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


elena said...

I really love Bowie.
I'll be back in your blog.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see your profile of Bowie's video evolution, and thanks for the thoughtful commentary with it. So much of the best stuff of his that was (and is being?) caught on film has yet to be officially released. His fans are legion; I hope that a focus like yours encourages him to open the vaults.

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