Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
VII. The Bowie-Newton
‘I see things. Bodies… women… and men.’
Newton’s oblique reference to bisexuality would undoubtedly have resonated with a seventies audience as it is perhaps impossible to read the character without thinking of David Bowie. Bowie, according to Anne Rice, ‘amplifies… lithe androgynous beauty’ and ‘always promised the end of gender’ (Rice, 1983). Perhaps the advantage of reading this film decades after its release is to be able to put Bowie’s deterritorial androgyny to the test of time, to have access to the icon’s reterritorializing trajectory from what the biography in the Davidson Dalling Associates press pack reminds us is ‘the first space-rock hero of the seventies’ Ziggy Stardust (Long Star Biographies, Davidson Dalling Associates p20) to, what Greg Villepique calls, ‘Normal David’ (Villepique, 2000). After Ziggy, Bowie regenerated as the short-lived character Halloween Jack when he recast George Orwell’s ‘1984’ as the concept album ‘Diamond Dogs’ – initially it was a stage musical, but Orwell’s estate withheld the theatrical rights (Pegg, 2004: 287). Interestingly, the album follows the deterritorial ‘Rebel Rebel’ (‘They’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl, Rebel Rebel how could they know’) with the reterritorial, and somewhat prophetic, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’ (‘When you rock ‘n’ roll with me, There’s no one else I’d rather be’).
Bowie’s ‘androgyny’ is undoubtedly one of the film’s most powerful affects, but it is also effective in passing the feminized other off as the alien. In successfully exploiting the credulity of post-sixties youth rebellion, Ziggy stole his clothes from the ‘other’, his androgyny a ‘picture sleeve’ promotion, an in-between based on the same old binaries. This is a conscious drag or what (gender theorist) Judith Butler calls, after Hollywood blockbusters like Some Like it Hot (1959), ‘high hat entertainment’ (Butler, 1993: 85). The film’s appropriation of Bowie’s alien must be seen in the same light. The screenwriter Paul Mayersberg compares the film to a mystery story in which Bowie’s presence and styling ‘turns him into the archetype mystery woman arriving in the office of the private eye for help’ (Mayersberg, 1976: 230). He and Roeg saw that Bowie wouldn’t be called upon to act as he had absolute qualities, projecting already an otherworldliness ‘alienation that’s the result of rock star fame’ (Wilcken, 2005, 21), and ‘a different pace and rhythm’ (Roeg quoted in About the film, Davidson Dalling Associates press pack, p11). Mayersberg even scripted in Bowie music for the soundtrack. This is surely a further attempt to foreground the imaginary-feminine, a musical construction our ‘lifelong experiences as embodied creatures’ (McClary, 1991: 24) encourages us to recognize. Arguably the feminist musicologist Susan McClary, in her attempts to identify Beethoven’s music as forcibly-masculine, runs into the same essentialist difficulties, assuming a direct correspondence between the quality ‘feminine’ and the figure of ‘woman’. Mayersberg’s screenplay is unapologetic about fettering Newton to Bowie’s bisexual cosmic-drifter using the song Space Oddity as a theme in two places, firstly when Newton asks to hear people singing rather than the “big named-composer” music Farnsworth keeps sending, and again after the doctors x-ray Newton’s eyes which we are invited to see as the shutters finally coming down on his space mission home. Tell my wife I love her very much, sings Bowie. But Roeg evidently considered this too obvious. Nevertheless, Bowie’s androgyny is what the film’s alien is really all about, a mere gesture towards difference that is already merely a posture.
None of which means there is no assertive Newton affect. Bowie admits to centering ‘very strongly’ in Newton and says the character was different to those he took on stage, partly since ‘the stage performances are more ceremonial …. In a film you are evoking a spirit within yourself’ (David Bowie quoted in Long Star Biographies, Davidson Dalling Associates press pack p19) and because they ‘already have that feel’ … ‘I can center very strongly in [Newton] because most of my characters have that feel (David Bowie quoted in Long Star Biographies, Davidson Dalling Associates press pack, p19). Clearly the character Newton congealed through Bowie’s performance into an identity that felt authentic and even evoked. This works if we accept that a secure sense of identity is one constructed through repeated expressions of identity. The concept of performativity, as developed by feminist theorist Judith Butler, argues that identity is the result of an a priori ideological hailing which congeals over time’ through repeat acts ‘to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being (Butler, 1990: 33). In taking our identities up, the world takes its visible shape and form inherited assumptions of knowledge passed to us through the cultural languages we share and reiterate. That applies to all our identities of course no matter how maverick or radical. The connection Bowie makes with the character Newton is heralded by the re-use of the George Underwood art from the film-tie-in paperback (Pan 1976) for the album ‘Low’ (1977), as if Newton, like Ziggy, is hailed through performative iteration. Newton became Bowie’s latest ‘act-as-it-were’, or as the Sunday Times Magazine put it, the ‘New Face of David Bowie’ (from the cover to Sunday Times Magazine, July 20, 1975: ‘The New Face of David Bowie’).
Bowie’s gender-trouble is both a discursive gesture and what Butler describes as the necessary repetition of the ideological construction of gender occurring at the very ‘scene of agency’ (Butler, 1990: 147). Because concepts in language need to be shared to be understood, and enacted culturally, the opportunity arises for effecting change merely by having to speak. This is the scene of agency Butler talks about. Because meaning depends on the speaker and listener, the repeat act is highly volatile and carries great potential for resignification and subversion just by having to be repeated. However, because language is inherited and therefore policed by our culture and history before we even begin to use it, our ability to speak freely is of course constrained. If speech enacts the world of gender, bodies and identity, it tends to congeal along conventional hetero-normative lines.
Similarly, the film’s reduction of otherness to ‘style’ sanctions the expansion of the ‘abnormal’ while presaging the subsequent contraction to the ‘normal’. If Bowie’s bisexuality represents a gender crisis, it is largely a rhetorical one, both amplified and resolved in the fashion and music press. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, new and recycled styles of masculinity – or ‘masculinities’, the pluralized term gender theorist Connell suggests we use (Connell, 1995) – have fanned ‘crisis tendencies’ (Connell, 1995: 84) each prompting a hiatus for introspection and marketing opportunities that nevertheless climax in predicable androcentric resolutions. Connell goes further in suggesting that crisis tendencies may ‘provoke attempts to restore a dominant masculinity’ (Connell, 1995: 84). Newton’s gender-trouble seems doomed to meet this fate of androcentric normality, a provocation to reclaim hegemonic masculinity from the perils of bisexuality and androgyny. Yet, as I have just pointed out, repetition carries a seed for the destruction of privileged meanings and inherited sense. Newton’s evolutionary fall seems inevitable … but what happens if we suspend the film ending … re-designate it as the interval?
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