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 three of four…
If the 70s are regarded as the Dame’s most experimental and important period—for both music and film—the 80s were his most popular and commercially successful.
Bowie wasn’t as prolific in the 80s, but his work was just as compelling. The decade kicked off with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), an album both poppy and avant-garde, a paradox not easy to achieve. The lead-off single, “Ashes to Ashes,” resurrected Major Tom, the missing-in-space protagonist of 1969’s “Space Oddity.” But it wasn’t all gold albums and Top of the Pops. The first song on Scary Monsters, “It’s No Game (Part 1),” features Yoko Ono-like screeching, in Japanese, as the counterpoint to Bowie’s moaning lead vocal. This is backed up with primitive drumbeats and Robert Fripp’s high-pitched industrial guitar yelps.
This period saw two more studio albums, Let’s Dance (1983)—Bowie’s best-selling and most accessible LP—and Tonight (1984). He also released two live albums, several compilations and continued to produce. Bowie starred in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man and a televised BBC adaptation of Baal, a cerebral Brecht play, earning stellar reviews for both. He wrote and performed the new-wavy title song to Paul Shrader’s mega-schlocky Cat People. Then he pulled a 180, releasing an EP of non-rock music (depressive, banjo, show-tuney, Weimar folk music) from Baal.
The early 80s was a critical period for Bowie in acting roles no one remembers. He was in The Snowman (1982), a hybrid animated-live action TV film that’s beloved in Britain despite the fact that it’s wordless except for one song (Bowie doesn’t sing it). He acted in the comedy flop Yellowbeard (1983)—with Cheech and Chong—a wisely uncredited performance. And also appeared in the alleged comedy Into The Night (1985).
But the subject of our next exploration is 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. A British-Japanese co-production—also known as Furyo and Senjō no Meri Kurisumasu—directed by Nagisa Oshima. Set in a Japanese prison camp on Java during World War II, Mr. Lawrence is a drama that teeters on the fulcrum of a complex relationships among four men. Yonoi—who, in pleasing symmetry, is played by Japanese rock star/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto—is a stickler for nationalism, discipline and control. The allied prisoners, in his eyes, are weak and cowardly because they surrendered rather than died for their country. Major Jack Celliers, portrayed by Bowie, is a new prisoner who, you guessed it, just won’t play by the rules. Both Celliers and Yonoi are haunted by the guilt of some past transgression—and Yonoi develops a seemingly homoerotic obsession for him. Lt. Col. Lawrence speaks Japanese fluently and seems to understand the cultural differences between his men and their captors. Finally, there’s Sergeant Hara, ostensibly ruthless and inhumane but a soft spot for Lawrence. The film is a slightly disturbing synthesis of double bromance and brutal depiction of a POW camp. Think Downfall, if Hitler had a crush on Gen. Patton and Goebbels’s wrote sexy poems about Churchill.
Later, Yonoi is about to kill the POW leader for a minor indiscretion. Naturally, Bowie walks up, stands in front of his leader, and kisses Yonoi on both cheeks. Yonoi whips out his sword to kill Celliers—presumably, for not keeping it on the down-low—but collapses, unable to do it. After Yonoi is replaced, the new commandant buries Celliers up to his neck in the sand, where he’s left to die. When no one’s looking, Yonoi sneaks up and snips off a lock of Celliers’ hair.
This denouement is oddly heartbreaking, but it’s not nearly as homoerotic as critics suggest. It feels more like a serial killer taking a memento for his scrapbook. (With pleasing symmetry, Yonoi is portrayed by Japanese rock star/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.) Bowie, for his part, doesn’t appear as if he’s being tortured to death. He wears, instead, the slightly awkward grimace of someone who’s not sure if he turned off the stove. Moreover, his typically spectral skin tone has been “tanned” to a Cheetos-Trump-Jersey Shore orange. The emotional texture seems genuine, if also rather maudlin and overbaked. The director was going for bigger, louder feelings so he designed a new amp that goes up to 11.
Bowie once said that Oshima managed the Japanese actors with great attention to detail but told the Brits: “Do whatever it is you people do.” This may account for the overacting of the Japanese and some flaccid performances from the Brits. In one scene, Lawrence watches his comrade get brutally beaten with a cane. His reaction shots don’t signify horror or repulsion. Instead, he looks mildly offended, as if noticing a guy driving a Hummer with his Izod collar up and a Bluetooth tucked behind his ear.
On the whole: Mr. Lawrence is a peculiar work. It was well received at Cannes, but elsewhere the reviews were mixed—though the flaws were largely directorial and most critics agree Bowie’s acting was first-rate. Which is good news, as the next film on our docket debuted just four months later.
The Hunger is the schlockiest of Bowie’s films. It’s probably his best, and almost certainly the worst. Another international co-production, The Hunger is a British-American “erotic horror,” and Tony Scott’s directorial debut. The script was adapted from a novel by Whitley Strieber—note how typical this is of schlockternative pictures, they’re based on books by writers you’ve never heard of—and the story is simple: a gerontologist and two vampires in a love triangle.
Catherine Deneuve and Bowie are Miriam and John, undead-heads who met in 18thcentury France. They’re perfectly cast—pale, beautiful, un-aging. The film opens in a super-rad club: the band Bauhaus—who copped looks and sounds from Bowie—play “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in a smoke-filled cage. Everyone’s dressed in perfectly on-trend new wave threads. The scene is abruptly inter-spliced with images of naked flesh—a juxtaposition that’s poignant, if perhaps trying too hard to be poignant. In the next scene, John and Miriam invite a hot young couple home. Naturally, they’re disappointed when what could’ve been a superb four-way turns into a bloodbath/late-night snack.
The dramatic conflict: John starts aging, quickly. Miriam promised him eternal life, but she lied about eternal youth. He consults Sarah, a gerontologist played by Susan Sarandon. She thinks he’s crazy. After witnessing his rapid aging, however, she changes her mind. Long story short, she has an affair with Miriam, who makes her a vampire. The twist: Sarah doesn’t want to be a vampire—snap! In a further twist, Sarah takes Miriam’s ankh-knife—Egyptological tchotchkes are de rigueur in vampire culture—and stabs her own neck so the blood will trickle into Miriam’s mouth. Double-snap! There’s some convoluted plotting at this point, mostly about a “blood-borne metabolic aging disease,” so we’ll end the summary here.
The Hunger opened to tepid reviews and, today, scores an un-whopping 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert described it as “an agonizingly bad vampire movie.” However, he also said the sex scenes were “effective,” by which he meant “hot” (he may have inadvertently swapped his critic’s hat for his perv’s beret). While directing and editing are, at times, a schlocktastrophe, despite its defects, the film is beloved by many cinephiles and immortality enthusiasts. It’s languid, moody, highly visual, often wordless, elegant—ish—and very well acted.
As Bowie’s acting career sashayed into the 80s, his costars got better, budgets bloated and the results were as charmingly schlocky as ever. The directors were the weak link. Or should we blame the decade itself? Everything was bigger, tackier and more ostentatious—the real estate market, junk bonds, the drug war, shoulder pads, great nests of Aquanet hair. Scott may have been a victim of this whoever-dies-with-the-most- toys-wins mentality. Like so many 80s movies, The Hunger it insists on pointing to itself and saying, “Hey, look how trendy and up-to-date I am!” But nothing ages more quickly than the modern.