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

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