“Turn and face the strange.”
More than any other single lyric he penned, this line contains for me the essence of David Bowie’s life philosophy. Stand your ground and confront those things that make us strangers to ourselves, aliens in our own skins. Embrace the pain and pleasure of change. Bowie, more than any other artist I can think of, embodied Nietzsche’s idea: “One must give value to their existence by behaving as if one’s very existence were a work of art.” Given the release of his final album, Blackstar, and passing two days later, it’s easy to see that the contours of Bowie’s art exactly coincided with those of his own life.
One of the consequences of Bowie’s ceaseless confrontation with otherness was the adoption of protean, chameleon-like personae. Along with this came a desire to always be something or somewhere else.
Bowie’s choice of film roles only reinforces such a notion: Whether it was playing a work of art incarnate, an honest-to-goodness extraterrestrial, several varieties of unhinged genius, or any of the endlessly complex and nuanced instances of Bowie “playing” himself, the constantly inconstant leitmotif that ran throughout David Bowie’s career involved resolutely ringing those “Changes.”
Bowie’s first appearance on celluloid, several years before he made it big in the UK with his “Space Oddity” single, was in a short film called The Image (shot in 1967 but only screened in 1969) for writer/director Michael Armstrong (Mark of the Devil). Running just shy of 15 minutes, the film depicts the mental deterioration of an Artist (Michael Byrne, Vampyres) who imagines (or is that hallucinates?) that the subject of his painting, the Boy (Bowie), has it in for him, hovering outside his window, lurking just beyond the threshold of his door, with the intent (or so the content of the painting seems to suggest) of enveloping the artist in his ghastly embrace.
In an effort to avoid a possibly diabolical fate, the artist bludgeons, strangles and finally stabs the boy, only to have him return to bedevil him time and again. The Image is a visually striking film with its high contrast monochrome cinematography and non-sync sound effects (unrelenting rain, harsh rasps and gasps for breath). What it all means, however, is entirely up for grabs. Annotations on the script describe the story as “a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity.” So feel free to draw your own conclusions here…
After the worldwide sensation that was Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour, with its dissonant lashing together of Kabuki theater and sci-fi set and costume design, it seemed only natural that Nicolas Roeg would cast Bowie as alien visitor Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). At bottom a melancholic parable about the (non)assimilation of immigrants to the “corporate” mainstream of American culture, the film finds Newton slipping slowly into a benumbed existence palliated by the amnesiac lull of booze and TV. Walter Tevis, scribe of The Hustler, wrote the novel the film is based on as a crypto-autobiographical bildungsroman, and its applicability to our current social order remains undiminished. Indelibly heartrending is Newton’s final line: “We’d have probably done the same to you, if you’d come ’round our place.”
Just a Gigolo (David Hemmings, 1979) paired Bowie (as Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski) with Marlene Dietrich, fresh out of retirement for the gig. Though the two share scenes, they were never on the set together or, indeed, even on the same set. (Dietrich was in Paris, Bowie on location in Berlin.) The resultant mishmash, meant to cash in on the success of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” in a Cabaret kind of way, was once amusingly dismissed by its star thus: “It was my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.”
Uli Edel’s controversial teens-on-drugs film Christiane F. (1981) features Bowie in concert at a fictive Berlin club called Sound, an event that provides much character motivation for the titular Fraulein (Natja Brunkhorst), even though his scenes were filmed in New York. The soundtrack is packed with “Berlin Trilogy” nuggets, including the epic bilingual “‘Heroes’/Helden” otherwise to be found on Rare.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983) plays up the androgynous, homoerotic appeal of Bowie’s (screen) persona, even while allowing his Maj. Jack Celliers to play the “Rebel Rebel” in a WWII Japanese POW camp. Oshima’s film unravels like a fever dream, tensely drenched in sweat and mordant irony, with its Anglophone title, spoken in a gesture of well-meant detente by “Beat” Takeshi, providing one final, bitter punchline.
Slickly directed by commercial maven Tony Scott, The Hunger (1983) teams Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as an ageless vampire couple for a flash exercise in briskly edited, cotton-candy-hollow style. Bowie looks suitably fantastic; until, that is, he ripens prematurely into Gary Oldman’s geriatric Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This prompts Deneuve to toss him aside for luscious post-Pretty Baby Susan Sarandon (understandably). Viewers are, at least, treated to Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” under the opening credits.
Laden with cinematic in-jokes and musician-oriented stunt casting, John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) is also a moody, broody kissing cousin to Scorsese’s After Hours (also 1985). What’s more, it features a strong, if abbreviated, turn from Bowie as Brit hitman Colin Morris. In his first scene, Bowie crams his gat down Jeff Goldblum’s gullet and, later, gets into a bloody shiv scrap with Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins himself. With his wisp-thin mustache and straight-razor smile, Bowie exudes menace and swarm in equal measures in his one dialogue-heavy scene with Goldblum. Oddly enough, Bowie’s disarming threat-with-a-grin seems to eerily presage future collaborator Ricky Gervais’ passive-aggressive monstrosities (see below).
Bowie deposits some spiky-haired sexual sophistication smack in the center of Jim Henson’s otherwise utterly innocuous people-and-puppets fable Labyrinth (1986). But his intermittent appearances are continually undercut by the film’s slapdash, slapstick tone and reliance on unearned whimsy. The one scene that halfway works — a masquerade ball that slyly hints at a sexual maturity for 15-year-old heroine Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) that the rest of film bends over backwards to discount — is oddly reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s far more explicit (and troubling) The Company of Wolves (1984). Bowie also contributed five songs to Trevor Jones’ synth-saturated soundtrack, but none of them will stick in your psyche like, say, his title track for Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake.
For Julian Temple’s stylish late-’50s period piece Absolute Beginners (1986), Bowie personifies oleaginous adman Vendice Partners, with his Fuller brush hair and Nixonian salute. Bowie made his contribution to the soundtrack conditional on his appearance in the film, which at the time was the source of much adverse criticism.
Cropped and toga-clad, Bowie turns up late into Martin Scorsese’s fundamentalist-frazzling The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as the Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate. Given less than five minutes of screen time, Bowie seems to have been cast expressly to articulate Pilate’s counter-“Changes” credo: “Killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things, we don’t want them changed.”
As you might expect, David Lynch zeroes in on the facet of Bowie’s persona we might call the Displaced Person (especially since, in Lynch’s world, the epithet “the Man from Another Place” is already taken) for his brief appearance as “long lost” FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in Lynch’s prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Assaying a reasonably convincing Southern drawl, Bowie intones the Lynchian truism “We live inside a dream!” and then vanishes again.
In yet another glorified cameo, Christopher Nolan at least allows Bowie a truly spectacular entrance in The Prestige (2006), as his Nikola Tesla crosses the frame through lividly furcated flashes of electrical discharge. And Bowie does a perfectly respectable job of impersonation here, his scalloped black hair and mustache scrupulously photo-realistic; also, he doesn’t lay Tesla’s Serbian accent on with a trowel.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with one hilarious last instance of Bowie being Bowie: to wit, the “David Bowie” episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s scabrous Brit-com Extras (2006). Please to enjoy: