Jan 16, 2016

The Image (1967)

While I am typically rather repulsed by people that mourn dead celebrities that they never knew, I have encountered David Bowie some many times as a result of my cinephilia that I could not help but be somewhat startled by his death, at least to the extent that I know I will never again see a bizarre cameo performance from him in some random future cult film. Indeed, it would have been nice to have seen Bowie appear in a Nicolas Winding Refn or Edwin Brienen flick, but I guess fate had different plans. While Bowie only seemed semi-serious about his film career since it was clearly secondary to his work as a musician, he still managed to appear in more notable films than most full-time Hollywood actors do in a lifetime, hence my somewhat unlikely sense of respect for him (admittedly, I also have respect for him for collaborating with artists like Steve Strange and Klaus Nomi, but that is a different subject). After all, only Bowie could have written a song in tribute to Andy Warhol (which, in my opinion, is one of his darkest and most underrated tunes), only to later portray his quasi-autistic contemporary in a quite memorable way a quarter century later in degenerate Hebraic (con)artist Julian Schnabel’s debut feature Basquiat (1996). Additionally, only Bowie could pull off both Pontius Pilate (as he did in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)) and an aristocratic Egyptian deathrock chic vampire (as he did in Tony Scott’s debut feature The Hunger (1983)). I also admit that I do not think I have ever dated a girl that did not admit that she had the hots for Bowie as a little girl as a result of seeing him in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), which is somewhat curious since he is also the man that managed to connect Eastern and Western queers together via his strangely iconic performance as a self-sacrificing kiwi sod soldier in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Indeed, if there ever was a mensch that had an eclectic talent for seducing and molesting all sort of filmgoers—whether it be old Jap fags or little white girls—with his mere presence, it was Mr. Bowie, so it is only fitting that his very first acting role was as a handsome young ghost-like figure that literally haunts an artist who may or may not be suffering from with LGBT propagandists describe as ‘internalized homophobia.’  Shot over the course of a mere three days in the winter of 1967 only a couple months after the belated international superstar rechristened himself ‘David Bowie’ in tribute to 19th-century American frontiersman Jim Bowie (as well as the knife that the knife-fighting yank frontiersman popularized) and released his less than successful eponymous debut album, The Image (1967) directed by Michael Armstrong (Horror House aka The Haunted House of Horror, Mark of the Devil) is a little known but considerably worthwhile black-and-white avant-garde horror short that features the then-unknown rock legend when he was only 20-years-old portraying a sort phantom twink who haunts an assumed self-loathing closet queen (played by Michael Byrne of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) in one of his very first film roles) that is curiously painting a portrait of said phantom twink. 

 Notable for being one of only a handful of British shorts films to ever receive a certified 'X' Rating, The Image might be a sensual and sensitively constructed work with a striking oneiric quality, but it also features David Bowie being brutally murdered no less than five times by a deranged young lapsed twink who seems to embody the line from Oscar Wilde's poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” Not officially released until around two years after it had been completed, the short was somewhat bizarrely advertised alongside the Hollywood propaganda flick All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) directed by Lewis Milestone, which had recently been acquired by Border Films (which had also produced Armstrong's film), and screened sandwiched in between foreign sex films after eventually opening at the Jacey Cinema in Piccadilly Circus in 1969. According to auteur Armstrong, before ever collaborating together on The Image, he approached Bowie about writing the songs and score for an ultimately never-realized film comedy based on Greek mythology entitled A Floral Tale that would also feature the then-relatively-unknown-rocker in the role of Thracian singer Orpheus. As much as I would enjoy seeing Bowie portraying Orpheus, I think I prefer artsy fartsy horror to silly British comedic takes on ancient Grecian mythology. While Bowie had yet to have any experience doing any film acting, he did have experience studying avant-garde theatre and mime under queer actor Lindsay Kemp, whose 1967 theatrical production Pierrot in Turquoise he appeared in.  Clearly his mime training with cocksucker Kemp (who notably later appeared in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973), as well as a number of films by Ken Russell and Derek Jarman) paid off, as Bowie more or less portrays a sort of phantasmagoric gay hustler-cum-schoolboy specter of unrequited sod sensuality who never speaks but instead merely displays a sad and tragic yet sensual and seductive facial expression that reeks of hopelessly melancholic sexual desperation. Described by auteur Armstrong as, “a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity,” The Image is like an abstract homage to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as directed by a filmmaker that seems like he was obsessed with pre-Stonewall American queer avant-garde cinema, especially works like John E. Schmitz’s The Voices (1953) and Gregory J. Markopoulos’ Twice a Man (1964), thereupon making it all the more poignant that is stars iconic gender-bender Bowie, who probably did more than any man of his generation to popularize and legitimize queer culture and male androgyny, even if he was arguably not actually on the pink team himself. Sort of like the Un Chien Andalou of late-1960s British horror, Armstrong’s short is nothing if not a welcome exception to the outmoded formulaic banality of Hammer Films horror. 

 It is fairly apparent before the nameless blond Artist is even introduced that he is not quite right in the head, as his dilapidated house is covered with so much trash that it seems like a homeless guy is camping on his floor. After all, the Artist is a handsome and carefully groomed man with a toned physique who hardly looks like a lazy slob. When we first encounter the Artist, we see he him turned around from a distance in a seemingly symbolic scene that makes it seem as if he is a deeply alienated individual that is lost in his own sad and lonely introverted world. Upon seeing a close-up shot of the Artist, the viewer realizes that he is painting a portrait on a canvas of a handsome young man with his arms raised as if he is inviting someone’s warm embrace, thus hinting that the painter longs for the warmth and touch of a healthy young twink. It is raining outside and when the Artist thinks he sees someone walking outside of his house, he naturally becomes somewhat alarmed and does not even notice when he accidentally gets paint on his sweater. Needless to say, when the Artist sees the very same young man from his painting pressing his face against his window, he becomes quite petrified, drops his paintbrush, and runs upstairs, only to find the same exact twink staring at him in an upstairs window. Of course, the Artist immediately runs back downstairs, only to get the shock of a lifetime when he sees the young man standing next to his painting and making the same exact inviting pose as the figure on the canvas. At this point, the Artist attempts to flee from his house, but the door is chained shut and he soon finds himself being cornered by the young man, who clearly wants his love and is willing to do just about anything to get it, including dying a number of violent deaths. With little time to think, the Artist picks up a small bronze bust that he has conveniently lying on his quite messy trash-covered floor and violently bashes the omnious twink over the head with it, thereupon killing him instantly. Of course, the poof phantom is far from dead, at least in the Artist’s clearly troubled mind. 

 After kicking the young man’s lifeless body to see if he is still alive, the Artist drops the bust and slowly walks up the steps where he enters a small and claustrophobic upstairs bathroom and proceeds to wash his hands, as if making a vain attempt to wash away the figurative blood from his hands. Of course, the Artist is quite startled when the young man randomly begins caressing his neck while he is washing is face in the sink. Matching ostensible like with like, the Artists opts to use his hands to strangle his ghostly caresser to death, only for the young man to subsequently awake from his slumber and once again proceed to approach his petrified ‘victim.’ Luckily for the Artist, he has a knife in his pants pocket, which he uses to stab the young man in the gut. After the Artist stabs the young man, the wounded specter falls forward and leans against his stabber in a manner that almost makes it seem as if the two men are sharing an intimate loving moment with one another, which Armstrong underscores with close-up still shots of the faggy fellows’ slightly touching faces and waists. Of course, there are also sexual overtones to the stabbings, as the Artist penetrates the young man’s flesh with a fierce yet fetishistic degree of savage sensuality, as if passionately buggering him with the blade.  Eventually, the Artist begins slowly walking down the steps backwards while waving his knife at the young man, who still has his arms wide open as if expecting the painter to finally accept his embrace, even though he is covered in blood and is suffering from seemingly fatal stab wounds. When the young man finally gets the gall to come down the stairs, the Artist wastes no time in brutally stabbing multiple times, most notably and symbolically in the back, until the twink completely collapses and does not get back up. At this point, the Artist completely mentally deteriorates and unleashes his remaining strength on his painting, which he wrestles to the ground. While lying on his painting, the Artist puts his hands over his head and sobs like a toddler suffering from a temper tantrum. Somewhat intriguingly, the film concludes with a shot of a framed photograph of the young man as a schoolboy, thus hinting that he is someone that the Artist used to know and is an unrequited love and/or someone he ultimately betrayed. 

 While David Bowie obviously had a singularly successful career after The Image, the film’s relatively unknown auteur Michael Armstrong was not so successful and spent the majority of his fairly uneven filmmaking career involved with horror and exploitation oriented hack work, though with some slight notable exceptions. Indeed, while the filmmaker had some minor commercial success with his proto-slasher The Dark (1969) aka The Haunted House Of Horror aka Horror House starring gregarious guido teen idol Frankie Avalon and even more successful with the West German production Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (1970) aka Mark of the Devil starring Udo Kier and Herbert Lom, both of these films were taken away from him and completely butchered (in fact, some argue that the producer, Austrian Heimatfilm star turned Fassbinder superstar Adrian Hoven, was the true auteur of the latter film, as he more or less treated Armstrong the same way Francis Ford Coppola treated Wim Wenders on Hammett (1982) by reshooting scenes and excising others). Aside from penning and appearing in trashy sex comedies like The Sex Thief (1973) and Eskimo Nell (1975) and writing Pete Walker’s horror-comedy House of the Long Shadows (1983) starring horror legends Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Armstrong also did some uncredited writing on Tobe Hooper’s somewhat underrated Colin Wilson adaptation Lifeforce (1985). Arguably, most notably, at least as far as his screenwriting credits are concerned, Armstrong also penned Ian Merrick’s much reviled and maligned arthouse-ish crime-thriller The Black Panther (1977), which, despite being a delightfully dark film, was essentially consigned to the celluloid dustbin of history upon its release because it was ruthlessly attacked by the British media due to featuring a fairly historically accurate depiction of the kidnapping and murder of heiress Lesley Whittle by deranged armed robber Donald Neilson. Judging by the fact that virtually all of his projects were either butchered and/or abject commercial failures, one might argue that Armstrong was the single most accursed British auteur of his era, especially when once considers that he actually seemed to have talent as is quite apparent in The Image, which is seemingly immaculate in its stunning simplicity.  Somewhat strangely but not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino is apparently such a huge fan of Armstrong's badly butchered feature The Haunted House of Horror that he screened his own personal print of the film in 1997 at the first semi-annual Quentin Tarantino Film Festival (aka ‘QT-Fest’) in Austin, Texas as an example of a movie that had an imperative influence on his own work.

 Somewhat ironically, Armstrong’s first film was also his most pure, unadulterated, and auteur oriented as his only cinematic work where his own personal vision was more or less left completely untainted by scheming producers and monetary-motivated studios. Indeed, despite the fact that Armstrong only got the opportunity to shoot “barely half” of his script for The Image because the producers refused to fund further shooting time (in fact, the production company, Border Films, even briefly took the project away from Armstrong and had an in-house hack editor assemble a botched 7 ½ minute cut of the film, only to beg the filmmaker to come back when they realized they had a problem), the filmmaker still managed to construct a striking work that was wholly his own, hence the relatively idiosyncratic essence of the film, which I would compare to the pre-Night Tide (1961) avant-garde shorts of Curtis Harrington (who, incidentally, also had many of his features butchered by studios and producers when he began directing semi-mainstream horror films). Notably, due to the fact that he was unable to shoot his entire screenplay, Armstrong had to get extra creative with the editing and, in the end, he ultimately “expanded the thematic line of the film even further than had existed in the original screenplay,” thus resulting in what probably turned out to be a more potent and immaculate work that feels like the cinematic equivalent of being briefly molested by death. Personally, I was quite shocked when I put two and two together and realized that The Image and Mark of the Devil were directed by the same man, as the latter is essentially folk-horror exploitation trash that was made to capitalize on the success of Witchfinder General (1968) aka The Conqueror Worm, which was especially successful in Deutschland.  Although Armstrong would jokingly refer to the short as his “art film,” I would also say that it is unequivocally his greatest and most provocative film. I also think that it was the perfect cinematic debut for David Bowie, as a short and almost sadistically bittersweet slice of foreboding psychosexual celluloid that demonstrates that Ziggy Stardust was already oozing charisma and androgynous sex appeal long before he ever became Ziggy Stardust. Of course, it is only fitting that a man that portrayed himself as gay and bisexual for decades before ‘coming out of the closest as heterosexual’ would make his filmic debut as the most ambiguously faggy yet nonetheless seductive of phantoms. Surely, Bowie’s performance in The Image also makes a nice counterpoint to his bizarre cameo in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) as a long-lost FBI Agent. 

 While he certainly had dubious taste in women (to say the least) and, in my opinion, wrote more shitty songs than good ones, Bowie unquestionably had a strikingly singular career as an actor, which might be the result of being a man that had more charm, charisma, tenacity, and lust for life than artistic prowess. Indeed, from portraying a melancholic dipsomaniac extraterrestrial in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) to playing himself in the kraut teen junky cult flick Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981) to his somewhat fitting performance as the eponymous rebel poet in Alan Clarke’s Brecht adaptation Baal (1982) to his quirky performance as the great Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s otherwise banal feature The Prestige (2006), Bowie has certainly secured his place as the most eclectic part-time actor in cinema history, which is not too bad for a petite Brit with stereotypical bad teeth who got his start playing a gay ghost in an obscure avant-garde short that was only seen by a handful of people (unfortunately, aside from the fact that Armstrong's film was only briefly in British theaters, it has never been released on VHS or DVD).  Undoubtedly, watching The Image now, it is almost more hard to believe that the handsome and exceedingly youthful chap in the film is now dead than the fact that he would go on to become one of the most famous and readily identifiable figures in the entire world.  In that sense, Armstrong's film is probably more haunting today than when it was released nearly half a century ago, thus making it mandatory viewing for both cinephiles and/or anyone that is even vaguely interested in Bowie.  I also have to admit that The Image was a rather refreshing experience for me in that was it was like seeing Bowie totally stripped, as the viewer gets to see him without the makeup or one of his carefully contrived personas, which is arguably the most evocative aspect of the short, thus underscoring the completely unintended and unpredictable ways that a film can evolve over time in terms of both meaning and potency.

-Ty E

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