On Friday, I went to the cinema to see Moonage Daydream, the film by Brett Morgen about the creative life of David Bowie. Rather than being a traditional documentary, the film bills itself as a ‘cinematic experience’, and was itself a creative interpretation of Bowie’s art, music and collated media. The film is stunning in its kaleidoscopic approach to assembling a visual and sonic montage that accounts for Bowie’s cultural impact, while at the same time, reflecting the creative form of expression that is manifest through his use of media as an aesthetic experience itself.
One apposite quote from Bowie highlighted in the film goes something like this: ‘all our media is rubbish, but we love rubbish!’
Bowie defined himself as a collector of personas and displays of character that explored the archetypes of popular culture, while simultaneously exploring in what way those archetypal figures are related and connected. What is fascinating about Bowie is that he was able to look at cultural phenomena, not in retrospect, as Marshal McLuhan suggested we do, from the rearview mirror, but in anticipation of the coming age to which we now all belong.
Bowie was singularly capable of brushing up against the limits of established aesthetic forms, and was able to explore the limits of these forms of expression. Bowie was willing, in the early stages of his career at least, to take creative risks in order try to figure out what goes beyond those limits, and thereby reshape the boundaries of the collective consciousness.
Bowie sucked in so many influences from across modern culture, especially those of the towering artistic and creative forces of the second half of the Twentieth Century, which he then reinterpreted and replayed as a form of popular ‘total theatre.’ This theatrical approach combined music, performance, visuals, staging, and whatever else he could articulate as a medium of expression – fashion, painting, sculpture, collage, poetry and more.
Asked how he stayed grounded and mentally secure, Bowie responds to the question, saying that his way of dealing with so many thoughts crashing around his head, was to express them using every artistic and creative technique he could master, and many that he couldn’t. It wasn’t until Bowie was well into his middle-age that he felt able to settle and cease his endless travelling. Bowie was a wanderer, searching out other collaborators who would expose him to their ways of working, their creative milieu. It was this ceaseless searching and collecting that enabled Bowie to express these ideas on a global stage.
The collage of images and sounds swirling through the film, manifests as a dissolving effect in which time is uncertain. Bowie’s own foresight is mixed with the perpetual revision of his own myth. Mirroring the multimedia hyperreality of late Twentieth Century electronic mass media and global cultural flows. Disassociation and fragmentation, Bowie says, are the postmodern cultural state that must be accounted for, and were, and perhaps remain, the dominant forces constituting our collective experience.
Bowie is what our culture amounts to when viewed in total.
What is surprising, however, and has often been missed in the waves of adulation that have adorned the deification of Bowie by his fans, and especially since his death, is the extent to which he sought to find, as Carl Jung says, ‘completeness’ in his life. Indeed, much of what Brett Morgen memorialises here, is Bowie’s intuitive understanding that the answers we seek can only be found beyond our immediate experience, in the numinous – the meaningful domains of the dream and the spiritual.
Bowie, through the many manifestations of his work, was attempting to tie numerous spiritual threads together, which is an entirely Jungian intent. The process of individuation, and the ability to complete oneself, can only be achieved if one is open to the possibility of the transcendent. In the West, we do this through symbolic creative expression, through music, ritual and art. In the hands of the right person, these symbolic forms get close to intimating the spirit of our age. It is through artists like Bowie that we get a momentary glimpse of the sum potential of our personality and character, which has yet to become an individuated self – both individual and collective.
This is a genre busting film that draws deep from the iconography of mass media and the storehouse of contemporary culture. It not only further mythologies the persona of Bowie, but it also reignites the joy of creative artistic presentation itself. However, rather than leaving this expression as an ironic comment, to be demarcated by its own cleverness, as Andy Warhol left us with, it instead shifts almost imperceptibly into a metamodern multidimensionality.
What Bowie was able to do was find depth and sincerity in the detritus and cut-ups. What we learn from Bowie is that the fragmented experience of the modern mediated bricoleur is actually an undertaking that matches the search for meaning and purpose that countless generations of pilgrims and meaning seekers have similarly attempted before us.
We stand before the vastness of the infinite cosmos, Bowie argues, but what we have never done before is embrace the chaos.
Bowie, for a passing moment at least, was able to channel part of this chaos, and then re-present what he found in forms that could be carried across the culture. Bowies songs remain with us, embedded in our cultural memory.
The achievement of this film is to remind us that we need artists like Bowie, who can articulate a communal sense of being, expressed in moments of time, in a song, in a gesture, in a word, in which ‘all the young dudes carry the news.’