Earning him the grand sum of ₤30, a 20-year-old David Bowie made his screen debut in the late 1960s in Michael Armstrong’s silent horror film The Image. This 14-minute film is striking today for its simplicity, but aside from being a fascinating horror film it is also a significant visual artefact for a number of reasons: Bowie’s first movie role was also one of the earliest short films to receive a notorious ‘X Certificate’ from the British Film Ratings board for its horror-themed violence.
The Image is a stark, experimental short, and its horror stems as much from its formal instability as from its plot. The Image is about a painting that comes to life to torment its creator (played by Michael Byrne). Bowie later described the film as follows:
My first true film appearance was in a movie called The Image, an underground black and white avant-garde thing done by some guy. He wanted to make a film about a painter doing a portrait of a guy in his teens and the portrait comes to life and, in fact, turns out to be the corpse of some bloke. I can’t remember all the plot, if indeed it had a plot, but it was a 14 minute short and it was awful.
Bowie isn’t the only one to dismiss The Image. NME sniggered at it when it was released on home video in 1984 to cash in on Bowie’s superstar status: ‘Gasp with horror as your hero gets murdered not once not twice but five times. Gasp with astonishment as he gets up entirely unharmed. Wonder with puzzlement how his acting career ever survived the carnage.’ The film’s action is simple (a condensed version can be viewed online): the painter repeatedly attempts to murder his re-animated creation, but each time Bowie’s unnamed character comes back to life. This scenario loops at an increasingly frantic rate, peaking with its final revelation.
With the news this week of Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Though the short has failed to attract critical praise, Tobias Rüther (author of Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin) drew parallels between The Image and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, while Peter Doggatt (author of The Man who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s) noted traces of Henry James’ ‘The Story of a Masterpiece’. Doggett has also flagged a core of homosexual self-loathing within The Image, and it’s virtually impossible to watch the film without reading it from a queer perspective: it’s certainly conscious of its own homoerotic overtones.
According to interviews with people involved in the production, this quality was palpable on set. When discussing the film and his relationship with Bowie, director Armstrong’s infatuation with Bowie is apparent. ‘David was a terrible flirt in the way in which he dealt with you,’ Armstrong has said. ‘He did that with me. He was flirtatious, it was a part of him … He always seemed to be playing a cat and mouse game with you. I said that he would either be a giant star or make a lot of money in the Piccadilly men’s loo.’
When cast in The Image, Bowie comparatively had only a tiny number of fans, and the 21-year-old Armstrong proudly identified as one of them. Legend holds that Armstrong saw Bowie’s self-titled debut album in a shop window and was instantly starstruck. He bought it on the spot and was immediately determined to work with Bowie. After contacting Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, Armstrong met with them both. ‘I spent two or three hours with David and Ken, and I fell in love with David. He was absolutely amazing and did a wonderful Elvis impersonation,’ Armstrong said. He had discussed collaborating with Bowie on a feature called A Floral Tale, and by some accounts Bowie wrote seven songs for this that still remain unreleased. While that project didn’t eventuate, The Image did.
The project’s development is a curiously fractured one. In 1964, fellow London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art student Tony Maylam (director of the 1981 Video Nasty The Burning) asked Armstrong to write him a script for a short film, resulting in The Image. Nothing came of this on Maylam’s part, but in 1967 Armstrong himself received funding for a short and decided to pursue The Image. Filmed just off Harrow Road in London over three days, the shoot was not a smooth one, and only half of the original screenplay was shot before Armstrong ran out of money. The 14-minute version was finally shown at the Jacey Cinema in Piccadilly Circus in 1969, alongside Pierre Roustang’s sleazy sexploitation film Les Teenagers.
Young Bowie’s interest in performance is well documented, and his fascination with mime and Butoh in particular seem to inform his mute, eerie performance in The Image. A major influence on Bowie from this perspective was mime and choreographer Lindsay Kemp: it was from Kemp that Bowie in large part inherited his flair for adopting different characters. On the front of the script for The Image, Armstrong described the film as ‘a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity’. It’s virtually impossible to hear this description in the context of what we now know about David Bowie’s remarkable career – with its myriad multifaceted guises – and not consider it at least somewhat prophetic.
Bowie’s performance in The Image manifests at the intersection of violence, eroticism and immortality, elements that would again come to the fore fifteen years later in the cult horror film The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). And like The Hunger, horror, art and sexuality manifest in The Image in fascinating and often explicit ways.
Turning towards Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, there’s something about Bowie’s onscreen personae in all of these movies that pivots on a compelling intersection of the bizarre, the dark and the sensual. That we watch The Image with the knowledge that this is a pre-fame Bowie allows for a unique insight into how deep these leanings towards uncanny, almost temporally perverse characters were embedded in him as a performer even at this early stage, suggesting that this often broadly dismissed short film was in retrospect more in tune with Bowie’s own artistic vision – his aesthetic long game, if you will – than has been widely credited.
It is no revelation to emphasise the importance of transformation to Bowie’s star persona, and films such as these allow us a space to begin thinking through the aspects that unite some of these shifting identities. The Image is as haunted as it is haunting, a precious relic from the pre-fame life of a figure whose loss we can only barely begin to comprehend.
A simplified version of this article was presented at ACMI’s The Stardom and Celebrity of David Bowie symposium in July 2015. Many thanks to Angela Ndalianis, Sean Redmond and Toija Cinque.