It’s David Bowie’s world now.
It’s unsurprising to look around and find traces of him everywhere, across high and low culture, in other musicians’ sounds and other artists’ visions. Sometimes it’s a clear, direct reference or a tribute. Other times, it’s just a subtle permeation or the permutation of something that might be described as the essence of Bowie, a silhouette of his otherness, his spirit, and life force. David Bowie, that most impressive of all cultural shape-shifters, now animating so many of the culture’s transgressive freaks and monsters and creepy outcasts. It’s his world, and he’s everywhere we look.
Bowie’s many musical faces make him a perfect fit for the fantasy world of cinema. Adept at playing with character and identity, with imagery, movement, voice and costume, he’s always acting. His own roles in films remain a testament to his transformative powers. But Bowie is also a cinematic figure in a less tangible way. He’s not just a flesh and blood human; Bowie is also an idea.
And he’s an idea that means many different things: rebellion, change, glamour, spectacle, excess, mischief, danger and desire. Watching films like Dogs in Space (1986), Dogville (2003), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) invites us to see Bowie as a sort of invisible character – a repository of meaning that each film plays with, enlightens and reinterprets. Above all, like the promise of cinema itself, Bowie signifies that transgressive space we all want to escape inside.
Richard Lowenstein’s grungy ode to the Melbourne punk scene, Dogs in Space (1986) gently flirts with that spirit of transgression, mainlines it and then overdoses. Dogs in Space launches its narrative from the queue for Bowie tickets winding its way around the outside of the MCG in 1978. Here we meet Sam (Michael Hutchene), the frontman for the band that gives the film its title, and his girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post). We won’t see the concert itself – part of Bowie’s Isolar II World Tour (or Low/Heroes World Tour) – but we hear about it later, on a television screen when Molly Meldrum raves about it, and then when he interviews Bowie on Countdown.
Bowie is an injection of vivid colour in the grey world of 1970s Melbourne. Lowenstein assembles a group of social misfits in the Richmond share house where most of the film’s action unfolds who revere him as a pre-punk figure of rebellion and excess. Musicians, students, couch crashers alike take up the baton. They see themselves as iconoclasts, smashing the conventions around them, just like the boy from Brixton did before them.
But by the time of his Australian tour, Bowie had shed Ziggy’s magnificent skin and emerged from his spaced out diamond dog persona. As Ziggy he lived large, indulging all appetites, but not without consequences, and as Cracked Actor reveals, he took it all too far – rock ‘n’ roll excesses nearly destroyed him. Here, Melbourne is still catching up; still guided by the beer light. Sam, in particular, is a Bowie-like figure – sexy, and seductive, the body in the film that all others are drawn to. But there’s a dark side to the hedonistic follies of youth. Smoking pot and drinking cough medicine soon escalates to snorting speed and shooting heroin. From the start we wonder, will Lowenstein’s space dogs escape the path of self-destruction or end up rock ‘n’ roll suicides.
There’s Bowie excess, but there’s also Bowie restraint. Bowie can be a cerebral, detached figure too. One of cinema’s great provocateurs, Lars Von Trier, takes a leaf out of this page of the Bowie playbook with Dogville, a film that experiments with the idea of spectacle and highlights the constructed, artificial nature of performance.
While Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ scores the film’s closing credits, a certain Bowie style also structures Von Trier’s film. Like Bowie’s greatest performances, Dogville is a film high on concepts. Here the ideas come via playwright, Bertolt Brecht, with whom Bowie has his own connection, having starred in a 1982 BBC production of Baal, Brecht’s first full-length play. Set in a fictional Depression-era town, Dogville is a parable about small town America delivered like a piece of filmed theatre. Von Trier establishes the action on an empty soundstage. On the run from the mob, Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) enters a town mapped out with painted lines and labels; a scarcity of props requires the actors to mime actions such as opening and closing doors.
The Brechtian aesthetic is evident in this minimalist approach, which asks us to look at how the story is constructed even more than what the story is about. Dogville represents reality but is not reality itself, and in this draws heavily on Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’ – designed to create distance or detachment between stage and audience, so that a critical view of the action can be applied rather than an emotional identification with characters. It’s also a blank space on which we can project our own meaning. Dogville’s story is ultimately a simple one that takes on symbolic effect. Just like Bowie’s own stripped back aesthetic during his Berlin period, there is complexity in austerity, a multitude of layers at work beneath the stillness.
Bowie is serious stuff. But he’s also a lot of fun. Part of Bowie’s appeal is the elasticity of his identity. Who David Bowie is changes rapidly because of his willingness to stretch the borders of his own persona. Before we know it, Bowie has become something other than what he was the day before. Perhaps without realising it, Wes Anderson’s fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou magnifies this view of him. By including bossanova versions of ‘Starman,’ ‘Rebel Rebel,’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,’ ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Five Years’ sung in Portuguese by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, Bowie isn’t so much made over as reborn. We hear something in his music we didn’t know existed but perhaps always suspected did – romance and whimsy.
Bowie’s glamour, playfulness, decadence and cool, all collide in Jim Jarmusch’s tale of vampire lovers facing the ennui of eternal life, Only Lovers Left Alive. Like a vampire, Bowie’s own creature of the night, the Thin White Duke, is a stranger in a strange land. His otherness is both dangerous and desirable. And like a vampire (he played one in The Hunger) Bowie has lived many lives (he seems to have been with us for centuries). In Only Lovers Left Alive – a vampire film about the artistic life that favours music and poetry to blood and gore – Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) also find themselves out of time and place, two nocturnal rock stars blazing in the dark. Eve lives in exotic Tangiers and spends time with her books and her friend, the playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt); Adam takes refuge in the urban wasteland of Detroit, among his vintage guitars and recording equipment.
The Bowie spirit pulses through Only Lovers Left Alive in no small part because of Tilda Swinton. She’s been channeling Bowie for years – in ways less obvious than looking more than a little like him, with her angular, androgynous, pale gorgeousness. Her screen persona has been formed by her ability to shift shape, and even gender, with ease. From one performance to the next she’s rarely the same – you only need to compare stills from Orlando (1992), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Snowpiercer (2013), and Trainwreck (2015), to see Swinton is a great chameleon.
Speaking at the opening dinner for ‘David Bowie Is’ at the V&A Museum, Swinton recounted how as a 12-year-old she carried around a copy of Aladdin Sane for two years before playing it, identifying with Bowie’s image before his sound, “the image of planetary kin, of a close imaginary cousin and companion of choice.” She felt like Bowie belonged to her alone, but as his influence across cultural forms shows, “The alien is the best company after all for so many more than the few.” Bowie’s a symbol of so many things, a friend to all outsiders, the guardian of transformation. His name may not appear in the credits of these films, but rest assured, he’s visible in nearly every frame.
A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in September 2015 for their season of screenings ‘Bowie on Film’ in celebration of the exhibition David Bowie Is