Has it really been five years since I posted a "Bowie @ 60" entry at GreenCine Daily? Heavens. Here we are again, then. In Friday's Guardian, Alexis Petridis, looking back to that "scarcely-believable ten-year creative streak that begins with 1970's The Man Who Sold the World and ends with the 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)," wrote that "having achieved more in one phase of his career alone than anyone can hope to in a lifetime — so much that it's literally impossible to imagine what pop music would be like if he hadn't existed — he's entitled to take early redundancy from pop stardom. You can mourn the loss of more music if you want, but in a sense, his absence feels strangely right…. The artist who drew a decisive, iconoclastic dividing line between the 60s and the 70s in the lyrics of 'All the Young Dudes' ('my brother's at home with his Beatles and his Stones… what a drag'), Bowie's music was never about nostalgia, always the present, or, even better, the future."
"Glam rock drew the line," wrote Mark Dery in 2009, "between the counterculture's insistence on a politically correct earnestness and the new decade's Oscar Wildean embrace of winking artifice; between the power-to-the-people populism of Woodstock-era rockers and the Me-Generation Nietzscheanism of Bowie singing, 'Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use… You gotta make way for the Homo Superior' ('Oh! You Pretty Things'); between folk rock's ripped-from-the-headlines political 'relevance' and glam's escapist flight into retro styles (Bowie's tongue-in-cheek appropriation of 50s doo-wop in 'Drive-In Saturday') or shameless hedonism (Queen singer Freddie Mercury's visions, in 'Killer Queen,' of a high-rolling call girl who 'keeps Moet et Chandon/In her pretty cabinet'). With Bowie as its gender-bent spokesmutant, glam marked the turning point between hippie and what would soon become punk, modernism and postmodernism."
Before punk cleared the decks, though, pop had slipped into the Annie Hall-era earth tones of California rock (Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt). When the recording industry recognized that it could no longer afford to ignore London's calling and all the young dolls in New York, it subsumed and repackaged the lot as New Wave — and Bowie was the lone oldie who was new all over again, soaring far above the fly-by-night flocks of seagulls and all the rest. With the 80s came the era of the megastar, of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. All three, each in his or her own way, applied Bowie's #1 lesson in staying power: Create a persona and then kill it off with the next one.
In 1983, Bowie released every Bowie fan's least favorite album — his most profitable, of course — Let's Dance. Gazing at the vintage cover of Time from that summer, Jessica Winter wrote in a survey of Bowie's acting career for Slate in 2010:
With his blond coif and portfolio of smooth platinum hits, this tanned and tailored crooner of what he dubbed "positive music" seemed a man apart from the shape-shifting, gender-melding 70s pop mutant also known as David Bowie, whose spookier guises had included the Lost Spaceman, the Alien Sex Machine, and the Funky Disinterred Corpse. It was as if Lady Gaga had suddenly morphed into Michael Bublé.
But later that same year, this clean-cut, mainstream Bowie did something reassuringly, Bowie-ishly bizarre: He played a lead role in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. To invest one's peak pop-star capital in a bleak homoerotic drama, set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and directed by the provocateur behind the art-porn shocker In the Realm of the Senses — well, that's the kind of loopy career choice you'd expect from the fellow who brought us the Anorexic Centaur Centerfold, the Stewardess as Rock God, and the Human Lightning Bolt.
Back in April of this year, on the occasion of David Bowie, Artist, an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, Flavorwire's Judy Berman ranked Bowie's performances in films from best to worst, with clips for each. To quickly scan the top three, Bowie was, of course, "the perfect extraterrestrial" in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), "a grim realist who doesn't seem to enjoy punishing Willem Dafoe's Jesus Christ," and Catherine Deneuve's vampire lover in Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983). The clip I really wanted to find is the sequence from The Hunger — a sequence as relevant to Bowie's entire oeuvre as any other — in which the years suddenly catch up with Bowie's body as he sits in Susan Sarandon's waiting room. It's not out there, as far as I can tell, so we'll have to make do with this montage.