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Cracked Actor (1975)

I wasn't originally going to include Cracked Actor in my rewatch because I was sticking to cinematic releases but then I found out there was going to be a showing at the V&A with a Q&A with Alan Yentob (the director).  I also didn't plan to go the the screening, but after a farcically bad Friday I impulse bought train tickets and screening ticket and hoped on the next train to London.

After a brief introduction from the V&As head of Adult Learning which included frequent uses of "amazing" and Alan Yentob very quickly telling us how the film came to be made, the lights went down and the film went up.

I've seen Cracked Actor before - once on YouTube a few years ago, and once on BBC1 - on Thursday night! In both previous viewings I was struck by Bowie's isolation and incoherence, I expected to experience this viewing in the same way, but something Yentob said before we began niggled; he told us that this was his second ever film, his first had been taking a "very genial actor" and making a satirical documentary about him which treated him as a Very Serious Actor and Artiste.  Yentob told us that Bowie had seen this and requested Yentob as his filmmaker.  Could it be, I wondered, that this documentary, held up as [at least part] inspiration for This Is Spinal Tap have been the original mockumentary?  Bowie has always been in control of his image and how he is represented and until now, Cracked Actor seemed a peculiar exception but what if he recognised his bizarre life, and own mental state for what it was, and gave Yentob only what he chose to?  

For the first time, Bowie's comments on the fly in his milk, and being in the back of an accelerating car, seemed both honest, coherent, and wilfully pretentious.  I'm still on the fence about the intention - and self-awareness - behind the wax museum comments, but my third viewing of Cracked Actor left me with a decidedly different impression of that time.  Remember too, that despite ingesting an enormous amount of cocaine in this period, Bowie still managed to make Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station, and most - if not all - of Low, as well as acting so wonderfully in The Man Who Fell to Earth.  He was nothing, if not functional.

The Q&A was introduced by the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition's curator, the lucky bugger who got to physically enter David Bowie's personal archive and see all that stuff*.  We learnt from Yentob that the scene early in the film of David having a cast made of his face was something that he asked David to do.  He says that Bowie agreeing to do it showed that he trusted him and then banged on about it so much that I began to feel very uncomfortable with it - it was as though Yentob required Bowie to prostrate himself to Yentob as God/Messiah/Filmmaker before Yentob would make the film.  Given Bowie was being roundly ripped off by his manager at the time, it felt a little like Yentob was cheerfully positioning himself as yet another controlling force in Bowie's life at that time.  The fact Yentob continually called David Bowie, 'Bowie' and not 'David', as one would expect of someone who was supposedly friends with, and in a position of trust with the man for 6 months, and generally came across as an arrogant prick makes me feel very disinclined to believe he was quite so genial and passive in his filmmaking as you might imagine.

There were a number of questions from the audience that Yentob completely failed to answer, preferring instead to tell us a meandering story which allowed him to name drop some more (did you know he was good friends with Kubrick? Mick Jagger? Duncan Jones? Kate Moss? Nick Roeg? etc etc).  A few interesting facts that did emerge were that, in the scene where Bowie is singing along to Aretha Franklin in the back of the limo, the girl sitting on the floor in front of him is Coco Schwab! I was surprised, she didn't look at all like I imagined.  It also adds more fuel to my little fire of "Bowie was not as isolated or out of control as he looks" because Coco has been a constant and loyal companion with, everyone agrees, great integrity.

As many people know, Cracked Actor was to be called "The Collector" but Yentob felt by the time of release - and indeed even during filming - that Cracked Actor was more appropriate.  Interestingly, Bowie has since spoken of watching that documentary to remember a period that's a little hazy to him.  More interestingly still, Yentob suggested that Bowie was planning, during that period, to disentangle himself from manager and management company and was consciously choosing to document this period - to collect his own history and moment just as it was ending.  The very existence of the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition is evidence of Bowie's own self-archiving and the rarity of rock-umentaries at this time does lend credence to the idea that Bowie was up to something deliberate in asking for the documentary be made.

I know some people speculated on twitter on Thursday that footage of the entire concert at the Universal City Amphitheatre exists in the BBC archive, Yentob, sadly, confirmed this was not the case.  He said he went looking for it some years ago and it's either been deleted or stolen.  Hopefully, it was rescued from deletion by a light fingered Bowie-fan archive-worker and still exists out there somewhere!

I'd really like to see Cracked Actor a fourth time now, no doubt it is still available on YouTube so I will be able, but I'll give it some time to let the above reflections sink in.  If you haven't seen it, it is a fascinating film of its moment - however you feel about Bowie - and worth a watch.  If you have seen it, I'd love to know what you think about the new (to me) angles and considerations of Yentob's apparent attempts to exert control over Bowie, and Bowie's role in the film being made.



*Apparently, as well as having to have the mannequins at the exhibition hand carved because Bowie's frame was so tiny, they found the mask that Yentob got [forced] David to have made, so the mannequins all have David Bowie's actual face on, as imprinted and transferred from that mask!

 


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