probably a thousand days of intermittent continual wear. My girlfriend at the time threw it away eventually without telling me. If I’m being frank, that was kind of the last straw. We broke up and I eventually came out of the closet. You heard it right (and I’m being totally sincere here, so please don’t misunderstand me): David Bowie taught me that it’s okay to be gay, even if he technically wasn’t, or was at least wishy-washy about it. David Bowie saved my fucking life. He probably saved the lives of a lot of gay men, if for no other reason than the fact that gay icons, from Lady Gaga to whoever the new Lady Gaga is, copied his style.
Jasper the Dog, like David Bowie, is now among the stars. The shirt is mouldering in the earth. I have a much gayer haircut. Que Sera!
If you don’t know Bowie, do yourself a favor and listen to his music. If you’re down, it will reassure you that it’s kind of fun and beautiful to be weird. That even if you really are alone, sometimes that’s a whole Hell of a lot better than being lonely with other people. If you’re happy… well… you can dance to a lot of it. This isn’t about his music, but about his screen presence. Bowie was also an actor, and a very fine one. While his IMDB biography is scant, the performances he did turn in are, without fail, utterly mesmerizing. These are seven of his best, or at least his weirdest… I will not be assigning beers, partly because I doubt Bowie drank beer and because I’m frankly too damned sad.
As Himself in Extras
Ricky Gervais walks into a bar, pays the exorbitant VIP charge, and then is promptly ripped to shreds through the power of song. Bowie was at his most powerful in small doses, looking sleek, playing piano, and generally always looking like he was having a good time. In college, this moment was huge for me, because somebody I admired (Gervais) found something for somebody I worshipped to do. Bowie is on screen for all of three minutes, but manages to sum up what it means to be a failure, mocked by everyone around you and desperate for attention. It is perhaps the funniest and saddest moment in a show that was full of such treasures. Bowie sounds amazing, by the way. If we must be humiliated and cut down to size, is there any better way to go about it than serenaded by a man who was, for all intents and purposes, a god? The thing about Bowie was that when he showed up on screen, he stopped things dead. One could not see him as a character, but always as Bowie playing a character. He seemed always most comfortable as himself, whoever he happened to be that day.
As Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ
Bowie might have been a Bond villain. He backed out of A View to a Kill because he didn’t want to spend five months watching a stuntman do his job for him, and because he’d rather spend five minutes on screen in a Martin Scorsese film. Here, Bowie, ever a reptilian enigma, plays the man who killed Christ. He’s beautiful in a toga, intelligent, searching. He embodies the man we think we know from scripture, not as a snivelling sycophant, but as an incredibly shrewd politician who desperately wants to show mercy but can’t given the circumstances. At one point, Pilate intones: “It’s one thing to want to change the way people live… but you want to change how they think, how they feel.” This perhaps sums up Bowie’s whole career, a man way out on a limb, daring everyone around him to be something else, something entirely more interesting. Sure, it was stunt casting, but it paid off. The point is that Pilate/Bowie is a mirror for Jesus, a man out of place, not of this earth, beautiful and terrifying.
As Nikola Tesla in The Prestige
It’s a quiet performance, posed against the (quite good) acting chops of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, but Bowie steals the show as a man who has looked into the abyss and then walked away. It’s his best performance: eerie, laconic, and chameleon. One gets the sense that the man is totally at home in this particular character, a human being who looks deep inside himself and the rest of the human race and doesn’t necessarily like what he sees. As the moral center of the story, Bowie excels; he looks tired, exasperated, and a little bored, a man who knows the price of genius. The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s best movie. This is in part because the casting is so spot on. There isn’t really a philosophy at work here, just a solid shaggy dog story with three haunted men at its center, all eventually horribly surprised at what they could do with their minds.
As Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
That somebody with a lot of money once looked at David Lynch and said: “Here’s a lot of money. Go make a TV show. Have fun… oh that didn’t work out? Here’s some more money. Go make a movie” should be cause for great comfort. I teach at a magnet for highly gifted kids and this is the sort of thing that many of them hope for: carte blanche to go do something supremely weird with their weird friends. Two very gifted people once spent some time together on the set of this film, seemingly for no other purpose than to amuse themselves. Bowie appears briefly here, as a man who looked into the abyss and then found that it was looking back into him. The film doesn’t work, but he’s the best part of it. It is at this point that we must wonder how he might have fared in his own series, or as a regular on Twin Peaks.
As John Blaylock in The Hunger
The Hunger is a strange animal, not quite a horror film, not quite as erotic as it might have been in another era. It is a sleek, Eighties-era misfire with a few intriguing meditations about the price of youth and the indignities of aging. Essentially, it’s three very pretty people staring into the middle distance, framed by a screen with vaseline smeared all over it (so basically, a Tony Scott film). Bowie plays the sometimes lover of the centuries-old Miriam, a vampiress who bestow a temporary immortality (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms) on her prey only to watch them wither into duty madness after a while. She locks them in the attic and moves on to her next rendezvous. Bowie, who could come off as exceedingly cold, here imbues the film with something like a beating heart. Even as he transforms from ethereal, reptilian sex object into a walking scrotum after it’s been in the hot tub within a matter of minutes, he still seems the most utterly human.
“When the moment is right, will you be ready?
As Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth
With the exception of Jareth, this is Bowie’s most famous role. Here he plays a visitor to Earth in search of a way to save his family on a far distant planet. He soon forgets his mission and falls into a fugue state of ennui, sex, and hanging out with Rip Torn. It’s a star vehicle if ever there was one, and Nic Roeg’s work clearly erases the the kind of rock star driven charisma picture that worked so well for Elvis and the Beatles. It’s essentially the anti-rock star movie, playing always on Bowie’s other-worldliness and growing fame while at the same time undercutting it by daring to make him sublimely unlikeable. It’s utterly weird, too long by half, and features a lot of Rip Torn’s penis, but it’s also sort of magical. The movie, and Bowie’s performance, are like something you’d find at your grandmother’s house, beautiful, odd, and seemingly completely insensible given modern tastes, and also sort of tacky. It’s an artifact from another time, made by people who thought and felt differently. Bowie’s persona changed constantly, but the way he looks, moves, and sounds here are the way people will hold him in their minds: hopelessly unstuck in time, and tragically stuck on Earth… though not forever.
Tell Major Tom I said “hello”.