“Any proposition containing the word “is” creates a linguistic structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies.” ― Alfred Korzybski
“Is,” “is,” “is”—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.” – Robert Anton Wilson
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….” – Bill Clinton
“Whatever you say it is, it is… NOT” – me
The title of the new Bowie exhibition mocks us, but in a fun-loving way. He knows what he’s doing, using only one word (other than David Bowie) for the title and it’s a completely intentionally misleading, or at very least, untrustworthy, word. So, for starters, let’s take a look at what the exhibition which is the subject of this documentary “David Bowie Is” actually IS. According to the Huffington Post:
“‘David Bowie Is,’ contains more than 300 artifacts selected from an incredible 75,000 items Bowie had archived over the years.”
So this is not a documentary about David Bowie, it is a documentary about a huge collection of David Bowie “stuff” through which we will experience the different David Bowie iterations as they unfolded throughout the last 40 plus years, literally a middle-aged lifetime, my own, to be super-specific. It comes about a month after Showtime’s tight and classy “5 Years” documentary, which was SO good and SO right and SO short it leaves you wanting MORE. When you sit down to watch a one hour documentary about Bowie’s career, you know that they’re not even gonna try to tell “the whole story”. I know they just put it out to get ME, personally, excited and hungry for more. Maybe all this stuff from the exhibition will tell the whole story, if there’s enough stuff! Obviously, there’s a heavy-duty hype campaign being rolled out and Bowie is going out of his way to make sure it’s very fragmented and indirect, which is what we love him for.
What Bowie is perhaps best known for, is being the original unpredictable shapeshifting artist who never even tries to insult the audience by trying to act like the whole thing is not an act, if you catch my drift…
BUT, like all great originals, he is not original at all, as far as changing identity and fucking with public perception goes. As usual, it starts with rascal-visionary-genius-plagiarist Bob Dylan. Dylan is even more like Bowie than Bowie in this regard. He acts like he expects you to believe him, but he knows that you know that he knows…
I bring up Dylan specifically because I believe what Bowie is doing here is similar in some ways to Dylan’s “Chronicles”, which came out close to the great Scorcese “No Direction Home” documentary, which, in my thinking, sort of corresponds to the relationship between the recent Showtime retro documentary and the new retrospective museum exhibit and film documentary about said exhibit.
“To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” – Oscar Wilde
No artist has made art as transparently about “concealing the artist” as David Bowie. From the get-go, Bowie not only never committed to a musical style, he never even officially committed to music as his primary medium as an artist, even when he wasn’t famous yet and no one cared if he decided to be an actor or a fucking mime or whatever.
Getting back to the Dylan connection, I now will digress to discuss the marketing of old shit, which is the business the Stones have been in for quite a while, Dylan has been quietly doing and Bowie, as usual, was one of the pioneers of. In the new world, because music is so literally freely available, selling music is hard, because it has been devalued, at least in a monetary sense. So who’s selling new music these days? Ace Frehley has been admirably (and rightfully!) successful selling his new shit on iTunes and Bowie and Dylan have been coughing up so much truly awesome old shit (the live cd that came as a bonus with the semi-recent “Station To Station” reissue is a revelation, how could it have been languishing all those years? And don’t even get me started on the inspirational balls-out triumph of the “Rolling Thunder” installment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series) that IT’S ALMOST AS IF THEY WERE VISIONARY PROPHETS WHO KNEW THIS TIME WAS COMING. But really, I figure they are artsy-fartsy genii who have a certain detachment that allows them to work the system to their benefit, rather than scurrying to catch up and adapt to it.
How did I get this far without mentioning McCartney, who waged a promotional campaign to promote the work of THE BEATLES (as if he needed to, but still, it seemed to help) and then went back out with a tour and documentary and reissues in a transparent effort to make room in the canon for WINGS?!?!?! And it fucking worked! But now, once again, the new Beatles audiophile collection is the latest, most coveted musical product being sold. THE BEATLES ALWAYS WIN FOREVER. The only music you can sell now is old music. Partially because old people (i.e.: me) had long ago been habituated to purchasing music and because Bowie/Stones/Beatles/Dylan etc. is music that has already been long-established as important and “worth paying money for”. I think this is true both in objective and subjective terms, but I’ve blah blah’d on this enough already.
As far as the movie goes, IMHO, it ate a bag of dicks. Before it started, there was a brief introduction in the theater, in person, by one Vivien Goldman (who seemed really pleasant and warm and enthusiastic) identifying herself as “the professor of David Bowie, NYU, Clive Davis Branch, Tisch School of the Arts”. So we got off on the wrong foot immediately because as anyone who knows me knows, even though I lack any academic accreditation in any field, I, KEITH HARTEL, AM THE FUCKING PROFESSOR OF DAVID BOWIE. So I got an axe to grind and the thing ain’t even started yet, but when it does, here come “Fame” cranking over the speakers. Are you fucking kidding me? There is no more hackneyed gesture in the world of Bowie than to use his ginormous perennial hit, “Fame”, when you’re watching something that’s trying to tell you about him. We get it: when he got really famous he wrote “Fame” about being famous and this is such a great example of his detachment from his surroundings, allowing him to look at his predicament from an ironic distance, or some such horse shit. It’s just so obvious. Why don’t you spell it the fuck out for me, you indignatious motherfuckers? It goes downhill from here.
“This documentary is the ultimate tour of the exhibition”, says one of the incessant English accents which beat you over the head throughout the entirety of the movie (I realize Bowie is a British guy from Britain and these are British people talking about a British exhibition BUT among other things, this film has totally ruined British accents for me, and very possibly may have turned me racist against the British). So here’s one of the problems: this exhibition is no different from anything you ever saw at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, except it’s all Bowie stuff. As it happens, politics aside, I LOVE visiting the RNRHOF and I could spend a whole day there, completely absorbed and fascinated (and I have done exactly that more than once). And since Bowie is my all-time favorite artist, more or less, I believe I’d be like a pig in shit at the actual Bowie exhibition. My point is, could you imagine seeing a film that starts with someone announcing “This documentary is the ULTIMATE tour of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”? I think that would sound totally fucking stupid, which is probably why no such movie exists (to date, at least).
The Bowie music sounds great cranking over the system (not “Fame” anymore, but THEY BRING IT BACK LATER, DUH!) and they flash shitloads of awesomely cool pictures, so really, someone had to go out of their way to make this thing suck. The first thing they do is show you a RICE SCULPTURE representing everyone born in 1947, a peak birth year in England. THANK YOU FOR EXPLAINING THE FUCKING BABY BOOM FROM A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE USING A FUCKING RICE SCULPTURE!!! Really helps me get a new perspective on Bowie (I mean that soooo sarcastically). Also, sarcasm intact, thank you for pointing out that Elton John and Marc Bolan were born around the same time, it never would have occurred to me, I had no idea… I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED THAT CONTEMPORANEOUS STARS OF THE BRIT GLAM ROCK HEYDAY WOULD HAVE BEEN BORN AROUND THE SAME TIME AS EACH OTHER! So approximately two and a half minutes into the movie, they’re already hitting us with filler which I honestly cannot imagine would make the movie one iota more interesting to anyone who would ever see it. At this point, two and a half minutes in, I’m already pretty sure that this film just not for me.
17 YEAR OLD DAVID BOWIE ON TV
In the next segment they show the recently circulating clip of 17 year old Bowie on TV talking about “Society for prevention of harassment to longhaired men”, which was a simple PR setup, a way to get an up and comer on TV with a gimmick. That’s worth seeing, but they spent way too much time setting the scene for the sociological environment in which this took place. It’s like they think no one ever saw a Beatles documentary.
DAVID BOWIE – First TV appearance 1970 – SPACE ODDITY
He becomes David Bowie instead of “Jones” in 1965. There’s a healthy dose of bullshit revisionism (IMHO) when they point out Bowie’s debut album was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper, and he was on the wrong side of far-outness or some such. But really, Bowie’s first album was perfectly weird and artsy-fartsy enough for the times, he just hadn’t written “Space Oddity” yet. In other words, his debut album was not one of those great, fully formed debut albums and it took him a while to find his groove, like so many of the all-time greats. Bringing Sgt. Pepper into the dialogue is a bunch of bullshit, totally irrelevant. BUT, it is cool that they show the original acetate of the Velvet Underground’s “Banana” album, which was given to Bowie by his manager before it’s actual release, and it reminds us why he was influenced by it before anyone else of note and he’s gotta be their most influential proselytizer. Still, it’s not that great to see it in a movie with some guy explaining that Bowie liked VU. But credit where credit is due, that’s an impressive artifact they got in there.
Then they start talking about Lindsey Kemp and the mime shit and Bowie discovering that he might want to try being “different people”. They gloss over the fact that he was already doing that, playing Saxophone in mod Who-ripoff bands, then trying his hand at singing and writing, then moving from mod to Kinks-influenced music-hall style. This was a guy trying all different shit to try to make it. It’s about the need to make people pay attention to you at any cost. An audience to fill the void left by the dysfunctional family structures experienced by so many baby boom era children, who were brought up in an atmosphere of repression and denial due to the unprecedented atrocity which was how the West WON. I believe the trajectory of his early career in many ways resembles that of Steve Martin. Reading Martin’s excellent “Born Standing Up” memoir, I was surprised to learn that he was not a “born comedian”, he just wanted to find a way to make people watch him, he needed an audience. He put in time as a magician, a banjo player, a dramatic actor and a comedy writer before becoming the world’s most successful stand-up comedian, then a big movie star and now he writes books and makes records with Edie Brickell. Steve Martin may be more shapeshifting and ultimately unknowable (most likely even and especially unto himself, but I digress), than Bowie.
After all these relative irrelevancies (‘cept the VU acetate) they have a bunch of “customers” talking about “how fascinating the first room in the Bowie exhibit is”. It comes across very similar to when a lowbrow comedy is released and they have a commercial with exiting civilians enthusing about how much fun they had because quoting people who write about movies is not gonna make a very good advertisement.
Next: they explain “Space Oddity”. They’re talking about the first pictures of Earth taken from space, and how it was the first time we knew the Earth looks blue from space, and that it inspired the line “Planet Earth is blue” from Space Oddity. Approaching 20 minutes into this thing, here is reasonably interesting fact #2. They analyze the visual content for the album cover of what they refer to as “The Space Oddity Album”. This is bullshit because anyone who gives half a shit knows that the album was titled “Man Of Words, Man Of Music” in the UK upon initial release whereas it wasn’t even released as an album called “Space Oddity” in the US until after the Ziggy breakthrough, and of course, the American version (the one actually titled “Space Oddity”) had Ziggy era photo-shoot stuff on the cover. They do make some interesting observations about what the cover of the original UK release had on it, but referring to it as “Space Oddity” is once again, a bunch of bullshit. Maybe I’m just being bitchy because I never had the original UK one on LP.
Then this film, this mockery of a travesty of a sham, takes a turn sharply for the worse, when they start talking about how Bowie’s COSTUME, when he appeared on “Top Of The Pops” for the first time ever in 1972, changed various random, ordinary British accent-speaking peoples’ lives. I know it’s an art exhibit and I’m aware that music isn’t art (I really need a sarcasm font). Let me remind you, this movie started with a rice sculpture about the births occurring in Britain in 1947, then we talk about Bowie’s “overlooked” debut album, which no one has ever listened to, and then we examine Bowie’s breakthrough hit single, “Space Oddity”, which we act like was part of an actual important Bowie album (which it sort of ain’t) and then completely ignore the fact that “Man Who Sold The World” and “Hunky Dory” were created (except for “Oh, You Pretty Things” obligatory playing in the background while more British accents explain how Bowie had “a bleak view of the future” at the dawn of the 70s). My beef is that this period that is being glossed over is, in my opinion, the most crucial phase in Bowie’s development as artist and superstar. But what do I know? I’m only a “self-proclaimed” professor of David Bowie, not a real one, from the Clive Davis branch of the Tisch school of the Arts at NYU. The suppression of my obviously very important thoughts on this topic is clearly a symptom of the intentional dumbing down of the culture.
Now we’re getting to close to the first time during the movie where I had the urge to fucking walk the fuck out. Here’s the low point: A long speech, delivered in broken English, by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, who designed the fabulous, revolutionary stage wear for “Ziggy”. In no way would I wish to say anything to detract from his phenomenal creative contribution to the theatrical presentation of Bowie’s most celebrated and revered “Ziggy Stardust” era. But he just didn’t have a whole lot to say (why should any real artist, aside from in their art?) and his rambling, incomprehensible speech, which mainly seemed to express “we liked what each other did, so it worked”, was the first point in the film where there was no doubt in my mind that if I was watching this at home on TV, I’d change the channel. It would have been better if he spoke in Japanese with subtitles. Listening to this guy who can hardly speak English talk about his first trip to New York was EXCRUCIATING. Now, getting back to my earlier theme that this is a movie loaded with pointless filler, this guy’s speech, which is impossible to really understand, took WAY too long. This was the first time I checked to see how long I’d been watching this fucking thing, seemed like forever, but it was only a little over a half hour, so as a fucking professional, I resolved to stick it out until the end, or at least until I caught a cue that left no doubt in my mind that it was time to walk the fuck out.
Next thing you know, they skip to the fucking Union Jack jacket he’s wearing on the cover of the 90s era (really good, actually) “Earthling” album. I’m pissed! Did I say this is a bunch of bullshit? The film starts out chronological and now they seem to be visiting random times when he had some garment that someone can talk about. In retrospect, I’m surprised I managed to hang for another 20 or so minutes. “Fashion” comes up on the soundtrack, keeping with the very INSPIRED (there’s my sarcasm font again) tone set by the earlier employment of “Fame” and “Space Oddity” to assist in not telling a potentially extremely fascinating story.
Finally, the song creation part of the exhibition gets some coverage. I can’t complain when they bring up the Burroughs cut-up technique and Eno’s “Oblique Strategy” techniques. This is the first, and almost the only, truly worthwhile insight into Bowie’s creative process that’s been presented, as far as I’m concerned. Since I am an arch-nerd, super-fan, self-proclaimed professor of Bowie, there’s no new information for ME here, but that’s not a criticism. I am, however, unsurprised when, disappointingly, this aforementioned relevant and illuminating insight into Bowie’s creative process at his artistic peak takes less than 3 minutes to cover. And then it’s on to…
“The guy from Pulp!” I like Jarvis Cocker, I like Pulp and I think he’s an interesting and smart commentator. At this point, I thought the movie might be turning around, finally getting really interesting, informative, insightful. Jarvis Cocker is a witty dude who knows his Bowie. But in this movie, he is merely “the guy from Pulp”. OK, guy from Pulp, it’s make or break time. What are you gonna bring to the table?
“I wanted to talk to you a bit about David Bowie’s writing, and I really do mean his writing because you’ve seen it, earlier on. That was one of the things that really struck me when I came to this exhibition, was to see his handwriting.” Listen here, guy from Pulp, DAVID BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING IS ALL OVER THE BACK COVER OF “HUNKY DORY”, ONE OF HIS MOST POPULAR ALBUMS. DAVID BOWIE’S HANDWRITING APPEARED IN A FAN CLUB ADVERT INCLUDED AS AN INSERT IN “ALADDIN” FUCKING “SANE”, DAVID BOWIE’S HANDWRITING APPEARED IN THE GATEFOLD TO FUCKING “DAVID LIVE”. DAVID BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING IS NO FUCKING MYSTERY AND I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT YOU, GUY FROM PULP, SERIOUSLY WERE CURIOUS TO SEE IT. I guess seeing it on the actual original paper is pretty cool, as cool as the other million examples taped to the walls of the rock and roll hall of fame, but this is the part of the movie where I actually became enraged. Fucking handwriting? It gets WORSE…
Guy from Pulp says “it had a bit of the look of the 14 year-old girl’s handwriting”, meaning, legible and a bit round and pretty looking, HOW UNIQUE FOR GENDER-BENDING ARTSY-FARTSY TYPES who write POETRY (lyrics, technically, but you catch my drift). Gene Simmons has equally interesting handwriting. Handwriting is just not that interesting, at least not to me. It is my contention, especially in the “paperless” age, that all people’s handwriting is unique and idiosyncratic in a way. And who fucking cares? I do not believe this is what the guy from Pulp was really the most interested in, I believe they needed a cool, smart, famous, funny guy to make it seem like it’s worthwhile to discuss Bowie’s handwriting. But I was not fooled. The guy from Pulp also mentions the “Bowie Nights” which were a kind of 70s-80s punk, new romantic nightclub cultural thing in Britain, which I believe did actually mean a lot to the guy from Pulp, but it was only brought up as a sort of sidebar to his bland remarks about Bowie’s handwriting, which I think he was blackmailed into speaking about. Because it’s just dumb.
Here’s another tired trope applied to all sorts of artists working in the field of music, inevitably trotted out to kill time, or if I pay attention to the paranoid voices in my head, to slowly kill me, personally: “The recording studio for Bowie is like a canvas”. I’m not even gonna say anything about that one, but if I did, I would need a SARCASM FONT. So then, this other guy that said that last obvious quote STARTS TALKING AGAIN ABOUT BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING which he say is, “almost sort of naive in a way”. And then some civilian attendant of the exhibition weighs in with “It’s really, really cool to see the handwritten lyrics, it’s a bit trippy and amazing.” This last remark is the only one I fully agree with and endorse but I wish to point out that WE HAVE HAD THREE DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW ON BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING!!! Now let’s think back to that rice sculpture in the beginning of the film. Have I mentioned this movie contains an exceedingly high percentage of FILLER? It seems to be getting worse, but I don’t stay for very much longer after this.
At this point I’m thinking, “Give me one more reason to walk out, and I’m OUT.”
Suddenly and unexpectedly, there is one more brief high point when they show sketches Bowie made for his aborted “1984” musical which morphed into the wildly original and super weird and cryptic “Diamond Dogs” album and tour. These storyboards are dark and weird, the real deal. Another strong motivation to see the actual exhibition if it ever made its way to, God forbid, New York.
Now suddenly we’re being brought up to date with the guy who designed Bowie’s most recent “The Next Day” album cover. I thought it was cool how they just put the white label on top of the “Heroes” cover. But how much is there to say about it? What’s the mystery? We see different versions with every other classic album cover he ever released covered with it. Basically, they make the point that they really put some time into deciding which iconic Bowie album cover would be defaced with “The Next Day” label. Again, it’s a pretty cool idea but way over-explained. I concede it was neat to see the other possible covers, but still, FILLER.
And here was my cue to leave:
“On working on the exhibition we’ve met many people who say David Bowie literally changed their lives. We wanted to illustrate that with the work of a single fan, who at the age of 14, made the most beautiful scrapbooks. That boy turned into a man and eventually into a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to introduce…”
I’m outta here!!! I’m a lifelong Bowie fan. He didn’t change my life because he was always there, for which fact I have my parents to thank. David Bowie didn’t change my life any more than food or air or water or the group Kiss (although he’s been a stronger consistent influence and source of inspiration to me than Kiss or any other artist.)
So like Jane’s Addiction sez, “I walk right through there door. I WALK RIGHT THROUGH THE DOOR.”
When Robin Williams recently killed himself, the dreaded Facebook was LOADED with all sorts of dumb, irrelevant opinions about suicide. You know, “whether it’s the right thing to do”, as if the suiciders could, should, or would possibly give a fuck about anyone else’s whiny, self-absorbed, self-important, self-ISH opinion on this weighty topic, and I shared this link of my favorite current comedian, Doug Stanhope, to express my personal attitude on the matter. He uses walking out of a movie as a metaphor for suicicide. I’m presenting it, ironically enough, simply as the correct, sane, intelligent reason for leaving an actual movie before it’s over:
Life isn’t for everyone (Doug Stanhope)
No one should blame you for walking out early.
David Bowie Wants Ideas MP3 by BongWater from Double Bummer
All I Want / Heroes(LCD Soundsystem< David Bowie Covers) MP3 by Lightouts
(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six MP3 by The Brian Jonestown Massacre from Take It From The Man!
Alrighty facehookers you know what to do. Comments always welcome.