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


Anonymous said...

I am so loving this videography of David Bowie, truly I am. I am also bookmarking this blog because I'm loving it. But I have to ask... why is there nothing from the Young Americans era? It was when he was taking his music to a 'blue eyed soul' style. It's one of my favorite albums also. Mind you, I see you have have Fame 90 listed (I think there was an original Fame clip somewhere, at least there's bound to be on youtube). But it was also an era where some of the songs were co-written by Luther Vandross when he was still just an unknown back up singer.

Obtusity said...

we also found it strange that there are no videos from that era (or none that we could find or read of). though there is this performance by bowie on the cavett show which appeared on a reissue of the young americans lp.

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