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Turning on the radio on Monday morning and hearing about David Bowie’s death was probably the first time I have been truly upset to hear about the death of a public figure. I have been listening to his music since I bought a cassette of Let’s Dance when I was 13, and his importance to me and to others was that this public figure represented a set of possibilities, holding open other, better, more interesting, but also frustratingly contradictory and excitingly uncertain ways of being. What is upsetting about his death is the sense that, with it, they have been closed off.

This sense of closure was underscored by the fact that it was only when I heard David Cameron talking about him on BBC Radio 4 that I realised Bowie had died. Under the guise of fiscal ‘austerity’, Cameron’s neoliberal government is engaged with the radically destructive  anti-democratic project of dismantling the welfare state and public services, raiding and selling off the country’s assets to private investors and foreign governments, and exposing every area of British society to the rapacious and devastatingly wasteful market. One of the immediate consequences of this disaster capitalism is greater poverty and accelerating inequality, and so there was a particularly sour irony in listening to this privileged, callous, intellectually limited man who is responsible for making the lives of many people much harder, and for shutting down the opportunity for millions of people to make better lives, affecting to care about the death of a man whose speculative work imagined and evoked utopian, optimistic, colourful and progressive futures.

I wrote a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Bowie’s distinctive work on screen as part of a suite of pieces they are publishing to mark his death. That piece can be found here.

This is a slightly longer edit of the piece with a number of additional links:

A rogue performer: Bowie on film

‘I’m not a film star’ – Blackstar, David Bowie (2015)

Although eclipsed by his music, David Bowie pursued a fascinating parallel career as an actor, appearing on stage, television, and in films by a diverse range of directors that includes Nagisa Ôshima, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Jim Henson, Julien Temple, Tony Scott, and Christopher Nolan in roles that range from the ‘Goblin King’ in children’s fantasy film, Labyrinth, a rapidly ageing vampire in Hunger, a captured British army officer in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, through to Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ and Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

 

The critical response to his performances was generally mixed, but considered together they are of a piece with the restless, experimental, collaborative approach he applied to his music. They represent a consistent attempt to move beyond the medium in which he was comfortably successful, bravely exposing rather than concealing his limitations.

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His first significant role was as the extraterrestrial protagonist in the 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth by British director Nicolas Roeg and it is the film that makes by far the best use of his performance style and played an important role in shaping his subsequent persona since images from the film were appropriated for his next two album covers, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). Adapted from a 1963 novel, this bleak, beautiful, formally playful eco-film tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth in search of water to save his drought-ridden home planet. Despite struggling with the heat and stronger gravity of earth he is able to pass as human, and exploits superior alien technology to become extremely wealthy, setting up a global corporation in order to build spaceships that can travel between earth and his home world.

 

Roeg recounted that while he had initially wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton for the role, (since he, like the alien in the novel, was extremely tall), and also considered Peter O’Toole, he decided to offer Bowie the role, despite the musician’s lack of acting experience, after spotting him in a BBC documentary. It was undoubtedly a financially smart move to employ one of the most famous musicians on the planet in the lead role, and the casting cannily invokes the apocalyptic science fiction scenarios of his albums, Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. However, what drew Roeg to Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t a professional actor. In this film and others, when viewed alongside the confident, expressive, naturalistic performances of experienced screen actors, Bowie’s understated delivery of lines, approximation of accents and hesitant bodily presence can seem awkward and self-conscious, or even technically incompetent. It is an example of what Richard Maltby terms ‘autonomous performance’ – a performance that can make us aware that we are watching a performance – by contrast with an ‘integrated performance’ style in which a technically skilled actor is convincingly subsumed into a character. Watching David Bowie on screen, we are always watching Bowie playing a role, even when he is playing himself. Of course, it is also the case that when we watch actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, we are always invited to study and admire their masterful displays of technically accomplished acting as well as the characters they portray, but for Roeg, who had previously worked with Mick Jagger in the brilliant, uncategorisable Performance, and went on to direct Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing, the attraction of a rock star is that they can act in a way that is simply impossible for a conventionally trained actor.

 

As Roeg explains in his autobiography,

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

 

The same is true of Bowie’s exceptional performance in this film. Placing his naked, pale, skinny body on display, he portrays the alien as a fragile, wry, anxious, lustful, polysexual and tragically lonely character who is steadily brutalised – brought down to earth and humanised – by an indifferent, paranoid, consumerist society. The producers at Warner Brothers were sceptical about the casting, but as Roeg explained to them, this was a film about an alien pretending to be human. In this respect, Bowie’s sometimes stilted performance was the perfect realisation of this character. However, what gives the unforgettable portrayal a greater poignancy is the sense that this figure stranded in a strange, confusing and hostile environment is really a description of Bowie himself. As Roeg recalled, ‘He wasn’t putting it on, it was who he was […] For example, Bowie has a marvellous laugh. It was just left of centre. It was like [Bowie had thought], “Isn’t that how they laugh on earth?”’

 

Reference:

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

 

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