Thursday, May 31, 2007

Danger Stranger: The Strokes "You Only Live Once"

One of the best videos of the year is a remake in more than one way...

The Strokes "You Only Live Once"

dir. by Warren Fu

"We cast this message into the cosmos . . . Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some - - perhaps many - - may have inhabited planet and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."
- Jimmy Carter's statement placed on the Voyager 1 spacecraft on September 5, 1977

Thirty years ago, in 1977, America was at a pivotal moment in its political and cultural history. Following decades of disappointment involving assassination, war and Watergate, the people had just elected a Georgian governor to come in from left field and clean things up. The "hippie" counter-culture movement of the 60's was over, and a new breed of anti-establishment activists were sprouting up. In their song "1977," English band The Clash blasphemously declared "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones" - symbolizing a rising global wish to start anew. Writer Roger Sabin went as far as calling '77, in reference to the birth of the punk movement, "year zero."

Of course by the end of Carter's presidency we had trained terrorists in Afghanistan, lost complete control over the Middle East through the Iran hostage debacle, and suffered a major energy crisis. It would be too easy to blame a single moment in history for our current woes, but it's fascinating to study how quickly that hope for change in '77 disappeared into an avalanche of problems that still plague us today. The recent renewed interest in the music of that time isn't just about back-to-basics rock, it represents a yearning for a new revolution - our own chance at starting over.

The Strokes latest video for "You Only Live Once," from their 2006 album First Impressions of the Earth, sets all this up in a matter of seconds. Director Warren Fu brilliantly flips through 70's television commercials and documentary footage of our rising consumption habits as an ominous slab blocks out the sun. Carter gives a speech on energy while all that gas guzzling and thirst for "more" everything leads us into an eventual nuclear holocaust - wiping away our entire civilization sometime in the near future. Yet it's no coincedence the band's name appears in the stars with the sun poking through the "o" in "strokes" - hope is in the music.

This is a band that led the garage rock revival of the early 2000's, and thousands of years in the future they are apparently going to lead the rebirth of the human race*. References to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's iconic film abound, from the Hal-like artificial intelligence to the climactic colorful passage through space - but there are a number of differences here as well. Whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey has often been interpreted as a spiritual trip from birth to enlightenment, or a historical critique spanning the entire history of human civilization, Fu's vision is much more limited in scope. By focusing on a specific time period and a specific chain of events, his video forms a potent critique of our current cultural climate (via 4000 A.D).

And while "2001" has been said to allude to the coming of a new "god" via Byzantium (1), Fu's decision to take us backwards in history at the end signifies his faith in humanity to overcome its own problems. As the Strokes sing of "countless odd religions" the director portrays everything from the star of David to the Ying Yang symbol in a slot machine of random luck - "it doesn't matter which you choose." Kubrick ends his masterpiece with a giant fetus observing the Earth, but in this video the spaceship learns of the miracle of birth through transmissions emitting from a sunken time capsule. Despite all the ugliness, the beauty of human life and artistic expression is not completely buried.

In many ways Fu's vision isn't just an ode to Kubrick, it's his personal interpretation of 2001. The former LucasFilm employee wants us to revisit the classic from a fresh perspective, to apply its lessons to modern times. It's also a work that sheds new light on the Strokes much-maligned third album, which now emerges as a commentary on our self-destructive society. If machines were to find our relics in the distant future, would they have a positive first impression? What if they found only your artifacts, your time capsule? These are the important questions that linger after watching Warren Fu's beautifully realized music video - you only live once.

* The Strokes debut, The Modern Age EP, was released in...2001

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Back In the Jungle: Ash "Polaris"

And you thought Ralph and Piggy had it bad...

Ash "Polaris"

dir. by Jeff Thomas

In the middle of a heated battle between child soldiers, where guns are made from sticks but the explosions are real, a determined young fighter has a momentary lapse in concentration. He looks to his left to see a female friend completely immersed in the war, and for a split second feels intense fear - the thought that he might lose her here today.

Yet Lord of the Flies allusions aside, kids aren't actually blowing themselves up in backyards across America (though they might be in Palestine, Iraq...). When the final scene reveals a grown man shot by actual bullets, we understand that all that has passed before was a memory of a childhood game. In his mind the reality of his current situation is belied by thoughts of an earlier, more innocent time. This soldier remembers that moment of fear in the forest - perhaps his earliest hint of love - and now realizes that he has indeed lost her (and his youth) forever.

Despite the sticks and stones which define the game, the director includes very realistic emotions and violence in the proceedings to make a direct correlation between childhood experience and adult consequences. We are all veterans of those tumultuous years spent growing up, and we carry the scars of the socialization that occured. It isn't just that we are trained from youth to see life as a two-sided struggle where violence is a neccesity, but our confrontational perception carries over to matters of the heart as well. As the band sings of a pained relationship, the camera displays love as a battlefield - where someone is always bound to get hurt.

At the same time it seems the man in the final shot is killed wearing American gear in the desert, and thus likely a victim of the current war in Iraq. By comparison the earlier scenes of violence take place guerilla style in the jungle, which could very well represent Vietnam (there are a few Platoon-esque shots as well). The lesson here being that certain people may have never learned their lesson, and when that happens history is bound to repeat itself.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stuck Between Stations: Kanye West "Can't Tell Me Nothing"

Mr. West makes his return in typically grandiose fashion...

Kanye West "Can't Tell Me Nothing"

dir. by Hype Williams

This is a beautifully stylized and skillfully shot performance meant to grandly introduce the world to the biggest album of the year, Kanye West's Graduation. Like the music and lyrics on this first single, Hype Williams video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" recycles old ideas behind the guise of modern technique. It almost certainly carries astronomical production costs, but as the Louis Vuitton Don tells us - "it's so hard not to act reckless."

The opening sequence, with Kanye pacing around the camera like a prizefighter, sets the star up as a resilient and unrelenting force - alone in the desert of his own determination. He's a man still caught between God and the allure of Earthly pleasure, which Williams represents with scantily-clad women barely obscured by flowing veils - a simultaneously religious and sexual image.

In many ways this is a glorified ode to beautiful girls and fancy cars with Kanye simply treading water in his tired themes of personal and universal hypocrisy. Yet he is searching for something more to say, and even when he skips like a broken record one can't help but be enthralled by the possibility that one day he will actually graduate to fresh ideas. Though I imagine this song or video will do little to increase enrollment in the Kanye-believers camp, it hasn't dropped anyone out either.

Beautiful Voice: The Veils "Calliope"

The Veils "Calliope"

dir. by Arran and Corran Brownlee

The Veils don't have a calliope on hand as they play their second single from the excellent Nux Vomica, but their music could very well be inspired by the queen of the muses herself. Grabbing the magic in the air and letting it infuse their sound, the band rollicks through a beautifully animated underworld while lead singer Finn Andrews teeters on the edge of love. He fears taking the plunge because of the inevitable loss of innocence and perfection he sees in the girl of his dreams - especially when he has lost faith in everything else around him.

The directors mirror his hesitation by coloring the screen with sepia tones and silent film-aping moments, while a little flickering bug cuts across like Andrews ever present love - as if it were facilitating the entire experience. In the end the artist fears losing more than just his idealism.

Rose-Colored Glasses: The White Stripes "Icky Thump"

The White Stripes "Icky Thump"

dir. by Malloy Brothers

Jack and Meg stomp through Mexico on a mission to uncover the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. The fantasy Mr. White sees there is a collage of surreal imagery and real world scenarios. The directors create a gorgeous environment of enticing neon lights, tiny details of the absurd variety and the always potent mix of red and white hues. All the death puppets and one-eyed villains of this underworld imply impending doom for Jack, but he seems to emerge unscathed - save for an icky bump on his head.

The nonchalance with which he strolls in and out (simply waving at a border guard) suggests an elitist (and racist) view of the place. It's a country where you go to have a good time or see something bizarre, but make sure to leave before it gets too ugly. Apart from the literal border trips that some Americans take on Friday nights, there is a more symbolic fleecing of Mexico going on - with our government playing the role of "pimp and prostitute." The wall being built is aimed at keeping immigrants out, but it might never rise high enough to prevent grubby hands from reaching back in.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

We Didn't Start The Fire: Uncut "Darkhorse"

Uncut "Darkhorse"

dir. by Kris Lefcoe

What were once cuddly memories of youth, in the hands of Kris Lefcoe and Uncut, are now vile symbols of big business brainwashing. Little did we know that Carebears and Ronald McDonald had sinister ulterior motives from the moment of our first happy meal. Yet it's clear now you've been suckered into supporting a conglomerate of greedy bastards out to burn trees and silence all those who stand in the way of profit. What's the only sensible thing to do? Riot.

Uncut don't just share musical similarities with Tokyo Police Club, their video should play back-to-back with their Canadian brethren's "Cheer It On." Both works criticize suppressive aspects of modern society through plastic miniatures who go crazy, but Uncut takes aim specifically at the way in which gigantic corporations are ruining free expression (which could easily apply to happenings within the music industry itself). The band is shown playing an open field concert before being chased away by an impending construction project, but it's this vital brush with art that inspires the fiery passion for change in the people.

Let's Sway: Paul McCartney "Dance Tonight"

Another excellent opportunity to ramble about Gondry...

Paul McCartney "Dance Tonight"

dir. by Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry's humour is often overshadowed by his veritable ingenuity and finesse behind the camera. His lo-fi aesthetic and technical wizardry have made him the most well-respected and influential director in the history of music video. Even when we applaud the playful absurdity of his images, we tend to dissect their meaning on an emotional level before we discuss the importance of comedy in his work.

Of course Gondry wouldn't have it any other way, as the power of his drama is indebted to the laughs that accompany it (though not always vice versa). In his video for Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight," he hires Mackenzie Crook of BBC's legendary comedy The Office to inject a distinctly British sensibility into the set-up (afternoon tea and all). As the piece grows increasingly chaotic and visually arresting, we are whisked away into a fantasy that seems as lightweight as the lyrics of the song.

Yet if we peel back the layers of pop shine, McCartney's insistence on making "everybody dance" in the current climate may be aimed at defusing conflict rather than simply having a good time. He's in a recollective mood, enjoying the company of spirits on a secluded farm in the English countryside - rather than the high-speed city from which the postman has arrived.

The postman's is the first voice we hear though, and he is in fact the protagonist of the story. As the final shot suggests, he may have taken a fatal turn on route to delivering mail down that country road. But when the soul of McCartney's mandolin rises up from its empty box, it's no coincedence she momentarily appears to have wings (it also helps that she is played rather angelically by Natalie Portman). Just as obsessive Beatles fans dream every night, McCartney seems to open the door to the after life (though apparently the real party is down in the basement). More than anything it's an introduction to a world that inverts stale expectations - where music can carry you wherever you like.

We've strayed from our focus on humour, though not as far as you'd think. It's impossible to define, but comedy - in both the classical and popular sense - has much to do with misunderstanding. The climax of this video, in which many the personified objects return to the "wrong" place in the house, is both silly and enlightening. In many ways Gondry has an affinity with Kafka or Camus (as does frequent screenwriting buddy Charlie Kaufman) - a love for all things absurd. Life doesn't fall perfectly into place like knives in a kitchen drawer or books on a shelf, it's a jumbled house of mirrors* where anything goes. Through this dance at Macca's house the postal worker finally expresses himself and escapes the sterility of his previous life - perhaps too late for him, but not for us.

* technique used to create ghostly aura in house

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Never Let It Go: T.I. "Big Things Poppin"

T.I. "Big Things Poppin"

dir. by Eric White

After becoming the biggest rapper on the planet in 2006, T.I. faces '07 with a fresh set of dilemmas. It's no longer simply about representing his block or enjoying his rising fame - he now faces the fear of losing all that he has acquired. As Eric White's video shows us, there are thousands of fans out there who adore the southern MC and impatiently wait for a monster follow-up to King. With his influence at an all-time high, T.I. faces an internal conflict on how to present himself now that he is certified-platinum royalty.

Yet rather than settling on any one persona, he wisely chooses to show us the conflict itself. The first single from T.I. vs. T.I.P. is a self-addressed pep-talk in the vein of Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For" or Eminem's "Lose Yourself." It rebukes the naysayers and recalls past glories, while in its very existence represents the slightest bit of doubt.

The video cleverly begins with the two sides of T.I. facing off in what is the most engaging and humorous scene of the work. The two characters are separated by one's carefree fun-loving attitude and the other's business-like desire to succeed. They are later shown embracing super stardom in different ways, but neither seems greater than the other. In either case T.I. wants to convey that his biggest priority remains the fans - that he is still a Bankhead kid who loves to rap. Yet his success in this video lies in revealing how difficult playing that role can be when you're own expectations are so high.

Fast Food: The Killers "For Reasons Unknown"

The Killers "For Reasons Unknown"

dir. by

The criticism of Sam's Town has centered around its obviousness - a mediocre rip-off rather than the homage to Born to Run it wants to be. The video for first single "When We Were Young" didn't help matters much, a melodramatic tragedy full of barstools, dusty hillsides and fallen women. Suddenly The Killers first album, Hot Fuss, looked just as false, a costume of new wave rather than synthy sincerity. All that dramatic posing in the "Mr. Brightside" video wasn't masking a broken heart, it was simply posing.

It's always been tough to judge where Brandon Flowers is coming from as a writer. The cringeworthy "Somebody Told Me" was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but then again where can we find good Killer's lyrics? Isn't the band's entire enterprise tongue-in-cheek? The "For Reasons Unknown" video certainly seems to suggest as much. Poking fun at the "Americana" image they apparently don't fit, as well as their lack of subtlety (sitting in open chairs right as he says "there was an open chair") and even Flowers' recently cited resemblance to Kernel Sanders - The Killers manage a mildly entertaining ride (which happens to sum up their existence as a musical act thus far). Is it fair to expect anything more?

Yes, especially when after writing one of the best pop songs of the decade you proclaim - with a straight face - your next album to be the best in 20 years. Ouch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This Green Earth: Gui Boratto "Beautiful Life"

Gui Boratto "Beautiful Life"

dir. by Cadú Datoro

Beauty in the hands of DJ Gui Buratto is sunlit synths on the back of heart-racing drums, angelic hope emerging from cloudy fuzz and tense build-up as much as cathartic climax. His latest album, Chromophobia, is littered with moments of darkness overwhelmed by the sound of joy, and nowhere is this more fully realized than on lead single "Beautiful Life."

Director Cadú Datoro plays with our emotions in much the same way, setting up a stark contrast in order to convey his meaning. As we realize the false nature of the picture perfect set-up, we may be inclined to dismiss the earlier scenes of happiness. Yet discovering the realities of life only makes our innocence grow fonder in retrospect. The smile on the old man's face lingers in our memory whether or not it was "real," and subsequent events can't change our initial reaction. There is a neccesary beauty in knowledge and growth - but naivety holds its own charms.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Depth of Focus: David Bowie, Part 4

The final installment of our week long odyssey through Ziggy's labyrinth...

photo by mark seliger

Bowie found a nice comfort zone towards the end of the last decade, and even if he may never reach the heights of his former glory - one imagines he isn't trying to anyway. Like Dylan in the movies he don't look back, and - for the most part - is always on the cusp of what's next. Though critical and public acclaim have followed him throughout his career, the artist never put on a pretty face simply for the enjoyment of his audience. Bowie has explored everything from jungle beats to techno grunge in recent years because he has to. Constant transformation is exactly what his art is about. He presents himself as the undefinable shape-shifter, so that we might realize the futility of attempting to judge or narrowly define any human being.

Make sure and check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our feature.

New Killer Star: Present Era

"Little Wonder" (1997) Earthling

dir. by Floria Sigismondi

There's obvious irony in Bowie naming his album Earthling after a lifetime of reaching for the stars. Yet the artist wasn't any less inclined to get carried away to mars in 1997, even if he did seem increasingly frustrated with the stagnation around him. Director Floria Sigismondi perfectly captures this sense of stifled dreams in her video for "Little Wonder." When Bowie desperately flaps his arms staring up at the sky - he stands inside a grimy bath tub.

Sigismondi, who just won the MVPA for 2006 video of the year, matches the dub energy of the beat with trippy images of urban chaos. Bowie gives a manic performance, leering and sneering at the camera as he jumps between the edges of the frame. At the same time a man who resembles a young Bowie trudges through the streets collecting the world's garbage, keeping them in his briefcase of treasures. There's a sense that his fascination with eyeballs and severed heads is drug-induced, but it also speaks to Bowie's embrace of the ugly and absurd which became an important theme in his 90's videos.

"Dead Man Walking" (1997) Earthling

dir. by Floria Sigismondi

There's a puppeteer theme than runs through this video, but what is really controlling Bowie is not a force from above - it's something lurking behind. He may push forward with his music, but his lyrics are wrapped in nostalgia. It isn't just "dancing under the lamplight" or "sliding naked and new" which he misses so dearly, but the naivety of his world view before he was "older than movies." He looks at the TV screen and suddenly wonders if there is any point in performing when life itself seems like a stage show, "is it all just human disguise?". Without the power of his masks, Bowie suddenly feels dead inside - memorably represented here by his faceless anguish.

"Seven Years in Tibet" (1997) Earthlings

dir. by Rudi Dolezal & Hannes Rossacher

Bowie's enchantment with Asian culture continues as this video is infused with images of Tibetan faces and flags as well as a vague vibe of Buddhist philosophy. The lyrics of the song seem to suggest a moment of profundity following a violent realization - personified by the angry notes of the song. The directors hone in on the line "see nothing at all," with Bowie's wide open eye slowly becoming jumpy and paranoid. The lyric is followed by a series of visual observations, suggesting that Bowie is actually seeing more than he ever has before.

Also, is there any doubt this video directly inspired Zoolander - on a number of levels?

"I'm Afraid of Americans" [remix] feat. Trent Reznor (1997)Earthlings

dir. by Dom & Nic

Co-Written by Brian Eno, this song is less about hatred of a certain nation and more universally critical of dominating cultures of any kind. Bowie uses the two most visible symbols of the modern monopolization of culture - Christianity and America - to represent his fears and frustration. The directors also make reference to Scorsese's Taxi Driver with both Trent Reznor's character and the "hand gun" motions everyone seems to make. Like De Niro's Travis Bickle, Bowie's character here is slightly delusional. They are both a product of their society, but Bowie's paranoia is less about loneliness and more rooted in the depressing truths of American culture's omnipresence in the world.

"I Can't Read" (1997) The Ice Storm OST

dir. by Tim Pope

The projected face on a masked Bowie is effective - if a bit obvious - in conveying a similar idea to those explored in the earlier Earthling videos. Bowie is face to face with his old age and realizes that 15 minutes of fame (a panning shot of his costume rack reminds us of his success) doesn't guarantee even 15 minutes of happiness. The realities of the superstar dream are further emphasized by the highly visible presence of the camera - which represents both the paparazzi and the transparency of performance.

"Thursday's Child" (1999) hours...

dir. by Walter Stern

The themes of old age and waning talent which had briefly made appearances in the past, found themselves in the spotlight on 'hours...'. Once again the mirror is used as a reference point for Bowie's thoughts on his age and changing physical appearance, but there is much more going on in this Walter Stern directed video than simple yearning for youth. With a few simple glances Bowie tackles issues of lust, body image and fidelity.

According to the always accurate Wikipedia, there is an old poem that predicts the fate of children based on the day in the week on which they were born. Bowie was born on a Wednesday, and is destined for "woe," but as he says in the song he is really a child of Thursday - one who has "far to go." What let's the singer avoid the pangs of looking back and stay forward-looking is supposedly the lovely woman next to him.

Yet as he thinks back to a past lover, he suddenly feels guilty for lusting after his memories. It's clear from the opening moments - when Bowie struggles to find his old voice - that the man is wishing for something that is gone. Standing in front of that mirror he wonders if perhaps his current love simply reminds him of another younger woman - or youth in general. It's a secret bit of doubt he harbors in his heart, and only shows when she's not looking. But the dark shadows of the room suggest these thoughts can't stay hidden for long.

"The Pretty Things are Going to Hell" (2000) hours...

dir. by Dom & Nic

Another missing clip. Isn't it strange that the newer videos seem harder to track down than the older ones?

"Survive" (2000) hours...

dir. by Walter Stern

In "Ashes to Ashes" Bowie is strapped to an electric chair in his kitchen, caged by nightmares of domesticity. But a more seasoned and wiser man sits solemnly at his dinner table in this video. Bowie is lost in self-pitying thoughts of youth once again, and Stern surrounds him in a cold metallic environment to reflect his mood. Yet the singer slowly realizes that one can reach zero gravity without a spaceship or bright red hair - it's simply a state of mind.

"Slow Burn" (2002) Heathen

dir. by ?

It's always surprising that there aren't more videos for Heathen, which really marked a return to form for Bowie in terms of critical and popular success. This short promo features more references to space travel, suppressed emotion and lost youth - with the conduit to freedom being music. It also features Pete Townshend on guitar.

There is also a video for "Everyone Says Hi" from the album, but we once again were unable to locate it online.

"New Killer Star" (2003) Reality

dir. by Brumby Boylston

A combination of "Let's Dance"'s social conscious and the environmental concern of "When the Wind Blows," this strange video is fairly dark under its sunny covers. Many of the shots focus on the momentarily changing expressions on the faces of people, which suggests the fleeting nature of our emotions. But the eventual effect of our shortsightedness could be far more dangerous - with the fallen spaceship being only the tip of the melting iceberg.

...back to Part 3...

Previous Depth of Focus Features: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Depth of Focus: David Bowie, Part 3

Diamond dogs in the rough...

It may come as a surprise to some that David Bowie, despite the lack of many major hits, produced a handful of his best videos in the 1990's. Rather than settling into mediocrity or just recycling the rewards of his fame, the artist continued to explore new ways of expressing himself visually. Bowie has always faired well in collaborative work, and in this era he expands beyond the Mallets and Rocks of the world to recruit new directorial talents. The results are largely positive - with a few videos here standing amongst the best of the decade.

In case you missed them, here's Part 1 and Part 2 of our feature.

Real Cool World: The 90's

"Heaven's In Here"(1990) Tin Machine

dir. by ?

Bowie looks as cool as ever, but something about the guitar wankery doesn't suit him - probably because he isn't the one doing it. Tin Machine was by no means a great album, but if the band had lasted a few more years they might have found commercial success amongst the angsty-bands of the 90's. Thankfully Bowie didn't go that route, though he may have directly inspired it.

"Fame 90" (1990) Remix Single

dir. by Gus van Sant

The man who went on to submit Golden Palm-winning films at Cannes here directs Bowie through some interpretive dance alongside professional dancer Louise LeCavalier - all while clips from classic Bowie videos burn up around them. Which suggests, like the lyrics of the song, that the flames of stardom can keep you sane just as they push you towards insanity.

"Pretty Pink Rose" w/ Adrian Belew (1990)

dir. by Tim Pope

Belew is a sort of virtuoso, playing multiple instruments on numerous records with legendary musicians (from Talking Heads to Frank Zappa) as well as being a vital member of the band King Crimson himself. Bowie first used Belew's talents on his 1979 album Lodger, where the American played lead guitar and supported him on tour. Thankfully these two skilled artists combine their formidable gifts to come up with...a ridiculous music video.

"Real Cool World" (1992) Cool World OST

dir. by Ralph Bakshi

I've never seen this film, but apparently it involves humans having sex with cartoons - and the obvious repercussions of such acts. It also, not surprisingly, was released four years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Bowie's Michael Jackson impression actually works pretty well, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to rent the movie this weekend.

"Jump They Say" (1993) Black Tie White Noise

dir. by Mark Romanek

Bowie always had a fascination with the paranoia of 1984 (at one point planning a concept album around the book), and in this superb video he is able to further explore ideas of 'big brother' and fear of the unknown. Standing on the edge of a futuristic corporate building, Bowie's character looks down at the metaphysical and literal prison bars of the busy street below. In many ways he just wants to escape the corner in which he is boxed, but at the same time he feels a despair and self-pity which will provide the final push over the edge.

Of course the pressure which torments him is induced by his job and the stifling society around him. Romanek borrows from Temple's "Day-In Day-Out" with the white handheld camera, which recalls the themes of social corruption highlighted in that video. Yet the majority of the crisis is mental, and the star is shown repeatedly rubbing his forehead in existential pain. In general Romanek's video is masterfully filled with detailed imagery so that not a single frame is wasted. There is a particularly striking visualization of the character's sense of worthlessness as Bowie - one of the iconic faces in pop culture history - disappears into an assemblage of suited businessman. When he doesn't stand out in a crowd we know there's something seriously wrong with the place.

Another crucial shot comes when we see the character's face after he has hit the ground and presumably died. We have rarely, if ever, seen Bowie's normally pristine face so mangled and broken - and in showing us this side the artist expresses a rare moment of sincerity. Bowie had lost his step-brother to suicide prior to writing this song, and the physical pain of that experience is worn openly. He exhumes his frustrations through the images and questions posed here.

Neither the director nor the singer paint suicide as a simple right or wrong choice. It's at times shown as a desperate plea for attention, while at others a Christ-like sacrifice aimed at inspiring a mechanical world. But whatever the interpretation, the moment when Bowie removes his tie - standing above the world - is key. In the end, whether you choose to do as "they say" or make your own decisions in life, the universal desire of humanity remains liberation. No bird enjoys being trapped in a cage.

"Black Tie White Noise" (1993) Black Tie White Noise

dir. by Mark Romanek

The return of Mick Ronson wasn't the monumental event some had hoped for, but it did - along with Bowie's recent marriage to Iman - breathe fresh excitement into the artist's career. If Black Tie White Noise isn't superior to his pop albums of the late 80's, it is at least more adventurous. And perhaps nowhere is that more obvious than on the genre-bending title track featuring unibrowed R&B star Al B. Sure!.

Though the song struggles to meld its disparate parts, the video manages to speak to the Los Angeles race riots which inspired the lyrics. Filling the screen with people from multiple walks of life, Bowie once again pines for equality and fairness in a troubling society. It works much better in the hands of Romanek than it has in others, mainly because he doesn't use foreign fetishes as the root of his argument. In fact there are so many stark and startling shots that one can almost ignore the sometimes cringe worthy lyrics - almost.

"Miracle Goodnight" (1993) Black Tie White Noise

dir. by Matthew Rolston

A simple kaleidoscopic effect lifts a series of odd images into the realm of compelling surrealism. Bowie dances with himself, cross-dresses and shares the screen with a scantily clad cowgirl - all within director Matthew Rolston's house of mirrors. The theme of dueling personalities is not only established by the reflections, but in the crisscrossing of traditional and challenging images of male sexuality. In one scene Bowie is covered by beautiful writhing women while in the next he poses dressed in high heels. The gaudy blatancy of the cowgirl's come-ons, backed by bright neon colors, pale in comparison to the black and white eroticism of these scenes - or the classic Greek art referenced here.

Yet the real impressive aspect of Rolston's work is how each shot is so carefully composed and balanced, while at the same time deftly layered with the music. From the toe-tapping Bowie that highlights the bridge, to the sublime editing of the finale - it's a visual feast of shocking and engaging ideas.

"I Feel Free" [Cream cover] (1993)

dir. by David Mallet

The performance video is interesting for its dramatic stage lighting and Bowie jamming out on the saxophone. It also marks a return to David Mallet's career-defining vision of Bowie.

"You've Been Around" (1994) Black Tie White Noise

dir. by David Mallet

A very minimalistic approach which brings out the classy trumpets and gospel choir which carry the song. And in case you're wondering, you aren't going crazy, this upload is not properly synced with the music.

"Night Flights" (1994) Black Tie White Noise

dir. by David Mallet

The interview that precedes the video is far more interesting than what accompanies the song. I wonder if Beyonce used the Black Tie White Noise Videos as inspiration when she filmed a million videos at once for B'Day?

"Buddha of Suburbia" (1994) The Buddha of Suburbia

dir. by Roger Michell

People kind of forget that there was this album of new material released as a soundtrack for a BBC show called The Buddha of Suburbia. In fact, it's ignored so much that we were unable to track down a clip of this anywhere on the Internet (little help?).

Yes, that is a young Naveen Andrews!

"The Hearts Filthy Lesson" (1995) Outside

dir. by Samuel Bayer

Bayer, who directed Nirvana's iconic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, developed a creepy and memorable style in the 90's with grimy lighting and off-kilter cuts. Bowie's impending collaboration with Trent Reznor and his appearance on the soundtrack to Seven seem right at home with the industrial violence of his work here. While at times it just feels like excessively gory shock value, Bowie is in fact exploring tense themes of artistic and social relevance.

From the tarnished existence of modern art to the spread of HIV/Aids across the globe, Bayer's fantasy is in fact a representation of society's very real problems. Freddie Mercury - a good friend of Bowie's - had recently succumbed to the rapidly spreading sexually transmitted disease, and here we see both needles passing through skin and simulated sexual acts. But the "filthy lesson" Bowie sings of isn't "use condoms" or "avoid drugs" - it's realizing the horrible and scary consequences of ignoring a serious global epidemic.

The destruction of all things beautiful is simply an extension of that message. The mannequins which are torn open show mechanical hearts within - lifeless people and art. The imploding chaos of the "last supper" suggests a necessary revolution resulting from all this ignorance and suppression. Not surprisingly, the messiah appears to be Bowie and his music - once again standing on the outside.

"Strangers When We Meet" (1995) Outside

dir. by Samuel Bayer

Bayer returns with more silent-film referencing cinematography and set-design, but things are drastically less gloomy this time around. Though even as things look a little brighter, it's clear that there is no lack of despair in the room. The woman who dances with Bowie almost looks like the plastered models from the previous video come to life, but she is more Raggedy Ann inside.

We already knew that Bowie had a thing for unknown and inanimate lovers, but we soon learn that Bayer enjoys scenes of mob violence just as much. The resistance here is rooted in Bowie's own heart - trapped in a circus of his own creation. Though as always, he doesn't seem quite ready to leave just yet.

"Hallo Spaceboy" [Pet Shop Boys Remix] (1996) Outside

dir. by David Mallet

Even though we immediately recognize Mallet's cinematic gaze, the 1996 version is decidedly updated from his earlier incarnation of soft-lighting and low-angle hero shots. The influx of pop culture references and exterior film clips (not to mention some really world class editing) make this nostalgic remix video an unforgettable modern peak for Bowie. It also raises that age-old question - how come Pet Shop Boys are so succesful in England but not in the States?

...back to Part 2...____________________...forward to Part 4...

Previous Depth of Focus Features: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Depth of Focus: David Bowie, Part 2

Moving forward through the long, long video career of Ziggy Stardust...

Entering the third decade of his life in entertainment, Bowie didn't slow down a bit - pushing his fame and creativity past the brink of super stardom. While some may argue his best days were already behind him, as the 80's moved forward the artist was in the midst of his most succesful reinvention yet. Releasing his best-selling album, working in movies and collaborating with top artists was just part of the ever-changing game for David Bowie.

In case you missed it, here's Part 1 of the feature. Part 2 is split into two segments, the second of which will be posted below tomorrow.

Loving the Alien: The Let's Dance Era

"Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (1983) Let's Dance

dir. by David Mallet

Let's Dance was Bowie's most internationally succesful album to date, and the video for "Cat People" finds the artist at the peak of his popularity. The stage show is grandly orchestrated and exuberantly executed, but the song - much like the entire second half of the album - is only mildly thrilling. Thus, as far as performance videos go, it's one of Bowie's weaker efforts.

"Let's Dance" (1983) Let's Dance

dir. by David Mallet

Bowie plays both the villain and hero in this confrontational video set in the Australian outback. Director David Mallet (who at this point has linked his entire career with that of Bowie) tells a story of discrimination and resistance within a still largely class-based modern society. The white upper class characters (one of whom is played by Bowie) look down upon the less wealthy workers (all of whom have darker skin) and reinforce their inferior status in the community. Yet with a little inspiration from Bowie the musician, the forgotten folks don't let the perception of others control their self-image for very long.

Mallet depicts the initial psychological effects of social snobbery with a few potent dream sequences. As a high-heeled lady towers over a worker scrubbing her floor, the diligent employee imagines herself cleaning congested streets in the middle of the city. Drivers and passengers leer at her blocking the traffic and the woman feels as if she is one with the dirt which she so tirelessly washes away. Her job seems pointless in this context - only serving to remind her of her facelessness within this ignorant crowd.

Yet being stepped on in this way doesn't just influence your nightmares, it has a distinct effect on your dreams as well. The young couple walk by shops and boutiques which promise happiness in the form of luxury - or a pair of red shoes. But the characters reject this false ideal, and they do so with the help of music and self-expression (of course dancing). One of the final shots of the video shows Bowie standing between the workers and images of Sydney high class - art represented as the great leveler and source of hope for the downtrodden.

"China Girl" (1983) Let's Dance

dir. by David Mallet

It's ironic that Bowie follows up one of his most socially conscious videos with a particularly insensitive one. Though upon release the biggest controversy was Bowie's bared backside, watching it today one can't avoid the blatant fetishization of Asian women throughout. The lyrics were supposedly originally a reference to cocaine (as in "China white") and written for Iggy Pop a few years earlier, but when Bowie decided to use it on his own work he deleted an introduction that might have made that clearer. What's left is a From Here to Eternity-referencing video that wants to free women from suppressive cultures, but ends up reinforcing already confining stereotypes.

The work begins with vaguely "eastern" music and an image of a decorated woman trapped behind barbed wire. Bowie, through his charms, is able to illicit emotion and personality out of her previously solemn face - proving that she is indeed more than simply a caricature. Yet the repition of "little china girl" - which sounds a lot like little china doll - paints a negative picture of women (particularly Asian women) as fragile infantile creatures who need the nurturing and help of men to express themselves. The shot of Bowie and the girl embracing on the beach only reiterates this point - the man being on top and all.

Perhaps even more interesting is what the video says about Bowie's attraction to and love of image. Even though he often challenges or dissects his fascination with guise and show through his videos, he still clearly enjoys inhabiting and creating statuesque characters - personified here in his doll-like love interest. Bowie has always criticized societies stifling codes of behavior, and perhaps his personas are in response to, or a product of, that suppression. But one can't ignore how influential the artist's promotion of image - particularly that of cool detachment - has been on the history of popular music and culture. Sometimes Bowie's robotic steeliness can feel very confining in it, of itself.

"Modern Love" (1983) Let's Dance

dir. by Jim Yukich

The song recently appeared on the soundtrack for the film The Business (2005), and thus this YouTube clip attributes the video to the movie. But the footage is clearly from the 80's and comes from a time when Bowie was enormously popular worldwide. Their are two amusing back-up singers and an impressive stage show, but the song really carries things with its catchy beat and always interesting lyrics. In fact it might have been much more fun to explore Bowie's ideas on love, religion and humanity in-depth.

"Blue Jean" (1984) Tonight

dir. by Julien Temple

This clip is only a short glimpse of the 21-minute epic production that Temple directed in anticipation of Bowie's Tonight album. While the video succeeded in vaulting "Blue Jean" into the top ten, there was no helping the public's lukewarm reception of the rest of the album. Nevertheless the music video is one of the earliest long-form narrative style releases, and features humor, lots of dancing and a compelling enough story.

Bowie shows some acting range by playing his dreamy stage persona and a dorkier version of himself simultaneously. With his face covered in paint and a turban on his head, the light reflecting off his get-up makes him look nearly hand-drawn or digitally animated at times. While the song seems to make reference to earlier hit "Jean Genie," the way in which the audience is blindly rapt in the movement of the performer (mimicking his actions often) reminds us of "Fashion." Except this time he appears far less critical of that phenomenon.

"Blue Jean" [alternate version]

dir. by Julien Temple

This faux-live video is memorable for its TRL-setting, hotel lobby introduction from Bowie and really great performance from the star (what an outfit!). The first video juggles a number of things but here Temple focuses purely on the song, bringing out the chorus with panning shots of everyone singing in unison. It's enough to make you dig up that dusty copy of Tonight and wonder why it is so oft maligned.

Having traveled this far into Bowie's video career without mentioning MTV was probably a mistake, as many forget he was just as vital to the success of music television as Michael Jackson(if not more so). It wasn't just videos either, Bowie was really setting up - as this work illustrates - the television pop star model that lasted for years to come.

"Loving the Alien" (1985) Tonight

dir. by David Mallet & David Bowie

Whereas in the past Bowie always represented a feeling of disconnect through images of space travel, during this period he goes with more literal ideas of "foreign" to represent not fitting in. He melds Buddhist and Hindu visuals with Middle Eastern and Islamic iconography (they're all the same anyway, right?) - with a story that holds more than a passing resemblance to "China Girl." The key is that no matter how he chooses to convey his ideas, ever since the days of "Major Tom" it has been Bowie himself who feels more "alien" than anyone else.

Here he has trouble looking in the mirror and perhaps imagines the entire affair from inside an insane asylum. He attempts to hide his insecurities through exterior changes (the backing band seems to reference the Tin Man from "Ashes to Ashes"), but this fails as the burqa-ed woman throws his money back at him. Before Bowie can ever escape that room he must first come to terms with his own humanity - maybe start believing that he isn't that weird after all (nobody is).

"This is Not America" w/ Pat Metheny Group

dir. by John Schlesinger

The film from which these scenes are taken, The Falcon and the Snowman (starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton), tells the true story of two Americans who decide to sell secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While one character is motivated by money and the other a sense of idealism, both are feeling disillusioned with their country and government. This impression of lost innocence - in regards to society's perception of American ideals - is expressed in the song through images of melting snow men and bloody falcons.

"Dancing in the Street" w/ Mick Jagger (1985) Absolute Beginners OST

dir. by David Mallet

You see, umm, Bowie and Jagger are imitating each other, err, I mean it's supposed to be kitschy, uh, never mind. There's no point in explaining this silliness - you either love it or love to hate it. There were rumors at the time that these two were an item, but it's unclear how those got started.

"Absolute Beginners" (1985) Absolute Beginners OST

dir. by Julien Temple

If you take out the film tie-in and look past the blatant sexism of the catty female, this is really one of Bowie's finest videos - at the very least one of his best looking. Naturally he slips quite easily into the film noir genre, and director Julien Temple (who also directed the feature film of the same name) uses harsh lighting and more than a passing nod to "Billie Jean" to create an exciting environment of back alleys and empty cafes at night. There's a throw away reference to race riots (which only serves to magnify the peculiarity of the female character's costume), but this is really about Bowie's search for easy answers in a tough world.

In the classic fable, the zebra gets his stripes when he is burned while fighting a baboon for the right to give access to water to all animals. Here Bowie is torched by love and lust, in pursuit of his ideals. There's also a revival of the imagery from "Rock 'N Roll Suicide" - cigarettes which never last long enough, much like the innocent pleasures of new love.

Navigating the Labyrinth:

"When the Wind Blows" (1986) When the Wind Blows OST

dir. by Jimmy T. Murakami

We had trouble locating the actual music video for this (if anyone has a tip, holla!), and instead posted a link to the film from which it was taken. The original video featured scenes from the movie with Bowie's face on top, and not much else. The song features bleak and pessimistic lyrics - much like the darkly humorous nuclear war themes of the animated film. Worth renting if you've got the time.

"Underground" (1986) Labyrinth OST

dir. by Steve Barron

This is one of the better movie tie-in videos ever made, with director Steve Barron actually using Labyrinth as a source of thematic inspiration rather than merely a promotional tool. Here the claustrophobic maze is within Bowie's own head - where he spirals down through a myriad of his past masks and characters. Yet when faced with the ultimate decision to turn to the dark side (er, represented by some cuddly puppets), Bowie releases a hand-drawn sketch he holds inside. It appears the only away for him to avoid complete madness, is to dig further into himself and his art.

"As the World Falls Down" (1993) Labyrinth OST

dir. by Steve Barron

Though it was fantasy film of the highest pedigree, Labyrinth has been a cult favorite since the early nineties due to Bowie as much as Henson or Lucas. He not only gives a wickedly strange performance, but carries himself with some very creepy sexual energy - on top of composing a few memorable songs for the soundtrack. In fact, for many kids growing up in the '90's, Labyrinth was their first introduction to the weird brilliance of Bowie.

The story of maturity and retaining one's childhood fantasies is also very relevant to Bowie the musician. Though his fantasies do seem to involve mainly himself as a space cowboy or an irresistible sex icon (sometimes both). Barron chooses to play up the latter of the two, underlining what the NY Times called a "driving, sensual appeal" in the soundtrack. In the film his Jareth character is the villain who takes Jennifer Connelly's baby brother away, but also the one who spurs a subtle sexual awakening in the pre-pubescent girl.

The more you study it, the more absurd (perhaps brilliant) this movie becomes.

"Day-in Day-out" (1987) Never Let Me Down [full clip]

dir. by Julien Temple

Because of the controversial nature of some themes, this video was often banned or re-cut for television. The YouTube clip is case in point, so make sure to click the link to the longer version (though still edited) on iFilm above. A particularly important edit was made with the close-up on the child's building blocks near the climax of the video. In the edited version they read, "Luck", "Look" and "Mom," but originally those first two words were "Fuck" and "Food." The changed version doesn't make any sense, but the real one is a bleak distillation of what life will be for the impoverished (male) child.

Julien Temple became Bowie's go-to-guy for longer narrative videos, and he brings his flare for extreme imagery to this rather transparent video (which may be in response to criticism that the song's message was buried beneath it's over-produced sound). Once again (as in "Absolute Beginners") Temple presents the female body as prey chased through the night in a male-dominated environment. On the outer edges there is commentary about the treatment of poverty in America and the governments ineptitude in bridging the class divide (one of Bowie's favorite subjects). But at the center is the blatant rape of the protagonist and the second-class status of women in modern society. From the strip clubs that illuminate the background to the lover who deserts her in times of need - the woman is constantly reminded of her dependency on corrupt men.

Yet through it all Bowie can't resist making references to his own life - with the woman donning a Ziggy Stardust wig just as she enters into prostitution. Which either supports or counters those critics who claimed the artist had "sold out" in the 80's. It also raises the question of whether Temple and Bowie are themselves guilty of making their social commentary on gender at the expense of the woman - selling sex in order to speak of equality. The angels with fake video cameras imply hypocrisy, but the pretense here extends beyond religious morality.

"Time Will Crawl" (1987) Never Let Me Down

dir. by Tim Pope

There's sexuality of all kinds on display in this mock-documentary of backstage rehearsals on Bowie's Glass Spider Tour. The song itself continues themes from When the Wind Blows, lamenting the destruction of the Earth at the hands of pollution and capitalism. But it's a pretty stale affair overall, with the only highlights being the campy innuendos and a Peter Frampton cameo.

"Never Let Me Down" (1987) Never Let Me Down

dir. by Jean Baptiste-Mondino

Never Let Me Down is often cited as Bowie's worst album, and the videos don't do much to refute that opinion. The opening narration sinks this one before it ever gets off the ground - putting us to sleep almost immediately. Baptiste-Mondino's creates an atmosphere of sexy boredom to bring out the melancholy notes of the song, but the sepia smokiness actually does bore us - and far too easily. The only attraction through the rest of the video are people humping each other (which isn't all that hot) and Bowie laying it down on harmonica (which is).

Most importantly: though we respect young Americans looking for a good time at an all-night dance-a-thon/orgy - this is surely no place for impressionable young minds!? Or is it all actually part of the young girl's fantasy? Or perhaps Bowie's? Let's hope the answer is "no," on both counts.

"Tonight" w/ Tina Turner (1988) Tina Live in Europe

dir. by ?

For once, Bowie is soundly beaten in the categories of craziest hairdo and gaudiest outfit. Though he might still have the edge in make-up.

...back to Part 1... _______________________________ ...forward to Part 3...

Previous Depth of Focus Features: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson

Monday, May 14, 2007

Depth of Focus: David Bowie

Our continuing series on the video careers of major artists moves from the King of Pop to the Thin White Duke...

Nearly every discussion of David Bowie's career emphasizes his propensity for change, summed up by the much-beloved phrase "musical chameleon." As clichéd as that conversation can be, most of it holds true - Bowie has displayed an amazing ability to transform and reinvent his art on a consistent basis. Yet despite the constant flux of his image, there are a number of themes that have stayed throughout most of his five(!) decades of pop stardom.

Closely studying his video output is one way of observing Bowie's ideas develop over time. From the obvious love affair with extravagant show to his more subtle social commentaries, Bowie's videography is perhaps the most unique and influential of any one musician in the history of music video. He single-handedly revolutionized and expanded the form - much in the same way he altered the course of rock 'n roll. The most vital legacy of Bowie is not how often he switched costumes, but how drastically he changed the landscape of pop art in the process.

I Am What I Play: The Ziggy Stardust Era

"Let Me Sleep Beside You" (1969) David Bowie (Love You Till Tuesday)

dir. by Malcolm J. Thomson

The Elvis-gyrating and suggestive guitar motions are a modest preview of what was to come. This and the following two clips are taken from a marginally successful promotional film made in 1969, Love You Till Tuesday, meant to introduce the world to the future icon. Even as it failed to peak the interest of potential buyers, it's clear from the first shot that David Bowie is a performer, through and through.

"Love You Till Tuesday" (1969) David Bowie (Love You Till Tuesday)

dir. by Malcolm J. Thomson

(If you follow the link above you can watch the version without the movie titles.)

Bowie is in prime music hall form, reminding us all that he once shared a name with Davy Jones. Yet even at his cheesiest extreme, he has the camera wrapped around his flighty finger.

"Space Oddity" [Version 1] (1969) The Deram Anthology

dir. by Malcolm J Thomson

"Space Oddity" [Version 2] (1972) Space Oddity

dir. by Mick Rock

"Space Oddity" [Version 3] (1979)

dir. by David Mallet

It's hard to justify three videos for any single song, but "Space Oddity" is such a grand achievement that it almost demands repeated attention. The original version features an alternate take on the classic song, and is the most interesting of the three. Director Thomson supposedly planned a more risqué piece, with presumably more sex and psychedelia, but what remains is a humorous and creepy visualization of Major Tom's really bad trip - from which he never returns. The video also stars then girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, who apparently influenced the writing of the song. Her presence, and the way the video concludes, suggests that love (or lust) has pushed the singer into space as much as any drug might have.

Mick Rock's take, which is decidedly darker from the get go, matches Major Tom's disconnect from ground control with hints of paranoia and mental collapse. The green transmissions on the screen are the literal visualization of the sound waves, but the rest of the video peeks into the thoughts behind the notes. The sitting Bowie suggests that Tom never leaves the ground, and that his messages echo inside his own empty control room. The video also plays upon the dramatic impact of the music by emphasizing the guitar Bowie holds in his lap - music is yet another conduit to escape.

In the third video Bowie looks Dylan-esque with his curly hair and an acoustic strapped to his shoulder. There's also an improvement in trippy camera effects from the first one. The rumbling smoke at his feet and the occasional moments of darkness once again highlight the dual nature of the experience, but the decision to end in shadow makes director David Mallet's interpretation clear.

"John I'm Only Dancing" (1972) Ziggy Stardust (Single)

dir. by Mick Rock

It's fairly certain from the song itself that the singer wants much more than a dance, but even if he were simply seeking a tango, the performers in this video demonstrate the potential eroticism of "only dancing." The director does a good job of magnifying the three essential components of the track - the big drums, guitars and Bowie himself. While the singer sells desire and suppression through a few hand gestures and a pensive look on his face, the camera spins around him and his burning red hair.

"The Jean Genie" (1972) Aladdin Sane

dir. by Mick Rock

Co-starring Cynthia Foxe, a friend of Bowie and Andy Warhol, director Mick Rock channels the street-level Velvet of the song with the glamour of Hollywood life. Foxe looks a bit like Jean Harlowe, dancing energetic circles around the unaffected Ziggy Stardust - while Bowie jams out with the Spiders From Mars.

"Life on Mars" (1973) Hunky Dory

dir. by Mick Rock

The concepts of guise, ambiguity and escapism have been central to David Bowie's popular image from the very beginning. The artist himself was well aware of his propensity for show and his naturally androgynous looks - and he used both as tools for expressing a sense of detached cool and shifting identity. One of his many songs about the distant corners of space, "Life on Mars" uses the outsider persona to criticize and show frustration with the current state of the world.

Director Rock focuses deeply on Bowie's "alien" characteristics, and sets him up to contrast the "saddening bore" mentioned in the song. From heavy face paint to close-ups on his lengthy eyelashes, Bowie is the complete antithesis of the macho "cavemen" who pollute society with unnecessary "fighting in the dance hall." He's also covered in a stark white color that nearly blends him into the studio background - mirroring his feeling of despair in this suffocating social environment. It's the type of loneliness that leads one to search for answers beyond the stars.

"White Light, White Heat" (1973)

"Ziggy Stardust" (1973)

"Changes" (1973)

Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture dir. by D.A. Pennebaker

Though the film wasn't officially released until '83, this is a chronicle of the final performance of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1973. Directed by the legendary Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), it captures David Bowie at his highest peak as a performer. The crowds are chaotic and obsessive, creating an infectious aura around the concert, which Pennebaker translates well.

The version of the Velvet Underground classic here is quite strong, which comes as no surprise considering Bowie's admiration for the band and his own ability to transform. Though upon release "Changes" wasn't a huge hit, it went on to become one of his most well-known and (for obvious reasons) representative of his entire career (and probably inspired this children's television theme).

"Rock 'n Roll Suicide" (1974) Ziggy Stardust

dir. by Mick Rock

Bowie physically connects with his audience through his music, and shots of his passionate singing are coupled with desperately reaching hands from the crowd. The footage is compiled from various shows during his tours in the 70's, and the singer is shown to joyfully personify the "cigarette" lifestyle promoted in his song. It isn't necessarily "live fast, die young," but more along the lines of - take as many drags while you still can.

"Little Drummer Boy" w/ Bing Crosby (1977)

dir. by Dwight Harrison

There's far less awkwardness here than you might expect, and that's chiefly due to Crosby's class and Bowie's more than capable acting skills (Labyrinth, The Prestige). Neither of them looks too uncomfortable, despite the fact the situation is clearly forced. It was a huge hit as well, reaching as high as # 3 on the UK charts.

"Be My Wife" (1977) Low

dir. by Stanley Dorfman

Low did in fact spawn singles, even if it didn't storm the charts like many of his preceding albums. Yet "Be My Wife" is probably the most accessible track on the landmark record that initiated his "Berlin Trilogy." The heavy riffs are emphasized here by the prominently placed electric guitar and the artist's emotive playing - all in a white setting that recalls the detached "Life on Mars."

There's an improvised feel to the song, and this spontaneity is brought out through Bowie's off-kilter acting - including a humorously blatant stroking of his guitar fret. The combination of this performance and his appearance is also purportedly meant to reference silent film star Buster Keaton. As we've seen recently with faux-punk glam bands, the silent form has become popular amongst musicians who admire its over-the-top acting and excessive use of eyeliner. Yet here Bowie uses it as a satirical tool to contrast the apparent earnestness of the lyrics, "share my life."

"Heroes" [Version 1] (1977) "Heroes"

dir. by Nick Ferguson

When the video starts, as Bowie stands in shadows backed by the bright lights, it almost looks as if he's wearing a gown - rather than a full-body leather jumper. In either case, the singer gives an impassioned performance of his huge hit, and even if the lyrics are more hopeful than sexy - a strategically placed light makes sure dirty things are on our mind throughout.

"Boys Keep Swinging" (1979) Lodger

dir. by David Mallet

Though "Boys Keep Swinging" was a top ten hit in the UK, RCA decided against releasing it as the lead single for Lodger in the US. There were a couple of reasons for that decision, but David Mallet's controversial video likely played a major role. It would be easy enough to censor lines like "When you're a boy, other boys check you out" (which is what Saturday Night Live did when Bowie performed it on the show), but the video makes it impossible to avoid the issues at hand.

Bowie attacks the unequal standards of our patriarchal society and plays on gender stereotypes with sarcastic lines like, "Life is a pop of the cherry" and "clothes always fit ya." Mallet begins the video with the singer in full-on Elvis mode, a mock representation of standard idealistic 'masculinity.' Then he slowly moves further and further away from that set-up, first introducing female back up singers and then revealing that they are all in fact Bowie in drag.

In the first two cases the singer rips off his wig and wipes away the lipstick, as if to confront the audience with the truth of their deeply held assumptions on gender. Yet he ends the video with wig on - showing us the silliness of even needing to remove make-up in order to prove your sex, and that neither women nor men should be treated differently based on their physical appearance alone. The sad part is, you couldn't easily get this on national television today.

"DJ" (1979) Lodger

dir. by David Mallet

The line, "I am a DJ, I am what I play," could easily be David Bowie's slogan as an artist. It not only implies multiple records spinning at once, but also references devotion to the craft which often supersedes any sense of personal identity. Though with his record smashing he seems to violently reject the trappings of music, his walk amongst the people rejuvenates his love for the role as spokesperson for the masses - "I've got believers."

Yet despite the onslaught of kisses and well-wishers, there remains an individual struggling to emerge from under the pressures of stardom. Bowie tears down the shades to reveal a piercing bright light, and defiantly smashes a mirror that reflects a false image. But even after spray-painting a window in rebellion, he dejectedly plants a record on the glass - as if forever trapped by his art.

"Look Back in Anger"(1979) Lodger

dir. by David Mallet

Mallet injects even more narcissism into Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray by having Bowie play the role of both painter and subject - locked in his personal attic. His obsession with his own beauty leads to physical weakness and rapid aging, not to mention psychological torment. Yet he isn't initially staring into the mirror, but merely looking at an artistic representation of himself (a fallen angel that rises in the opening). This created image is what he truly falls in love with.

In that way the video continues the themes we saw in "DJ" and "Boys Keep Swinging," a self-reflective look at Bowie the artist and how that affects or represents Bowie the person. Here the allure of performance and idolatry becomes an addiction, a room from which the artist cannot escape. Yet just as Wilde saw Dorian almost as an ideal (1), Bowie gives such an ecstatic portrayal of his character that one imagines he still finds much to love in that mirror.

"Ashes to Ashes" (1980) Scary Monsters

dir. by David Mallet & David Bowie

One of the most influential and popular videos of all-time, when released the £250,000 "Ashes to Ashes" was also the most expensive video ever made. Utilizing ambitious special effects, a larger cast and multiple locations - this was Bowie and Mallet's grandest visual statement to date. It's no shock then that the accompanying song is also considered amongst the more intricate works in the artist's oeuvre, and that the single went on to dominate the UK charts.

The video begins with Bowie standing on the red earth of a distant planet, proving there is indeed life on mars. Major Tom has landed here, for who knows how long, but Bowie seems far less sympathetic to his plight this time around. He comes right out and calls him a junky, and the bulldozing funeral march is his over-the-top burial of the character. Yet the appeal of Tom is tangled up in his mind too deeply to be removed completely - in the final shot the addicted inner Bowie looks sinisterly alive.

This prison-like distance from reality is represented in a number of novel ways throughout the video. The Wizard of Oz march down the yellow brick road to freedom conjures up thoughts of home, and we later see Bowie trapped in his mother's kitchen. The scene with one chair in a claustrophobic space represents his cognizant struggle to emerge from this hole (and was recently recycled by Sophie Muller for Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town"). Even when he seems to have escaped this place and takes a walk along the beach with his mother, he is still detached and lifeless. The greatest fear of the addict, like a convict released from jail, is that once they hit the ground they will fail to ever adjust back to life in the real world.

"Fashion" (1980) Scary Monsters

dir. by David Mallet

Hot on the heels of the success of "Ashes to Ashes," this video was another huge success for Mallet and Bowie. The subdued delivery of the chorus highlights the monotony of fickle fans ready to follow any command, and the costumed followers in line for more soup predict the zombies of "Thriller" (some of the dance moves do the same). Bowie has said the song is less about fascism than some critics have claimed, because rather than simply criticizing the suppression of the individual voice in an authoritarian environment - the singer is also wondering why people are so easily swayed by fashions in the first place. We laugh at the man awkwardly hopping on the dance floor or the drummer playing an invisible drum, yet we are all at one time or another victims of popular fads - even the trend-setting Bowie himself.

"Under Pressure" w/Queen (1981) Hot Space

dir. by David Mallet

Mallet does so much here with such a simple idea. His varying depictions of personally released pressure, contained pressure and the horrible effects of an entire society controlled by pressure are dead-on. Perhaps none more so than his theme, like that of the song, of love as the ultimate liberation from anxiety - both physically and mentally.

"The Drowned Girl" (1982) Baal EP

dir. by David Mallet

"Wild is the Wind" (1981) Baal EP

dir. by David Mallet

No matter how stripped-down the setting or sound, one can never entirely remove the dramatic performance from the dramatic performer. It shouldn't come as any shock that these songs were recorded for Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal, as they carry the weight of melodrama in every note. Mallet's videos are as deceptively simple here as Bowie's songs, using lights and shadows to create creeping suspense around the rising tension of the music. The close-ups on Bowie's facial expressions, and particularly his mouth, give emphasis to the words - and yet at the same time they strangely distract us from digesting the complete story.

Previous Depth of Focus features: Bjork, Radiohead and Michael Jackson

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie