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Schlockternative Cinema: Bowie on the Big Screen

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In honor of what would have been his 70th year, Five O’Clock surveys the cinematic significance of David Bowie and the schlockternative movement. Herewith: Part one of four…

Shortly before Charles Bukowski died in 1994, Black Sparrow Press published his take on the hard-boiled detective novel, Pulp. The epigraph reads: “Dedicated to bad writing.”

Buk meant this ironically—not sarcastically. He loved pulp writing, even, perhaps especially, when it was both horrible and beautiful in the same moment. Raymond Chandler’s no James Joyce. The plots are rickety, many of his characters are Al Gore-wooden, and the dialogue is generally implausible. But he also wrote the line: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” Joyce never wrote such a perfect sentence.

Pulp is an example of what I call “schlockternative” literature (from “schlock,” N. Amer. colloq. inferior goods; trash [Yiddish shlak a blow]). It’s a very good novel, an alternative to the usual thing. Sure, it’s also a bit schlocky, but that’s the charm. Pulp somehow manages to yin-yang high art and low-brow culture, which makes the work more poignant and endearing. You can say the same about the works of Arthur Nersesian, George Pelecanos and Richard Brautigan.

There’s schlockternative cinema as well. John Waters. Barbarella. Ed Wood. The Planet of the Apes. Pee-wee Herman. Russ Meyer. The elegant chop-socky of John Woo and his kung-fu compatriots. The films are moody, stylish, Eurotrashy, visually appealing, artsy, campy, brilliant, pretentious, seminal, awkward, divisive and problematic. They embrace, with equal fervor, quality independent cinema and B-movie schlock; they delicately straddle the kitsch/craft divide.

Schlockternica came of age in the pre-lapsarian 1950s, the seemingly crewcut epoch of poodle skirts, sock hops, fraternal lodges, Truman, drive-ins, lettermen sweaters, going steady, tidy lawns, white picket fences and tidy suburban streets. But there were greasers, too; and Jim Crow laws and switch-blade wielding hoodlums. Not to mention heavy petting at Make Out Point. Things weren’t as innocuous or genteel as they seemed. Chaos was lurking just beneath the surface.

Chuck Berry and Elvis would summon the unconscious demons of what appeared to be a safe and pious world. Brando and Monty Cliff, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis: They would tease out the chocolate and butterscotch swirls that had always been folded into the vanilla landscape. These dark urges would also be evoked by monster movies, the original schlock. The Blob. Creature from the Black Lagoon. Plan 9 from Outer Space. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. The Tingler. I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Invasion of the Saucer Men. Godzilla. The Brain Eaters. The Mole People. The Wasp Woman. A litany of cheap B movies, as frightening in content as they were in production values.

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In 1968 the Motion Picture Production Code was abandoned. The Code had governed standards and morality—nudity, profanity, “perversion,” drugs, miscegenation and anti-clerical sentiments were all verboten. But not anymore. These were schlock-friendly times. The existing palette of opera-implausible plots, overacting, splashy sets, high-pitched screaming and scary monsters was now infused with sex and smut. Hot women in prison, cat-fighting! Biker gangs! Cannibalism! Teenage delinquents with grease-fire pompadours! The new schlock had more pizzazz than Busby Berkeley and more busts than a Greek sculpture garden. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Roger Corman’s Naked Angels (1969). Grindhouses served up unsavory casseroles of sex, violence, insanity and sadism. Exploitation and Blaxploitation. No one knew Pam Grier was a great actress until long after The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Coffy (1973), once she was allowed to start acting.

The heyday of schlockternica was the 1970’s. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), in particular, represented the era—which often ironically appropriated the conventions and filmic language of early schlock. Of course, sometimes the borrowing was accidental. Other times nothing was borrowed. And occasionally it was all too original. In Pink Flamingoes (1972), for instance, the quite-aptly-named John Waters, self-anointed Pope of Trash, directed cross-dressing Divine to eat real dog excrement. And that was the film’s most G-rated moment.

How does David Bowie figure into this sordid and largely American tale? Well, for starters, he was always a gadfly and internationalist, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Bowie was influential and pioneering in an unprecedented number of genres and subgenres of music: ambient, punk, hard rock, folk, classical, emo, glam, soul, dance, electronic, avant-garde, R&B, trad jazz, mod, cabaret, torch song, musique concrète, novelty, et al. He was an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician and producer. He was also a key figure in many areas outside of music—the century’s single most important cultural figure, I would argue. Sexual politics. Gender fluidity. Androgyny. Fashion. Costume. Set design. The use of personae and reinvention. Open bisexuality. The Mullet. Cross-dressing. Having a “Berlin Period.” Album covers featuring half-man/half-dog penises. Concerts featuring simulated blow-jobs. He was also a well-regarded, award-winning actor on stage, screen and television.

Bowie entered the schlockternica scene in 1976 with the X-rated existential sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell to Earth. But he didn’t merely stick a toe in the genre’s chilly waters; he rammed his whole leg in there. That’s the kind of fella he was. For the next 10 years his position in the genre would be unassailable. He was the uncrowned prince of schlockternative cinema.

As a side note, our four-part examination of Bowie and film isn’t satiric or tongue-in-cheek. Neither Bowie nor his films will be mocked or disparaged—both are equally admirable and beloved, despite their flaws. Flawless art, if it exists, is never as compelling as those tattered gems, stuck in the dirt, covered in grime and muck.

Bowie’s contribution to this movement is so vast that I’m focusing solely on his work from 1976 to 1986, from The Man Who Fell to Earth to Labyrinth, with many stops in-between. Why focus on this period? For starters, 10 years is a nice round, manageable number. Furthermore, this era was the pinnacle of schlockternica and the apex of Bowie’s film work. His early acting career consists of apprentice work—small or uncredited roles in TV productions that few people have seen and almost no one remembers. His later work, after 1986, doesn’t fit our study. Too pristine. Too successful. Too scrupulously high-quality. Undistinguished walk-ons. Playing himself. Most of the work, during this period, was simply too good or too bad—not schlocky enough to grab our attention, our hearts or our balls.

Schlockternica Part 2: 1976-1981
Schlockternica Part 3: 1982-1985
Schlockternica Part 4: 1986