David Bowie never failed to surprise. He was always on the move, oft having made striking and unpredictable artistic choices, leaving the bewildered public in his wake. Yet, perhaps the most striking move of his career was the release of The Next Day in 2013. It was recorded over a two-year period in secrecy, and released on the 8th of March, 2013, after a decade of silence following his brush with death during Reality Tour. Initially what was thought to be a pinched nerve in a shoulder turned out to be something far more serious: an acutely blocked coronary artery which required an emergency treatment and forced him to cancel the rest of the tour. According to his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti, Bowie completely disappeared from the view for a year after the incident. Once the connection was re-established, Visconti met Bowie with some regularity, yet music was never mentioned. Then, in 2011, out of the blue, Bowie shocked his old friend by asking whether he was interested in producing a demo: Like everyone else, Visconti accepted by then Bowie’s retirement as an unstated fact. The result of their two-year long effort was The Next Day, which is oft hailed as one of the very best albums in his extensive discography.
‘Love Is Lost’ is one of the five songs issued as singles from The Next Day. The single contains the original version and the remix called ‘Hello Steve Reich Mix for DFA’ by James Murphy of DFA Records. Whilst the original song is an incredibly dark and intense post-punk rock with haunting keyboard and oppressive drum, it is also something of an enigma: One is absolutely overwhelmed by the sense of regret and guilt expressed by the song without knowing the source of these feelings. In this regard, the experience of listening to ‘Love Is Lost’ is the same with that of reading The Waste Land: After listening to Eliot’s reading for the first time, Virginia Woolf was left with ‘strong emotions’ without knowing their names. Whilst Bowie’s song is only four minutes long, and it assumes a far simpler form, as is always with Bowie, the appearance is deceptive: It is far more complex than it first appears. Fortunately, James Murphy’s remix offers more than a clever repackaging of the music: It offers a clear path to approach this enigmatic piece, even though it is only one of many ways to appreciate it. It features a looped sample from the new recording of Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ performed by Murphy and his collaborators, as well as a sample from Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’. It is over ten minutes long, yet it contains a considerable intricacy, and thus is easily one of the most thoughtful remixes of Bowie’s numbers. It begins with the sound of an euphoric audience cheering and clapping in praise of a performer. Yet, the lavishing ovation soon turns into an oppressive demand, relentlessly beating down the object of this obsessive attention. Thus, the first minute of the remix signals one thing clearly: Murphy is seeking the source of the song’s intense affections in Bowie’s illustrious career. This is at once an obvious, and almost required, approach. The artwork of the album features the famous album cover of ’Heroes’ (1977) with a striking altercation: Bowie’s face is obscured with a white square which cradles the album title printed in a simple and bold typography. The first single from the album, Where Are We Now?, which preceded the release of the album itself, also features Bowie’s picture taken from a live performance during the 1970s, possibly from his Young American period, with yet another altercation: the picture is presented upside-down, a clear indication of a critical engagement with his own past. Then, again, the hollowness of fame and the success is a recurring theme for Bowie, most explicitly expressed by the song, ‘Fame’ (1975). One can conclude thus that the self-criticism and the relentless challenge to one’s belief-system and comfort-zone are a few of the constant activities of David Bowie, and there is no surprise that he is at it again, albeit with a noted graveness in its tone. Murphy makes his case by inserting the timely sample of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ to a devastating effect. Judging by the commentaries on the song’s lyrics, it is by far the most widely supported reading of one of the most grave songs written by Bowie in his later years. And the music video directed and released by Bowie himself appears to validate this view.
The music video directed by David Bowie was released in 31 October, 2013. It was filmed at his Manhattan apartment with the aid of photographer Jimmy King and Bowie’s constant guardian Corinne Schwab, with whom the artist credited his return to sanity during his Berlin era. Although much has been made of the production cost of twelve US dollars and ninety-nine cents spent for the purchase of a USB drive to store the film, this statement is rather misleading if one takes it literally: The film features two wooden puppets produced by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop as major characters, and surely they did not come for free. Therefore, what this background information reveals to us is not how casually the video was made. Rather, it shows how important this song was for Bowie. Not only was the song one of the five songs cut for singles, it spawned two distinct versions of music videos, each of which features two distinct versions of the same remix. This is an unprecedented engagement with a song by the Englishman: Whilst he set and raised the standard of music video direction repeatedly, never had he released two official music videos for one song. Whilst the ‘original’ remix, ‘Hello Steve Reich Mix for DFA’, lasts a little more than ten minutes, the Bowie version of the video features the edited remix, which is about four minutes long. The music for Bowie’s film is subtly different from the ‘original’ remix: It is not simply cut short to fit the movie. Case in point: The clapping music at the opening of the film is altered in such a way that it ends much earlier, yet the transition feels absolutely natural. Also, the story about the production suggests how Bowie approached his filming project. Despite the quality of the film, the ad-hoc nature of the production reflects the burning intensity of his creative urge. It is noted that the film was directed and edited during the weekend before its release, and the trio spent a mere seventy-two hours to complete the project. All of this background information suggests that Bowie acted on an inspired moment without delay. Whilst we will never know how long he planned and prepared for the direction of the film, once he decided on the concept, it appears, he simply could not sit still. And the result is a beautiful short film that haunts the audience long after the viewing.
The film starts with a shot wherein Bowie obsessively washes his hands in a sink. He makes awkward glances to the audience, thereby inducing shame and embarrassment upon the audience by turning them into accidental violators of his private space. Various shots of hand-washing reappear for a few times, further re-enforcing the sense of guilt. Whilst these shots do not come close to the creative feat represented by the scene wherein Ryan Gosling’s Julian washes his hands after the confrontation with his brother’s killer (Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013), as we shall see later, there is much more in common between these two films than one might initially think. This scene is followed by the apparition of two revered characters from the past: The Thin White Duke, as well as the Pierrot of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, join the hand-clapping. The reference to Bowie’s illustrious career is not limited to them: The camera briefly captures the poster of ‘Heroes’ as it glides through the empty room. Then, suddenly, Bowie, encaged within the dark figure of the Pierrot in black, is thrust in front of the lidless eye. With The Thin White Duke lurking eerily in the background, the dreaded atonement begins. His face is projected upon a blank mask of the dark Pierrot, tortuously encaged behind the painfully visible wireframe. His otherworldly appearance readily reminds us of the Major Tom, or its ghost, yet the claustrophobic nature of this apparition echoes another song from Scary Monsters, that is, ‘It’s No Game’, one of Bowie’s more politically explicit numbers. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the ghost of Major Tom is summoned for a tribunal wherein his missteps are judged, and the shortcomings exposed. In this terrifying process, The Thin White Duke eventually assumes the role of a stark judge, who repeatedly, and mercilessly, interrogates him: What have you done?! What have you done?! The cinematic tribunal continues to the bitter end wherein Major Tom crumbles and diminishes under the weight of shattered conscience, which burns him alive with the shuddering flame of remorse, shame, sorrow, and despair.
As noted earlier, most viewers interpret this song as the story reminiscent of Citizen Kane: The tale of a successful yet hollow public life haunted by the yearning for the lost innocence of youth. This autobiographical interpretation of the song went so far as for some to claim that the song is about a very specific event from Bowie’s youth: his break-up with Hermione Farthingale, whom he met through Lindsay Kemp. When the pair split, the artist was twenty-two years old, and this experience affected him quite badly, as heard in the number from the album, David Bowie (1970), ‘Letter To Hermione’. Sources state that Farthingale left the relationship to join the shooting of a film, Song of Norway (Andrew L. Stone, 1970), and Bowie is seen in a T-Shirt printed with the title of this very film in another music video, ‘Where Are We Now?’, the first single from The Next Day. Whilst there might be some truth to this autobiographical interpretation of the song, and there is nothing particularly wrong about Bowie indulging in nostalgia, both the song and the movie betray this theory: The gravity and the intensity of this kind simply cannot be inspired by a wistful meditation of the unfulfilled promise of youthful love that ended more than four decades ago. Considering the fact that it was Farthingale who initiated the dissolution of their partnership, however heartbreaking at the time, their break-up simply cannot warrant the fear and trembling that haunt the song and the film. To bring the imposing figure of The Thin White Duke to lead a tribunal to examine the failure of youthful love would be a hyperbole, if not an absurdity.
Whilst Bowie’s film does not disclose the source of the guilt and shame expressed, the second music video gives us something to ponder. It is directed by Barnaby Roper, and released on 14 November, 2013, separated only by a few weeks from the release of the first film. Unlike the Bowie edition, this film lasts over ten minutes, thereby covering the entire length of the track. It is not known when Roper began the preparation of the project, and thus there is no way of knowing now whether Bowie saw the unfinished film, or the completed one for that matter, before he embarked upon his own project. Roper’s version is almost entirely relied upon computer graphics, and thus it marks a stark contrast to Bowie’s low-tech, yet emotionally urgent, direction. Roper’s movie begins with a beautiful abstraction: the picture of clapping hands turns into a flower-like symbol, quickly multiplying and forming a rhythmic mandala. Then some forms appear: At first they form a web of pollen or dust, then quickly developing into something more complex yet familiar. The figure that resembles the human eye appears. As if to emphasise the subjective nature of what follows, our vision is guided through the interior of the eye itself, which demonstrates an incredibly complex structure made up by small waves. Then, in a white-out space, the wireframe begins to form some shapes. At the beginning, it is not clear what might become of it, for it repeats the process of shaping and collapsing in a short interval. Yet, suddenly, like sub-atomic particles appear to collapse into an empirically cognisable state, some familiar forms begin to emerge: various and incomplete parts of the surface of human bodies. It is at once breathtakingly beautiful, yet an unnerving process to watch, for these parts are jagged, fractured, paper-thin pieces which suggest the hollowness of the final forms that may or may not be materialised. The jarring repetition of the emergence of forms and their dissolutions continues until the sudden burst of images in full-colour images into our cognition in the form of a human eye, most likely a close-up of Bowie’s. Then, out of the fog, a young naked woman appears, followed by a nude of a young man.
By then, we have seen more than half of the film. Up to this point, the film has been a dance of abstraction, which is well-suited to the mix inspired by Steve Reich, and thus this sudden emergence of life-forms is all the more striking: It draws a parallel to a scene from a ground-breaking Japanese animated film, Ghost In The Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995) wherein the ‘rebirth’ of the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is depicted with an intriguing mixture of futuristic vision and the ancient mythological tale of ‘creation’ wherein ‘our beginning’ takes place by the ‘marriage’ between the transcendent (some sort of deity) and the immanent (earthly being, mostly represented by someone who is human and female). Oshii manages to express the ambiguity of human existence in the scheme of so-called ‘evolution’ of the species, as well as his ambivalence toward the implications of the technologically materialised transcendence of ego: For the director, the ‘overcoming’ of ego also means the dissolution of ego and subjectivity. Whilst acknowledging the allure of the ‘higher order’, Oshii also questions whether it is permissible for us humans to seriously consider such a transcendent state as a realisable option. It is the sentiment expressed by Rebecca Goldstein in her book, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006): Goldstein resists Spinoza’s method of overcoming the fear of mortality through amor dei intellectualis, or his philosophical love of deus sive natura, and the contemplation of sub specie aeternitatis, by stressing the importance of struggling with the fear and trembling for our finiteness, living through the actuality of this quintessential human condition. Whilst there have been countless variations in the pursuit of defying the ‘constrains’ of human conditions, both natural and institutional, our desire to transcend ourselves is generally boiling down to the desire for immortality. Whilst some philosophers sought to come to terms with our mortality by accepting it, for the most part, humankind has consistently demonstrated the refusal to ‘go gently into the night’. As religious ‘solutions’ to this age-old fear of death lost its credibility in the wake of modernity, it is widely considered that the only solution to this existential angst is to attain immortality by technological means. In this sense, ‘our’ rebirth as a cybernetically enhanced human being is a step toward this universal goal: Humankind finally takes a concrete step away from the cycle of life, death, and re-birth, and each individual moves toward the attainment of immortality as someone who stands above the Nature by means purely devised by humankind itself.
Of course, things are seldom as simple as such a statement suggests. As Ghost In The Shell tells us, our ‘enhancement’ also means the deeper, existential, dependency to technological means, and this total reliance on technology, which is subject to the influence of politics and market, not to mention the inherent fallibility, both human and technical, threatens to render us disposable. Yet, facing the prospect of fulfilling ‘our destiny’ of attaining immortality, we pay little or no heed to these concerns. The majority of humans seldom consider the implications of our actions: We rarely, if at all, consider seeing beyond the probability and the means to attain the fulfillment of desires. Thus, despite Oshii’s ambivalence toward this particular approach and the world-view which sustains it, Kusanagi’s rebirth nonetheless induces a great exhilaration in the audience. Roper’s short film first appears to follow the footstep of the Japanese: It begins with the depiction of dust-like particles dancing without any discernible pattern or purpose, only to form points whose connections begin to morph into unfamiliar shapes. Curiously, as soon as wireframe begins to form curvy objects, the viewers begin to find familiar forms, that is, the figments of a human body, as if to confirm our inherently anthropocentric limitation. Yet, the process which follows the emergence of human forms in this film does not induce the kind of exhilaration as expressed in the opening title of Oshii’s masterpiece. Whilst the rebirth of Kusanagi takes breath away with the sense of witnessing the creation of a new state of being as the result of a drastic cybernetic ‘enhancement’ of the human species through the combination of a sophisticated robotic body and a human brain, the emergence depicted here is strictly formal and abstract until a full-coloured image of Bowie’s eye bursts into the scene. It is a lengthy, uncertain process of push and pull between the emerging order and its collapse into the chaos, the repetitive process which impresses the fragility, not the creative force. In addition, the entire process of the emergence in Roper’s film is in fact the reverse of Kusanagi’s rebirth. In Ghost In The Shell, when the white cover of her body breaks into pieces, what we see is the face of a sleeping beauty, with her dark eyelashes and luminous skin. As the white cover scatters like petals of cherry blossoms in the air, there emerges a fully developed body of a young woman, whose staggering capabilities has already impressed the audience in the opening scene. On the other hand, Roper’s lovers come into being through the assemblage of fragile, irregular, paper-thin pieces. In short, their existence is completely made up by the surface: Even when they appear as models resembling marble sculptures, one cannot help but suspecting their fragility and hollowness. They are, in short, shells without ghosts.
Our angst soon becomes ‘reality’: The vision of the lust and embrace becomes the subject of distortion, fragmentation, and, finally, a total annihilation. The overall effect is staggeringly dark. What begins as a universal story of ‘our beginning’ wherein the ‘first humans’ embrace to start the procreation of species ends in the total destruction, rendering them back into thin, fragmented, hollow pieces before blasting them away into nothingness. Although this is no Paradise Lost, it is clear that this is Bowie’s perspective of ‘where we are now’, and perhaps more importantly, what has not yet come to pass: the dire state of current affairs and the prospect of catastrophes, environmental or otherwise, that awaits future generations as the results of ‘human progress’, both of which are arguably the logical consequence of Industrial Materialism (If not familiar with this term, please read my essay on The Big Short, which is found in the section called The Promised Land in the page, Shadowplay). In the various states of visual distortion during the sequence depicting the embracing couple, the fragments from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ repeatedly appear. These flashbacks are not there to suggest Bowie’s preoccupation with his personal past: One must recall that Major Tom wished the planet Earth and its inhabitants ‘to grow’ despite his personal low. Even then, remorse was not entirely personal: Whilst he denounced his stardom and the accompanying addiction, he was also lamenting his inability to better the world he inhabited in ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Due to his sharp intellect and coolness on stage, it is easy to forget a more idealistic side of Bowie: He began his career as a musician in the 1960s, once being a student of a known Buddhist master, then living in a commune for a brief time. Major Tom, Bowie’s first alter-ego, was introduced in the Briton’s first hit song, ‘Space Oddity’, the song which aptly expresses the despair that many felt as ‘The Summer of Love’ arrived at its conclusion. Awakening alone in an indifferent universe, he shudders with the realisation: The planet Earth is blue, and there is nothing ‘I’ can do. When Major Tom returns for the third time in ‘Love Is Lost’, his mind was not so much on the lost love in his youth: Bowie was revisiting the rude awakening from the youthful, and naïve, optimism. The striking difference here is the degree of guilt and shame he felt for himself and humanity: The violence with which the lovers are interfered represents what he sees as the destructive side of modernity by which humankind dreams of becoming the replacement of ‘God’. Whilst he had been clear-sighted enough to know his own naïvité, the sorrow, the guilt, and the shame expressed in ‘Love Is Lost’ shows that he never completely lost his youthful tenderness of heart. Still, what sets him apart from the most is his sober and sharp intellect: His grasp of dialectic is such that, as we can see in his interview during the ‘Heathen Tour’ in Paris, he was fully capable of articulating his assessment of the current state philosophically. Whilst Bowie manages to conduct the conversation with a certain degree of lightheartedness, the subject he discusses, albeit with a broad stroke, is quite serious. With ‘Love Is Lost’, Bowie confronts the source of isolation and alienation he spoke of in the aforementioned interview. It is isolating to see why and how we are heading to the wrong way, and it is alienating to realise how and why one is unable to influence the course of events. Despite finding a way to successfully cope with such affections, these ’slightly negative’ feelings never left him. And, in ‘Love Is Lost’, he chose to confront them, and atone his ‘sins’ by conducting his own stark tribunal. When the brief infatuation with the euphoria of the time in his youth ended, Bowie found himself as a powerless observer of humanity’s continuing self-destruction.
This is where Bowie meets Winding Refn: Despite the difference in their respective subjects of ethical interrogations, they share the uncompromising attitude in their tribunal of conscience, which is at once personal and collective. The intensity and the sincerity of their fear and trembling, and their willingness to stand on trial, reflects their keen understanding of their respective personal places within the dialectic: Like the notion of ‘German Guilt’, if one is serious and sincere, one must accept one’s place and the accompanying responsibility within a collective story as a part of it. One needs not, for example, be a whaler to be guilty of driving cetaceans into extinction: If one is Japanese, even if one is strongly opposed to such a violence, one must admit one’s responsibility as a part of this particular Form of Life. Refn confronts the ‘Western’ Geist through the interrogation of its fear and trembling originating from the oft neglected sources of guilt and shame that invite reckonings. The subjects of tribunal are: religious hypocrisy and colonialism (Valhalla Rising); Racism, Neo-colonialism, and ruthless instrumentalism (Only God Forgives); and the relentless obsession of ‘beauty’, which is in fact the necrophiliac objectification that destroys both the subject and the object of desire (The Neon Demon). These films are starkly forceful: They simultaneously express vengeance, retributions, reckoning, and a very few willing subjects for atonement. In this sense, these films are cinematic representations of the Judgment Day: Each film confronts sins and crimes committed by the Form of Life from which Refn emerged. Naturally, the most significant feature of the trial is the fact that it is initiated by himself: Refn, like One-Eye (Valhalla Rising), Julian (Only God Forgives), and Gigi (The Neon Demon), is a willing defendant. He is ready to atone as someone who partakes in the ‘Western’ Geist. Whilst one is not entirely clear of his motives in doing so, despite his public image, judging from these movies, his engagement with the critique of modern ‘Western’ Form of Life is sincere. The fact that his main characters are either angels of retribution (One-Eye and Bangkok Police Chief) or the sinner in need of atonement (everyone, including One-Eye, Julian, and Gigi as the only willing participants) suggests Refn’s seriousness. He understands the notion of ‘sin’ precisely in a Dostoyevskian sense: It is the atonement of the ‘sins’ that matters. As Wittgenstein noted in his lecture on ethics, an ethical judgment is absolute, and thus it transcends the limit of our linguistic, that is, conceptual, capacity. Whilst Wittgenstein does not state his judgment on the system of judiciary, if one takes his statement about ethical judgment seriously, one must agree with Dostoyevsky: The determination of the crime and its punishment is not essential; the recognition of the sin and the subsequent atonement is. For Raskolnikov to atone his sins, actions such as turning himself in to the system of criminal justice and serving his time in a labour camp are simply irrelevant. What matters is that he appreciates the graveness of his sin in its full extent: taking the life of another being. Only when Raskolnikov atones for his sins, he becomes the subject of redemption (One must note: redemption is not the same as forgiveness). This process is exactly what Refn and his sinners must go through. And that is exactly to which Bowie subjects himself in his music video.
Perhaps the tragic secret disclosed in these cinemas is that Wenders’ angels are never meant to find a repose. The ones who suffer the poetic conscience, in the end, cannot be heard in a world deafened and blinded by the constant neurological command ‘to be happy’ and ‘to be yourself’. Like the cursed prophet of Troy, they stand alone in silence. And like Helen, they stand on the wall, awestruck by the sight of destruction they involuntarily helped commence.
The videos reviewed here can be found at: