Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Till there was rock, you only had God

- David Bowie, "Sweet Head" (1972)

There's always a bit of trepidation when you first approach something that's an acknowledged classic, and that's certainly how I felt before listening to Ziggy Stardust for the first time. Fortunately, it's as good as it's supposed to be. "Five Years" is a startling and bleak beginning to what is, after all, one of the definitive glam-rock albums. But it's for that reason that it's important, the nihilism lingering in your head and undercutting the rock-star hedonism that unfolds on most of the rest of the album - which is there in spades on tracks like "Moonage Daydream", "Hang On To Yourself", and "Suffragette City". In some ways it's strange that "Ziggy Stardust" is as low-key as it is, as you might imagine Ziggy's elegy to be more spectacular (although the Bauhaus cover version means that we have both ends covered). It's not an album without its weak spots: Doggett's book is correct in wondering what, exactly, "It Ain't Easy" is doing here, but it's a great album because it contains so much that's good, not because it's perfect.

It's also the case that a step-change here, in that while fame was the object of Hunky Dory, here it's very much the subject. Bowie is no longer content to look at fame from the outside, but to examine it at first hand. The major hurdle that had to be overcome was that David Bowie was not famous, and the key realisation was that fame could be constructed and worn, like a mask. One of the things that's so interesting about the whole Ziggy Stardust phenomenon is the role that performativity plays in it: Ziggy Stardust is a rock star because he tells you that he is, and because he does the things that you have come to expect from the cultural script of rock stardom (In 1972 the script was only about 15 years old, which makes it interesting that the Ziggy Stardust character was able to capture the concept so perfectly and prefigure so much of what was to come: in 1972 Elvis had Five Years left).

In some senses what seems most remarkable now is Bowie's decision to kill off the whole Ziggy Stardust mythology after only a year, at the height of his (now real) stardom. In some alternative universe there's a David Bowie who milked it for all he was worth, touring the world with The Spiders from Mars for 5-6 years, and who in 2012 is a mostly-forgotten piece of nostagic kitsch, like Alvin Stardust. The decision to kill off Ziggy was gutsy, and it resulted in Bowie being able to repeatedly change himself, and take an audience with him. Rock stars and identities are ephemeral, and if you've completely created yourself once, you can do it again and again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!" 'Not everything. Not yet.'

On Sunday I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, before I ended up reading a review or finding out too much about it. My discussion here will CONTAIN SPOILERS, so avoid if you haven't seen the film yet. Also, it'll be a much better read if you know what I'm talking about.

My expectations were high, as I really liked The Dark Knight, but I feel they were fulfilled Getting a superhero film right is notoriously difficult, and the level of difficulty is increased when you've decided to use these archetypes to try and tell a serious story, and give the whole thing enough verisimilitude that you can suspend disbelief about characters like Batman or The Joker existing in what seems very much to be our world. It's a credit to Nolan that he's pulled this off, and has created a film which nicely rounds out the story he wanted to tell.

My favourite of the trilogy is still The Dark Knight, but The Dark Knight Rises is a close second. I feel Batman Begins is easily the weakest of the three. A somewhat weak first film with two good sequels is unusual, but that seems to be what happened.

There are a few comparatively minor things that I don't think completely work in The Dark Knight Rises. Given the running time, more time could have been spent showing us the kinds of inequality in Gotham which allow Bane to take over: as it is, one character tells us that it exists, but we never really get to see it. Similarly, when someone taken to what you've already set up as The Worst Prison In The World, the first thought of the viewer upon seeing it should not be "Oh, that seems all right". Apparently the thing in Room 101 that is the worst thing in the world is Tom Conti talking to you like a kindly uncle, which might be true, but is strange nonetheless.

I'm in two minds about the end. On the one hand, when Chekov's Autopilot finally goes off it seems like a bit of a copout, and makes the line I've used as my title ring a bit hollow. Nolan does deserve credit for making me think that he might actually Kill The Batman, though. Doing that would have left Michael Caine's Alfred with an unhappy ending, but maybe that's part of the price for saving Gotham? The ending which they went with is perfectly good, if perhaps a bit conventional.

Anyway, I really liked it. I still haven't read any reviews, so I can hunt those out and be told why I'm wrong, now.