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David Bowie: The eternal space oddity

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power?

This article was written in January 2013, in response to the release of Where Are We Now​?

Apart from a charity gig six years ago, sightings of David Bowie in the past decade have largely been paparazzi shots: a thin, white duke drifting from school gate to home in Manhattan, content with the demands of fatherhood following heart surgery in 2004. Industry friends of mine were asked to write his obituary five years ago. So it was exciting to see the searchlight swing round when, out of nowhere, he announced his first album in ten years and released a single (“Where Are We Now?”), on his 66th birthday, in advance of a huge retrospective opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in March.

For a magical moment on the morning of 8 January, the music industry is saved. Charts matter again (emails are pouring in from William Hill); there’s proof that you can keep secrets from the internet; the eternal mysteries of pop are restored as that shaky but unmistakeable voice breaks through YouTube, like Gandalf back from the dead.

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power? Is it because he retired for a decade, ramping up the expectations? Nothing keeps you safer from criticism in the music industry than hardly releasing any music – Kate Bush will testify to that. Or is it because he’s always been “ahead of the game”? To be fair, he’s not (musically) these days, nor is he pretending to be.

“Where Are We Now?”, produced by Bowie’s long-time wingman Tony Visconti, is a luxuriantly self-reflexive song, reminiscent, with its elegiac chord sequence, of “Thursday’s Child” from the 1999 album Hours . . . (which also saw him boldly alluding to much of his previous work). He’s been chewing over mortality on his past two albums, with songs such as “Afraid” and the ironic “Never Get Old”. It’s obvious why. The new single is a sombre walk around his beloved Berlin, communing with ghosts.

If you want witty, equivocal poetry about middle age, listen to Nick Lowe or Chris Difford. Bowie is getting older reluctantly, fearfully, far away from his audience – and for his audience, this is a very powerful thing. The first line he’s spoken in years, “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz . . .” is a call out to the class of ’77, sending them right back to those heady times, alone. Musically unremarkable though it may be, “Where Are We Now?” activates two of the most potent things about popular music: nostalgia and the contemplation of darkness.

A good friend of mine, who gets the whole Bowie thing much better than I will ever do, suggested the other day, “He’s never got over the crushing disappointment of learning the world isn’t as magical as the one he perceived when he was a child.” His playfulness isn’t all gone, though. In the new video, with his face projected on to a puppet made of old socks by the artist Tony Oursler, he looks a bit like Avid Merrion’s “Bear”.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump