As it seems like the entire human race is struggling to memorialize David Bowie in the still-fresh wake of his passing, there’s some comfort in knowing, at least, that if we’re going to take on the insurmountable task of trying to make one man immortal, we’re at least going to be doing it together.
Which means that, regardless of whether we have anything original to say, we each (probably) feel the urge to say something: to write something, to tweet something, to sing something, to try to make something that will last—almost as if it’s our quiet, sad human duty. And so the time’s come to reflect on whatever it was about what David Bowie made that has impelled us to respond in kind. For Paste’s Movies writers, that means writing about his movies.
David Bowie’s film career was never as defining to the mythos of David Bowie as was his music—more an addendum or a letter of recommendation—but he still worked with both genre and Hollywood stalwarts, from John Landis to Christopher Nolan, from Nagisa Oshima to David Lynch to Martin Scorsese to Nicholas Roeg. His acting chops, while immersive and so ineffably casual, mostly just informed his musical persona(e), simultaneously confirming that he was an incomparable performer, able to inhabit any skin he wanted to step into.
Even if that means his own skin, as in Zoolander, in which Bowie serves as a “walk-off” judge in a pivotal scene, and Christiane F., a brutal German drama about a teenage girl’s descent into heroin addiction. It was Bowie’s attachment to the latter project as both a soundtrack artist and actor (the character attends a Bowie concert where he performs “Station to Station”) that arguably allowed the film to find distribution and, later, achieve cult status. With Bowie’s supporting turn as a Wall Street investor in Austin Chick’s indie drama, August, his cultural cache fills in all blanks: We sense his imposing power, his immovable nature, his epic, whispered stature.
In fact, it’s Bowie’s roles in film which reassure us that all this myth-making we’re doing is worth it. So here’s our attempt at helping him live forever. Be it with video games or cartoons or a Ben Stiller comedy, we owe as much to an artist who found as many ways as he could to connect with us, every one of us, on our own terms.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975)
The Man Who Fell to Earth has many origins—in the Walter Tevis book from which it’s adapted; in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona; in the general atmospheric insanity of its director, Nicolas Roeg. As the titular fallen man—an alien from a drought-plagued planet sent to retrieve water from earth—Bowie embodies a character who’s simultaneously regal and otherworldly, better than human but unnerving for it. His presence is captivating, simultaneously anchoring the film through its sillier, more off-the-wall bouts of incoherency (a sex scene involving a blank-filled gun is particularly head scratching) while giving such moments emotional heft.
Years later, Bowie admitted that he shot most of the film in the midst of a cocaine binge. Whether that’s actually true or just a bit of Bowie myth-making, there’s no question he’s able to, near the beginning of an iconic career, one in which everyone will know his name, perfectly capture the character’s isolation and, then, gradual mental deterioration. And yet, Bowie’s first feature is far from a vanity project, nothing like an image-bolstering solo show; Bowie used his burgeoning clout to make a crazy, tragic art film. It spoke volumes of what was to come. —Mark Rozeman
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may be the first film to confront and then attempt to understand the flawlessness of David Bowie’s charm. This is before Labyrinth, when one would only have to point to the Goblin King and the Goblin King’s bulge and proclaim, “Behold!”, and everyone understood to what degree of power you were referring. Which isn’t to say that “David Bowie’s charm” is anything to be taken lightly. Because Nagisa Oshima’s film is a very literal study of what it feels like to be obsessed with David Bowie: Everyone in this movie is secretly in love with David Bowie.
Pretty solidly a superstar by this point and already flush with acting experience, David Bowie is Major Celliers, a British soldier captured by the Japanese during the thick of World War II, sent to a POW camp on Java overseen by Captain Yanoi. Played by a legendary musician in his own right, Yanoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who provides the film’s searing neon score) is a strikingly beautiful man with a penchant for eye shadow and blush who struggles to oppress his obsession with this new prisoner, knowing full well the severe punishment that awaits any homoerotic activity under his army’s strict bushido code.
No one actually says anything out loud about what it is that’s just so seductive about Celliers, of course, though the film is a-swim with googly eyes and platitudes and thoughtful notes of concern for Celliers and his general disregard for the authority of his Japanese captors. Instead, we as viewers sincerely believe that it makes sense that Japanese military bureaucracy would nominally tolerate Celliers’ antics during wartime, that anyone who even cursorily glimpses the man will be taken aback by his sharp features and effortless carry, swept up as we are in the limitless potential of David Bowie’s presence. Oshima’s film operates pretty handily as a case for David Bowie sainthood.
With swagger empirical, and weirdness minimal, Bowie skirts the line between wit and tragedy, mean-mugging plenty while the camera laps up his every microgesture. When Yanoi later in the film loses his cool over Celliers’ incessant impudence, the captain becomes a thinly veiled manifestation of desperation. He knows he’s losing control, and that his desire will destroy him, but he can’t help himself—so he rages against his heart’s need. Even Sgt. Hara (Beat Takeshi, before he became a household twitch), an unhinged drunk who forced an underling to commit seppuku upon the revelation that he had “buggered” a Swedish POW, can’t help but sort of love in his own deranged way Bowie’s Celliers, enough at least to turn away from his destructive ways and find some peace in the film’s conclusion. Bowie’s character himself, the irrepressible Major “Strafer” Celliers, can’t survive the life-rending, magnetic core that is David Bowie. If there was ever a first film to watch to begin to comprehend why it is that everyone on this planet, in this moment, feels the need to express devoted love for the indelible memory of David Bowie, it’s this one, wherein scores of men love him so tenderly, they come out in full force to sing for him while he suffers a torture which inevitably martyrs him. Because again: Oshima’s canonization complex.
And still, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a quiet film, unhurried and rarely manic, allowing plenty of time and space for infatuation to set in. Long shots wander over barracks full of dirty, downtrodden and sometimes destroyed prisoners, but always Oshima finds his way back to David Bowie, affording his saint even a fantasy in which he’s able to find some closure over a younger brother he wronged. And admittedly, Oshima is always right to do so: The final shot of Bowie’s head is so crushingly beautiful, one wonders why we’d ever spend any time anywhere else, away from a spot two or four intimate feet away from such a magnificent face. —Dom Sinacola
The Hunger (1983)
An awareness of mortality is all over David Bowie’s now-final record, Blackstar, but when it comes to his film performances, rarely did he confront death as directly as in Tony Scott’s baroque 1983 horror film The Hunger. As John Blaylock, the current undead love interest of Egyptian vampire lady Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), Bowie begins the film as eternally stylish as ever, especially with the sunglasses he sports in The Hunger’s virtuosic opening sequence, as he and Miriam prey on a couple in a nightclub. But John soon finds himself showing signs of aging at an extraordinarily accelerated rate, leading to one of the film’s more unsettling sequences, in which, sitting in a hospital waiting room, he seems to become older and older by the minute. Bowie’s reactions are fascinating in the way they convey the sense of a character increasing failing at maintaining an unflappable cool, especially as he realizes how Miriam lied to him about the eternal youth she promised him 200 years ago and how near death looms. In the end, though, John doesn’t rage against the dying of the light so much as quietly accept his disappointing fate. “In the midst of life, we are in death”—so the famous saying from the Book of Common Prayer goes. Even in the midst of a monumental career, and in the context of a slick genre yarn, David Bowie, ever the visionary, was willing to contemplate such grim truth. —Kenji Fujishima