Before we go into this week’s column, I would like to make a personal appeal: if you have not done so already, please make a donation to the American Red Cross’ Hurricane Relief Fund to help the victims of the recent hurricane that destroyed New Orleans and the communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. You can make an online donation at www.redcross.org. Thank you.
And now, on with our show.
Most people don’t normally identify David Bowie as an actor, yet the former Thin White Duke has actually racked up a three-decade career with more than enough memorable performances: his film work includes excellent performances “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Absolute Beginners,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” (as Pilate), “Basquiat” (as Andy Warhol) and even “Zoolander.” Bowie even proved his theatrical worth in 1980 with an extraordinary performance in the Broadway production of “The Elephant Man” (and I was fortunate to have seen that one!).
This is not to say Bowie doesn’t make mistakes. Fortunately, his errors have been small and obscure, and they’ve also been intelligent mistakes (you won’t find him doing Michael Bay flicks). A case in point: the 1982 BBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal.” It could’ve been a prestige production by one of the world’s greatest dramatists, but something went wrong once the cameras starting rolling.
“Baal” was Brecht’s first play, written in 1918, but it was hardly a harbinger of things to come. It is a clunky, pretentious and ultimately dismal work that seeks to condemn bourgeois protocol and societal hypocrisies, but only winds up sputtering in its own venom and bile. It is rarely performed, and perhaps it is because of its relative scarcity that Bowie (who always seems to gravitate to off-beat projects) opted to give it a go.
Set in Germany in the decade leading up to World War I, “Baal” finds Bowie in the title role – an amoral, sarcastic and predatory mechanic-turned-poet/balladeer. He is the type of person who attracts immediate attention from everyone based on his intellectual and sexual charisma. However, Bowie badly errs in his interpretation of Baal. Losing himself beneath a dirty wardrobe and excessively scruffy make-up (badly chopped hair, scraggly whiskers, rotting teeth and an unblinking gaze), the only wonder Bowie’s Baal could generate is the wonder if he has rabies. Bowie caps this transformation by performing his lines in a harsh Cockney accent. Perhaps this was meant to identify Baal’s working class roots (the rest of the cast speaks in the pear-shaped tones of a teacup drama), but it makes no sense here since the play takes place in Germany (where Cockneys are few and far between). And, sadly, one thing Bowie cannot pull off is a Cockney accent – his attempt is the worst since Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins.”
In the course of the play’s 65 minutes, Baal starts by insulting the upper-crust culture vultures who’ve discovered his poetry. He then seduces the 15-year-old girlfriend of an art student who admires Baal’s work. The girl leaves Baal’s filthy bed and drowns herself (can you blame her?). Two years later, Baal is performing in a cheap cabaret and takes to publicly humiliating his new girlfriend. When she becomes pregnant, he abandons her and goes wandering the countryside with Ekart, a fellow scum and the closest thing Baal can claim to a friend. The pair goes about the back roads for a long time, returning years later to the pub where they are reunited with Baal’s abandoned girlfriend and another jettisoned ex-lover. When Ekart begins flirting with one of the ex-Baal-gals, Baal kills him and escapes into the woods. While police are hunting for him, Baal’s health abruptly fails and he is stricken with pneumonia. He is given shelter by some dumb woodcutters and dies alone in their shack while the woodcutters are out chopping down trees.
In the midst of this madness, Baal occasionally stops to pluck on a banjo and sing a Brechtian ballad. Or in this case, scream a ballad – Bowie stays locked in character and shouts out the songs in his faux-Cockney voice. Granted the songs aren’t that special, but hearing Bowie sing in such a cacophonous manner gives new meaning to the _expression “suffering for one’s art” (but in this case, the audience is suffering).
In bringing “Baal” to the small screen, director Alan Clarke took the unusual decision to frame the production in a primitive visual style. “Baal” consists primarily of static medium and long shots, with very little cutting back and forth. This brings about a degree of stagnation which is difficult to endure. During the final part of the production, Clarke abruptly inserts a split-screen effect. In some sequences, Baal and Ekart are walking across an empty stage in half of the screen while a picture of a pastoral scene is on the other half. Other times, close-ups are finally employed – Baal in one half of the screen while another character is on the other. This doesn’t work either, and it looks positively old-fashioned (as if Clarke was watching “Woodstock” and felt: “Hey, wait a minute…!”)
Clarke also instructs the rest of the cast to perform in a stylized, highly theatrical manner. While this clearly creates a dramatic division between them and Bowie, it nonetheless makes their performances seem hammy and ludicrous. Only Zoe Wanamaker, as Baal’s pregnant girlfriend, is able to find any degree of humanity in this creative interpretation.
But even the best actors and director would have headaches making “Baal” soar. The play is littered with awful dialogue. Some of these clunkers include:
“You look like a washed-out intellectual.”
“All together, this planet’s a washout.”
“This nightly battle for my contractual schnapps is getting me down.”
“There’s a lemon-colored light through the tree trunks.”
“My friend, I want to live without a skin.”
“My late lamented husband got me off wood alcohol by beating me.”
Watching “Baal” would drive anyone to wood alcohol addiction! Not since viewing the Morey Amsterdam atrocity “Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title” have I ever experienced a single production with so many groan-inducing zingers. (Special mention is in order for John Willett, who translated “Baal” into English.)
“Baal” debuted on BBC 1 on March 2, 1982. The network’s announcer prefixed the program by announcing it was “A star vehicle for a big star.” That is correct, but as star vehicles go “Baal” was in serious need of a tune-up before it was allowed out. Reportedly, “Baal” was a major ratings disappointment and this may explain why the production was not immediately exported to American television. As far as I can determine, “Baal” was never shown on American television. In the UK, it was happily forgotten until the British Film Institute did a few retro screenings in 2002.
Bowie, however, enjoyed this endeavor so much that he recorded an EP featuring Brecht’s “Baal” songs. This recording was not among Bowie’s best-sellers and it is not on CD in the U.S.
“Baal” turned up on a British DVD titled “David Bowie: Stage Actor” that also included a 1980 BBC interview when Bowie was starring in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. To date, there has never been an American video or DVD release. Bootleg copies of “Baal” can be found online from various Bowie fans, but the quality ranges from fair to lousy. Americans who want to see this might want to locate a copy of “David Bowie: Stage Actor” on eBay and have it transferred from PAL to NTSC.
But honestly, only Bowie completists or Brecht fanatics would be interested in “Baal.” Because, quite frankly, “Baal” is baad!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on September 9, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BAAL”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BURT BACHARACH IN SHANGRI-LA”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “HAKUJADEN”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “1984”
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ATOLL K”
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