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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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories