Last week saw the death of David Bowie, an artist so foundational to Western pop culture of the last few decades that his absence from this planet feels inconceivable. And yet, as so many have pointed out, his presence here in the first place felt vaguely unlikely, the result of a public persona so mercurial and flamboyantly outré that it wasn’t a hard sell to imagine him as an otherworldly being. He leveraged this in his music, launching into the rock and roll stratosphere as Ziggy Stardust, and going on to develop numerous other stage characters as his work metamorphosed from one phase of genius to the next.
But enough writers better qualified than I have spoken eloquently about his music. It was only natural that this chameleon from another world would find his way into the phantasmagorias of the silver screen, reshaping that realm like he did every other.
Unsurprisingly, his first starring role was as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 science fiction masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth. In it, he plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an extraterrestrial charged with bringing water from Earth to his dying home planet. Unfortunately, he gets sidetracked by the business of assimilation, starting a corporate empire, developing a substance abuse problem and ending up an amateur anthropologist/sensation junkie in front of a giant bank of television screens. It’s an indelible portrayal, a reflection of the semi-detached outsider he fleshed out in his concept albums and stage performances, both hopelessly in love with and horrified by humanity. All alabaster skin and sharp edges topped off by a shock of red hair and those inscrutable (except when they’re not) multi-hued eyes, his distinctive physicality was as essential to his ever-evolving screen persona as his canny exploitation of personas real, fictional and, for that matter, meta-fictional.
Some of that combination of effortless cool and bloodless fragility entered his memorable turn in Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger, in which he and (naturally) Catherine Deneuve play ageless vampires.
There was a man behind the Starman, one who was terrified by the thought of going up in a spaceship and wasn’t above a good joke (see Zoolander and Extras) despite his more solemn personas. But given that most of us never got to fulfill our pipe dreams of getting to know the man, the myth will have to do.
Only, in his case, immortality suddenly appears to have an expiration date, a plot development that now assumes freshly tragic dimension. Starring two of the most beautiful people in the western hemisphere and shaped by Scott’s MTV aesthetic, the film is an evocation of style and atmosphere above all else but it has an air of melancholy about it that’s hard to shake. There’s a goth-tinged touch of the rock star in his John Blaylock but one who knows—even at his physical peak—that his glamour is fleeting.
As Deneuve’s Miriam becomes bored with his increasingly decrepit shell, it’s difficult to tell whether the fear in his eyes is over the possibility of losing his life or losing the adoration of his biggest fan. Ever the rock star’s quandary.
Some of his roles were marginally more grounded if no less effective. In Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence, Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers, an inmate in a Japanese POW camp, a more self-aware and smoothly coiffed version of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. His intensity and off-kilter sensuousness made for a few good villains, most memorably in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 Jesus picture The Last Temptation of Christ. Bowie’s unsettlingly sexual Pontius Pilate takes what could have been another staidly two-dimensional Biblical character and launches him in the oddest of directions.
There are multiple books to be written about Bowie in films. We could talk about the way his music added an essential element to the work of other filmmakers—in that unforgettable Lost Highway credits sequence, in Greta Gerwig’s exhilarating dance through Manhattan to the strains of “Modern Love” in
Frances Ha, and so many other scenes besides. There’s his not-so-invisible influence on queer cinema, reaching out through individual artistic and political filters into the work of directors like John Cameron Mitchell and Todd Haynes. To try and list the more indirect ways in which he affected modern cinema would be like trying to count grains of sand in a Martian desert. Or perhaps the best way to end griefstricken ramblings is to stop the mythologizing for a moment and celebrate the human being. There was a man behind the Starman, one who was terrified by the thought of going up in a spaceship and wasn’t above a good joke (see Zoolander and Extras) despite his more solemn personas.
A man who loved his wife Iman and nurtured the creative spark in his talented son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones. But given that most of us never got to fulfill our pipe dreams of getting to know the man, the myth will have to do.