Happy Birthday, David Bowie

Photo by Jean-Luc Orlin  David Bowie turns 66 today, and, true to form as a brilliant marketing person as well as an artist, he’s giving us all a birthday present. His new album is released today, with a new single, ‘Where Are We Now?’ with an accompanying video. The short film by Tony Oursler is as captivating as any of Mr. B’s other projects, a calm, pensive exploration of one’s place in the last 66 years.

He was born in 1947 (same year as my mom) into an England repairing itself from World War II. The tragedies of that time were so horrible it was believed that the human race could never, ever do anything so bad to its fellow creatures ever again. Of course, history has shown that humans have an amazing tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. Repeatedly. The video for ‘Where Are We Now?’ is crafted to show Mr. B’s diverse drives concerning his role as a pop artist in a world where disasters are quickly forgotten, covered by a fresh coat of paint and a pretty PR campaign.

The video opens with a shot of what appears to be a large, cut diamond, on a cluttered surface, at the center of a cold visual field. Most viewers will instantly believe this to be fake: glass paperweights and plastic tchotchkes like this sell everywhere from Tiffany’s to A.C. Moore. Later we’ll look at what the faceted jewel signifies and what it actually is. Don’t let me forget. (Cripes, hang onto your butt, because this could get more rambly than Quentin Tarantino’s famous speech from Sleep With Me about the homoerotic nature of Top Gun. But, the only person with a more calculated sense of image other than David Bowie outside of public office is Madonna, so no detail is in the frame by accident). The next shot is of a broken or disassembled frame without a picture. The glass is intact, and reflects a view of a street, with moving vehicles. It’s sort of a glass half empty/glass half full test: is this garbage, or is it a picture in and of itself? Or is it a symbol of two-dimensional art abandoned?

The point of view moves through a room, again with a cold visual field, cluttered with mismatched objects and evocative of abandonment or disaster. It finally settles on (again, ambivalently), what is either a pile of clutter or an arrangement of mismatched objects, like a still life or installation. The primary focus is on a screen, projected on which are street scenes in black and white, and a doll that appears to be a two-headed baby (which seems to be a not to Mr. Bowie’s embrace of circus freaks and space oddities, cuddly friendly ones). The faces are blank white pillows, on which the faces of Mr. Bowie and an unnamed woman are projected. Their faces are distorted by the projection, pulled tight, into barely-human masks.

The Brandenburg Gate by Thomas Wolf  As the song proceeds, the text of the lyrics is provided, bit by bit, complementing the rest of the visual experience. The song has the feel of a lullaby or a funeral song, dreamlike and peaceful but also somewhat disquieting, describing the experience of traveling in Berlin. The visual layout and pacing of the sung lyrics seems to be created specifically for this video to be watched online and compared with searches for the terms he uses. Of course, if you’re German, European, or any kind of a serious history student, the words are familiar. If you, like me, are 24 years younger than Mr. B and took American history instead of European, you might want some help from Google.

postcard, c. 1900  The song describes the experience of being in Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest locations in Berlin, watching the crowd go by, on the Nürnbergerstraße, which is a popular shopping and tourist destination, looking at the KaDeWe, an elegant department store, and crossing the Böse Brücke. Today, these would be places where lots of commercial and tourist activity occurs, where supply and demand glitter and groove. However, the history of these locations is heart-stopping.

On November 9, 1989, the Böse Brücke was the first crossing point when the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting East and West Germany, completely changing the consciousness of the nation and the life of every German. The KaDeWe, or Kaufhaus des Westens, is the second largest department store in Europe. It has a greenhouse-covered roof housing a winter garden and restaurant, and anchors a boulevard of designer boutiques to rival any in Los Angeles. The business was founded in 1905, but the Nazis obviously decided to remove the mostly-Jewish management. In 1943 the building was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing, most notably when a plane crashed into the building. Potsdamer Platz itself was divided by the Berlin Wall and turned into a wasteland for much of the Cold War Era. Prior to that, its status as an important gathering place and trading post is recorded as far back as 1685, which made it a high-priority location for Nazi propaganda and offices.

Essentially, Bowie is pointing out that places of ancient plenty and pain are prettied up for profit, and asking “where are we now?” Have we improved as a society, or have we just given history a PR campaign? What does it mean to take places where people struggled and died and turn them into shopping malls?

Minors mining in Sierra Leone.  Let’s go back to the is-it-or-isn’t-it-real diamond for a second. Think about what it actually is, and what it stands for. If it were real, a lot of people would have died to get it out of the earth, transport and protect it. It is probably a glass or plastic imitation of the idea of a giant flawless diamond, manufactured by the thousands in a factory somewhere in China. Think about how it stands out in contrast to the rest of the visual field here: barren gray versus “ooh shiny.”  I don’t know about you, but, unfortunately, I live in a world where thirteen-year-olds fight over Louis Vuitton handbags. Not because they earn that kind of money or save up from a paper route or lemonade stand, but because their priorities (and those of their families) have become so wrecked by poor educations and too much advertising that they honestly believe that buying the latest fashion accessory is more important than anything else.

Marissa Orton via Creative Commons  Never mind that this fashion accessory may have been made by a child who was paid maybe five cents a day to make it. Never mind that it was made in a factory in a country with such poor environmental protections that, all together, shopping in the Potsdamer Platz at the KaDeWe can set off a domino effect of money changing hands that results in the kind of widespread all-around badness that can still be as devastating as what happened in Berlin in World War II, just not all at the same time. So, not only are we sweeping tragedy under a very pretty rug, we’re also building another tragedy on top of it.


David Bowie and Sound Engineer Eduard Meyer in the Meistersaal Berlin,  Oursler’s film places Bowie and Berlin together by showing footage from when Bowie lived in Berlin. This city and experience figured prominently in Bowie’s life, allowing him a place to get clean from drug use, and helping him create the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. This film provides an opportunity for younger fans to get to know him, with its (aforementioned) multimedia-friendliness. It also allows older fans to travel down memory lane, back to when “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” really meant something. The lyrics say that he is in a “Dschungel,” or jungle; if you only hear this, it sounds almost exactly like “jungle” is the sung word. “Dschungel” is one of only three word in German that can be masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral. Bowie kicked down a lot of walls for men who liked to wear dresses and makeup, as well as women who liked to wear trousers and suspenders. In this song he isn’t the buoyant alien, or the wild rocker: he’s “a man lost in time, walking the dead,” (sung with the image of someone walking with a dog). The song never refers to the glitz of the shopping arcades, it could take place at any time in history. it’s a reflective story of a traveler walking with ghosts. Whether those ghosts are personal, political, or spiritual is unknown.

The climax of the song is the most universal part, evoking the love-conquers-all message of “Heroes,” with the simplicity of “Everyone Says Hi;”
“as long as there’s sun…
as long as there’s rain…
as long as there’s fire…
as long as there’s me…
as long as there’s you…”
The narrative states that as long as there is human companionship and kindness in balance with nature (sun, rain, fire), everything will be all right.

Disasters are on everyone’s mind this winter, as if they are ever far away. Berlin is a place of agony, where some of the worst of the human race’s offenses occurred. However, for Mr. Bowie, it is also a place of escape, where he created some of his best work and when he got clean. It’s a place of tragedy, commerce, and hope. Coming back to the diamond, we need to think about things (Berlin, Bowie, disasters, ourselves) as a faceted, like a jewel.

But, just who is David Bowie to pass judgment on the human race in the last 66 years of history?

When the images on the screen in the assemblage start to become most personal- point of view shots which take over the entire visual field, the film steps back to include Mr. B himself, looking at the multimedia art installation. Colorful objects are in the foreground, and a dog walks by, wagging its tail. Bowie is in the role of artist here. Despite the bits of warmth in the frame (the red text on the shopping bag, the ginger fur on the dog) he is in pain, clutching a notebook and pen- he’s at work, and his work hurts.

Again, nothing here is by accident. Bags with text saying “Thank you for shopping here!” can be found around the world and clutter every nation. The message, “Thank you for shopping” is not unlike George W. Bush’s message to the American people after 9/11.  Bowie’s a businessman, an entertainer: he provides product to consumers. He’s not exempt from any anti-consumerist message, and his hands are no cleaner than anyone else’s.  There’s another chunk of text in the shot that’s telling us something: Bowie’s t-shirt says, m/s Song of Norway.

So, just to recap:

he’s wearing a shirt
advertising a cruise ship (cruises being the easiest and most homogenized way to travel)
named after a Hollywood musical (starring Florence Henderson before she became Mrs. Brady)

(I’m not making this up)

named after an operetta (for people who find opera too much to handle)
based on a play
about composer Edvard Grieg, and his drive to create music that contributed positively and meaningfully to the national identity of his homeland.

Which really has to be a nod to how a musician creates something and it travels through time like words in a game of whisper down the lane, and eventually you have no way of knowing how you will be remembered or what your impact will be. You can go nearly mad writing “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” and two hundred years later your music is on Bugs Bunny cartoons and your lasting tribute is a mode of travel for the terminally lazy.

(Oh, snap, I said that. I guess nobody’s giving me free cruise tickets now.)

because $3k stripey shirts and $20K pinstripe suits make you want to wrestle on the floor.   What? Maybe Bowie always wears his cruise ship t-shirts when he’s just hanging out in the studio? Yeah. Right. The guy did a fashion ad campaign for Gucci, for God’s sake. I don’t think he leaves the house without four hours of planning and several drafts.

However, the last place where we see Bowie is not standing back against the wall with marketing copy. We see him as one of the faces on the conjoined-twin baby doll. After the woman removes her face from the projection, he steps back, but hesitates for a few seconds, as if reluctant to leave. It is as if Mr. Bowie is more comfortable being part of the image he creates than a person in real life.

Mr. B, like his own video, and the fake diamond at the beginning, is multifaceted and not without flaw. But, he’s pretty when the light hits him right, he’s here to entertain you and make you think. and, like a real diamond, he endures.

Yay, timely critical analysis of a short film, whoooohoooo! I gotta go read Ubu Roi now.


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