See it Instead: David Bowie Retrospective
It’s been a month since singer, actor and cultural icon David Bowie passed away. I have always been a huge fan of the thin white duke: my high school music appreciation thesis was that Bowie was the most influential man in not just rock and roll, but all modern music. That presentation changed my grade in that class from a D to an A- overnight…and that class was taught by a die-hard Beatles fan! His work spans three generations, at least five genres (two of which he pretty much invented) and remains fresh even close to sixty years after his debut. For all of my appreciation for his musical innovations, it was his work in film that introduced me to his wildly eccentric genius. 1986’s Labyrinth was a revelation, and not only because Bowie wore a pair of riding pants so tight you could teach anatomy from them. In order to celebrate his accomplishments, I’d like to take a tour through his cinematic resumé.
The Serious Pick: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, a charismatic and forthright British soldier who is part of a Japanese prisoner camp during World War 2. Though he is not the ranking officer, his rapport with his men impresses the mercurial commander of the camp, Captain Yonoi, who becomes increasingly fascinated with Celliers. Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence, a British expatriate who speaks Japanese, witnesses first hand how Celliers shields his soldiers from much of the aggression from Yonoi who regards them all as cowards for not dying on the battlefield. Eventually Yonoi’s infatuation with Celliers turns sour when a contraband radio is found among the prisoners, and he plans to execute Celliers and Lawrence. A young officer, Hara (Takeshi Kitano) intervenes when he overhears the men discuss their home lives, and declares an amnesty because it is Christmas Eve. Years later, the roles are reversed and Hara is a prisoner of the Allies, and he is visited by Lawrence on the even of Hara’s execution. They share a bitter-sweet evening reflecting on the role of captor and captive and of the Christmas Eve many years ago.
Bowie’s performance is widely considered the high-point of the film, and he seems to effortlessly radiate confidence and presence. I found the film itself to be rewarding, reminiscent of other lock-up films such as Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The ensemble nature of the production is remarkable considering the heavy language barrier between the Japanese and British actors. It is a shame that this film is fairly hard to come by these days, as it is easily one of the strongest performances of Bowie’s early career.
The Lighthearted Pick: Labyrinth (1986)
A feckless teen (Jennifer Connelly) prays to the fictional character of her favorite fantasy book, the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take away her crying baby brother. Unfortunately, Jareth the Goblin King has keen ears, and he gladly takes the child to the center of his bizarre and deadly labyrinth, warning the girl that she has only 13 hours to solve the maze before her brother if forever a thrall of the goblins.
Jim Henson and David Bowie are like chocolate and peanut butter. Gorgeous, creepy and terrifying chocolate and peanut butter. Bowie swaggers around his physics-challenged demesne with chilling bravado, at one moment seductive and the next cruel. Henson brings some of his best creations to life, populating this film with iconic and twisted versions of fantasy literature favorites. I love all of Henson‘s work (yes, even that damn creepy hedgehog from The Story Teller!) but he really broke the mold with this film.
The Unconventional Pick: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) is a traveler from another planet who crash-lands in New Mexico, intent on finding a way to transport Earth’s abundant water back to his home planet where a terrible drought is killing his people. Using his advanced knowledge of technology, he starts a tech firm and takes the world by storm, quickly becoming one of the richest men on Earth. While he is secretly pulling strings to construct a vehicle capable of returning himself and his cargo to space, he falls under the influence of a beautiful but flighty girl named Mary Sue who soon teaches him the allure of human vices such as alcohol, sex and hedonism. Between his torturous affair with Mary Sue and a questionable friendship with a self-obsessed chemistry professor (Rip Torn,) he appears to lose his direction and forget about those waiting for him amongst the stars.
This film has a strong cult following, and has inspired legions of pop-cultural references. There is something singularly mesmerizing about Bowie’s alien and his very human failings…but this film is not uniformly terrific. There is a baffling amount of nudity, many of the characters are not nearly as well fleshed-out or portrayed as the main character, and the film often chooses to wander amidst striking imagery in favor of telling a coherent narrative. Much like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, many may feel that the style and debauchery has over-taken the substance, but the film is likewise memorable and full of fascinating ideas.
The Hunger (1983)
David Bowie is the latest paramour of an ancient Egyptian vampire who has lived many hundreds of years in luxury at her side, when suddenly he finds that he is unable to sleep anymore. As he loses his grip on wakefulness, all of the years come rushing back at him like a snarling beast and he begins to age decades in hours. Desperate, both vampires consult a ground-breaking scientist (Susan Sarandon) who is working on the link between sleep and aging. Her research may come too late for Bowie, and when the vampire queen begins to fancy the beautiful researcher, things become deadly.
Bowie plays a supporting role as iconoclast Andy Warhol in a dramatic adaptation of the life of improbable art sensation Jean Michel Basquiat, a young man who went from a street dwelling graffiti artist to the talk of the New York art scene before falling to his inner demons. Jeffrey Wright is powerful as the driven young artist, and Bowie shows his talent for mimicry, totally inhabiting the persona of Warhol. The two have a great rapport, and even if you couldn’t give a wet fart about paintings of soup cans, this is a good film.
The Prestige (2006)
Did Bowie have a plan to make a big movie every year ending in 6? 1976,1986, 1996, 2006…goddammit we were due another amazing performance this year! Here he shines in another supporting role, this time donning the disguise of eccentric genius Nikola Tesla. While much of the film is centered around the magician’s duel between Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, Bowie is the linchpin that brings science and magic into a Faustian bargain.
Gunslinger’s Revenge (1998)
OK, so this film is not very good. But it’s David Bowie in a Western! That’s two of my favorite things (three if you count watching movies that aren’t very good!) This movie languished in production hell for some time, taking an extra 7 years to cross the Atlantic. I can’t say that the wait improved the final product…but it’s David Bowie in a Western!