March 20, 2013

Two David Bowie films

1. RADIO ON (1979, Chris Petit)
Critic-turned-director Chris Petit’s debut is a David Bowie film in which Bowie does not appear but guides it as a disembodied presence. A British cult film set in London and Bristol, and on the roads between and around them, at the end of the 1970s, shot in shadowy black-and-white by Martin Schafer, its influences were largely European. Some acknowledged influences or predecessors: the Wim Wenders German road movies, especially Kings of the Road; Alphaville; Antonioni; Two-Lane Blacktop; and, in a rare case of British influence, Get Carter. In a 2008 interview on the BFI DVD, Petit explains that his film was partly a reaction to British class-based social realism – Radio On as the anti-Abigail’s Party – and a possible new way forward, a hybrid British-European cinema. As a co-production between British amateurs (largely) and German professionals, including Schafer and actress Lisa Kreuzer, both on loan from Wenders, it suggested a new direction that was never followed up. A genre of one, a cul-de-sac in British film history.

In Get Carter, Jack Carter (Michael Caine) leaves London for Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother. Petit has said that Get Carter’s credit sequence, the condensed journey north, showed him that the British road could be cinematic, but its influence on Radio On went much further, into plot architecture. Like Carter, Robert B (David Beames) in Radio On is following up the death of his brother, which seems to be suicide. There are suggestions that the brother was involved in a Bristol and Midlands porn syndicate that has just been busted – news filters through on overheard radios – and Robert B finds pornographic slides that he glumly projects onto the walls of the Bristol flat that his brother died in. Porn films are also projected onto walls and screens in Get Carter and Carter doesn’t seem to be enjoying them any more than Robert B. Some links to Get Carter were deliberate on Petit’s part but others were unintentional – both films have since taken on historical importance for fans of British modernism. Get Carter memorialised the now-demolished Gateshead car park in Newcastle, while Radio On got the Ballardian beauty of a motorway flyover that curved past the windows of the Grosvenor Hotel in Bristol.

Radio On is like Get Carter remade as a minimal, remote action film without action – no guns, no fun, no sex – and its late 70s Britain is archaic and modern at once, in an Alphaville sense. Petit and Schafer shot in a grim British winter – January 1979 – and the sky feels grey and heavy; snow can be seen in the fields. There is drift and uncertainty. Britain is on the edge of a future that we know about and that the characters do not. Radio On puts you near the end of the 1970s again, wondering about the 80s. In the Antonioni-style steadicam sequence that opens the film, the camera pauses on a handwritten note pinned to the wall of a Bristol flat. The quote is from Kraftwerk:
We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the ’20s and ‘80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.
What would be the 80s be like? What was coming? Feature films can become documentary records of times and places almost unwittingly but the real reason that Radio On has lasted as a cult film is to do with Petit’s superb and pioneering use of music. In a cold film, songs do the emotional work. Songs play in full; the film stops for them. Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” plays on a pub jukebox and we sit and wait. “Sweet Gene Vincent” by Ian Dury plays to a factory of workers, and its nostalgia for a 50s rockabilly hero anticipates a later scene in which Robert B meets an Eddie Cochran cultist living in a caravan at a gas station near the spot where Cochran died in a car crash in 1960. In a ridiculously great pop moment, Sting plays the hermetic Cochran fan and busks a few lines from “Three Steps to Heaven” (like Bowie, Sting once had a knack for a well-chosen film role or cameo). Not everyone liked Petit’s music choices, though: Petit wanted “Watching the Detectives” but Elvis Costello turned him down.

The first song we hear is “Heroes” by David Bowie, all six minutes of it, the version in both English and German. The music starts before the action and the bilingual lyrics of the Bowie song also tell us about the co-production. His voice is the first human presence and a familiar one. We see Robert B in his car at night, opening a package from his brother. There are three Kraftwerk cassettes inside; he slides Radioactivity into the car stereo. There is one more Bowie song to come: the slow-motion opening of “Always Crashing in the Same Car” as Robert B drives through daytime London, with the Victorian-industrial city in black-and-white (Petit said that the Victorian redness of London didn’t work – black-and-white defamiliarises) and some time-specific graffiti is visible from the car. “Free Astrid Proll”. I doubt that the art department put that graffiti there. Surely Petit choreographed the route out of London simply to get that graffiti on the screen.

Proll was one of the Baader-Meinhof group, arrested in London in 1978. (Coincidentally, given that this is a car film, in London Proll worked as a car mechanic.) Along with references to the IRA on the radio, there is occasional news of a German hijacking. German-ness is leaking into England throughout Radio On: a 70s German-ness of terror cells, Cold War atmosphere and electronic music that would be influential on post-punk, with Bowie as the invisible mastermind. Even the name Robert B sounds middle-European to us, like Josef K (or Christiane F). Some of the German-ness is almost hidden: in the early Bristol sequence you can glimpse, for a second, a copy of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, which Wim Wenders filmed as The American Friend, with Dennis Hopper as the depressed, exiled foreigner in late 70s Germany, like a version of Low-era Bowie. That is the same Bowie you hear on the soundtrack of Radio On, the transitional figure between German and English music, listening to Kraftwerk and Neu! in Berlin.

Twenty years later, Bowie wouldn’t approve his Ziggy-era songs for Todd Haynes to use in Velvet Goldmine. Was that a mistake? Possibly, but he was more likely to make mistakes in 1998 than he was in 1979. Radio On was the first film to use Bowie songs on a soundtrack – it was a good break for Petit and producer Keith Griffiths, who had some art-school connection with Bowie, and a smart creative decision on Bowie’s part.

The Low era – the Berlin era – is the one that was immortalised or looked back on with some fondness in the recent Bowie comeback single “Where Are We Now?” It’s the era of old Bowie that we listen to now if we listen to his past at all. The gloomy romanticism of Radio On also captures that moment, or was inspired by it, even while it was still the present. Viewed now, the 1979 film has a similar nostalgia and melancholy to the 2013 song. Nostalgia for cassettes and records, for baths going cold, for bad TV reception and unreliable British cars, for cities watched at night from tower blocks.

2. MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE (1983, directed by Nagisa Oshima)
Radio On was the first film to use Bowie songs but not the only one to use them well. Some other stand-outs: “Young Americans” in Dogville, “I’m Deranged” in Lost Highway, “Lady Grinning Soul” in The Runaways. And besides the appearances of the music, there have been the appearances of the man. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), with a coke-ruined Bowie as Newton, was the perfect rock star film in that it didn’t give you a fantasised or parallel version of the star’s daily life or struggle towards fame, as in A Hard Day’s Night or 8 Mile or Purple Rain – instead, it riffed on the mythology that the star had already created (Bowie as alien) and added to it, fleshed it out. How perfect a fit was The Man Who Fell to Earth? So perfect that Bowie even got two album covers out of it. Maybe only Desperately Seeking Susan compares as a dramatic part that fed back so successfully into the real-world persona of the star.

During the early 1980s, in the gap between Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance, Bowie was more active in film (and theatre) than music – even the best Bowie song from that time, “Cat People”, was a film song, and besides the films that were made and talked about, there was the forever unmade Derek Jarman film Neutron.

Further coincidence: in Radio On, Robert B lives in a flat above a London cinema. The cinema is playing Oshima’s Empire of Passion four times a day. That almost seems like a premonition as, a year later, in 1980, Nagisa Oshima would see Bowie starring in The Elephant Man on Broadway and cast him in the adaptation of Laurens van der Post stories that would be called Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

If you were a New Zealand teenager in the early 1980s, reading the British rock weeklies but too young for art house and R18 films, then these titles had some allure. You read about Bowie playing John Merrick (but you never saw footage or even photos). You read about Baal, The Hunger, Just a Gigolo, Cat People, Christiane F, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and it may have been Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence that was the most tantalising somehow, possibly because it was mixed up in your imagination with the video for “China Girl” and the story of Geeling Ng. It was all weirdly local.

In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Bowie plays Jack Celliers, an Allied prisoner of war in Java in 1942. Oshima’s style is offputtingly formal and theatrical, and with Bowie and Tom Conti playing its imprisoned war heroes, and Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto heading up the captors, it could qualify as the least macho war film ever made. Audiences were apparently baffled by a prison film in which no one tries to escape. There is no question that the film is more obscure than it could be when it compares Japanese wartime brutality with the Allied equivalent, and is even more coded when it gets into the forbidden longing that Sakamoto’s Yonoi feels but can never express for Bowie’s Celliers. But between the over-acting of Conti and Jack Thompson, and the relative minimalism of the Japanese actors, Bowie pitches his performance about right, and is the closest thing the film has to a rounded human presence. This could be his finest film acting.

Both in its financing and locations, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is at least partly a New Zealand film. It was made at the end of the tax break era with Broadbank as one of its producers, and some have argued that the New Zealand-ness that was initially just a side effect of how the money came together has had greater implications over time. In New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History (Te Papa Press, 2011), Bruce Babington writes:
Watching the film again, one finds a suggestive parallel to contemporary local events in its intense study of Anglo-Japanese cultural differences, enmities, brutalities, inabilities and occasional abilities to comprehend “the other”, making its Japanese prisoner-of-war narrative a kind of accidental sibling to Utu.
At the very least, there is still a mild shock in seeing New Zealand names in the credits – first AD Lee Tamahori, producer Larry Parr, New Zealand casting by Diana Rowan – and recognising New Zealand places. A Japanese military building in Batavia is played by the old Auckland Railway Station, and I’m pretty sure that we see the Wintergarden in the Auckland Domain at one point. The word “Kaikohe” is scratched into the wall of a prison cell in what is supposed to be Japanese-occupied Indonesia.

Babington is surely right to say that Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence has turned into a different film, one that has little to do with the Japanese in the Pacific in 1942 and probably even less to do with Laurens van der Post. It is now a useful document for the Bowie biographers, especially when we learn that Paul Mayersberg tailored the dialogue for Bowie (Mayersberg also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth). At our first sighting of him, Bowie’s Jack is suitably enigmatic: interrogated by the Japanese, he says, “My past is my business”. But uncovering his past is the film’s business and it comes in a long flashback scene set in a very recognisable New Zealand. At boarding school, Jack betrayed his bullied younger brother; this motivates his sacrifice later, and the film’s incredible image of Bowie buried up to his neck in sand by the Japanese, roasting in the sun (it’s 30 years old, spoilers don’t apply). Someone needs to put together a full location list for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but according to this site, the school scenes were shot at Wanganui Collegiate, with the then mid-30ish Bowie as a sixth former in a school uniform, which sounds ridiculous but you could argue that Jack is the actor in his own memory. New Zealand is reimagined as a more English than English colony and a bright, sunlit setting for a strange and slow, nearly dreamlike, personal fantasy about guilt and redemption. “The past, again and again,” as Jack says.

Bowie has tended to avoid the personal – you don’t get many clues to his life story in the songs and it would be more than surprising if he wrote even a careful, Dylan-style memoir – so the odd thing is that this long scene, filmed in New Zealand, seems to have some close relationship to Bowie’s own life. From a piece published at Senses of Cinema in 2003:
The film dealt with themes of guilt and heroism as a release, and no doubt similarities between the character of Jack Celliers and Bowie’s own family history fuelled his performance. Comments Bowie made to British journalist Hilary Bonner at the Cannes Film Festival reveal his personal connection with the role:
“I found in Celliers all too many areas of guilt and shortcomings that are part of me. I feel tremendous guilt because I grew so apart from my family. I hardly ever see my mother and I have a step-brother I don’t see anymore. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful – but somehow there’s no going back.”
That’s persuasive – so much so that I’ll even forgive the Senses of Cinema piece for then trying to make a case for Labyrinth.