Even the Immortals Must Fall: David Bowie, Death, & The Hunger In Us All

Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.

I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.
— David Bowie in the Commencement Address for Berklee College of Music (8 May 1999)

*Spoilers for The Hunger (1983) Ahead*

In a piece about the death of David Bowie released early last week by my friend, Darryl Armstrong, he spoke of his first introduction to Bowie's music, the 2002 Best of Bowie compilation album. Like Darryl, this was my first intentional introduction into the catalog of Ziggy. Of course, I had heard his songs on the radio, in films and playing at stores, but I had never realized that they all came from the same artist. I also found myself recognizing just about every song on that compilation and I knew this was an artist I needed to dig into deeper.

Album cover of Heroes

From that point to now, Bowie has always been in the background of my musical journey, ready and willing to be played in a moment's notice. He satisfied many musical moods whether I was wanting something that pushed compositional boundaries (LowStation to Station) or if I needed musical comfort food (Hunky DoryHeroesZiggy Stardust...). When his final release, Blackstar, came out on Jan. 8, I had already pre-ordered it, watched the "Blackstar" video and was waiting for the release with excitement that I save only for a hand full of artists. It came out, I listened to it several times during the weekend--soaking in the dark atmospherics, horn stabs and illustrious background, hip/hop influenced instrumentation--and then came Sunday night...

Bowie had fallen to death hoaxes online before so I was cautious not to jump the gun on the news. It took me 45 minutes on Twitter to confirm his death as reality. The silent killer, cancer, had claimed another life, but something was different about this claim: David Bowie, in the eyes of many, including myself, was immortal. He defied the rules and physics of age. He didn't get older, he just became more world-wise. The man looked none of his full 69 years. Much like his music, the man was ageless. But the cruelty of disease took him anyways. 

As is my wont, I decided to view one of his films the next night after a full day of revisiting his catalog. Since I felt compelled to write some thoughts on his death and this was my central place of output, I decided to view Tony Scott's first major film, The Hunger, released in 1983. Bowie and Catherine Deneuve play John and Miriam, whom we assume to be ageless vampires preying on the fresh blood of humanity. The opening shot is brilliant as the first couple preyed on by Miriam and John--taken home and throats slashed--is set against a live performance of Bauhaus' classic gothic hit, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." The selection both engenders a sense of foreshadowing and a clever self awareness that sets the perfect tone for this bloody, vampiric love triangle. 

Poster art for The Hunger (1983)

There is a surprising amount of subjects that I could elucidate from this film, but I want to juxtapose Bowie's character, John, and his narrative arc with that of Bowie's life. The central betrayal of The Hunger is the half-truth that Miriam (Deneuve) told John in 18th century France when she first turned him and gave him life "forever and ever." 200 years later, John starts to suffer from insomnia and ages rapidly in a matter of hours. It turns out Miriam's promise was life everlasting, but not everlasting youth

David Bowie's life felt like the reverse of The Hunger's formulation for John's character: Bowie seemed to have had everlasting youth, but he did not have everlasting life (or, at least, not everlasting life on this side of the mortal veil). 

The hunger expressed in the film is two-fold. For Miriam, the hunger was driven by the curse of immortality. She could never have a lover that stayed with her "forever and ever" maintaining their youth and vitality; they would crumble and become a skeleton eventually (though still animated). Her lust for lovers, for eternal companionship, drove her to lie to each person she turned so she could use them for 200 years. For John, the hunger started out as a means of keeping his youth and vitality, but, when the reality of his state become apparent, his hunger was for release. His release, however, was tied to Miriam's life. She was the parasite, he was the host. If she was turned mortal and died, then all of Miriam's lovers, including John, could finally be released to death. 

"forever and ever, right?"

Enter Susan Sarandon's character, Dr. Sarah Roberts, who researches these host/parasite relationships and becomes "infected" by the blood of Miriam in a seemingly spontaneous lesbian tryst. Sarah figures it out by the end of the film and takes a guess at how to kill Miriam, the host: make Miriam ingest Sarah's mortal blood (an inversion of Sarah's turning). This takes place when Sarah stabs her own throat and feeds the blood into Miriam's mouth. Miriam starts aging quickly and is subsequently attacked by all of her past lovers and ends up falling off a balcony to her death as a mortal, therefore releasing John and the rest of her lovers from their "living death."

Within the scope of the The Hunger, death was relief and release. Within the scope of the real life death of David Bowie, death is seen as something to be avoided, mourned and angered at. But is this really the case for Bowie? Where the arcs of John and Bowie cross each other is in the very thing that had invaded Bowie's life unbeknownst to many of his fans, his 18-month struggle with cancer. In a sense, the cancer that was ravaging the body of Bowie was a type of "living death" much like John in The Hunger. The film almost becomes a strange foreshadowing of the last months of Bowie's life, a sudden downward spiral in health and vitality in both that lead to their death (though cruel and horrible and something to be mourned) becoming a release from that "living death." It becomes mercy in the face of our ever-fragile, decaying bodies. Life only finds meaning in temporality. Immortality makes life utterly meaningless. 

The "living death" of John

David Bowie imparted meaning to his life through his creativity in music and film. Sure, he had demons, some pretty deplorable ones, if true--as written about in some places this past week(Note: I do not think this is a particularly well-written article about Bowie's apparent pedophilia, but only an example of the articles that have appeared in the wake of his death). No person is free from the brokenness and sin of humanity. However, celebrating a life--whether celebrity or not--does not mean condoning the demons of the person (for we all have them), but celebrating the good, the gifts they bestowed upon the world. This celebration of the good of a person is the final show of grace and mercy that we can bestow on them. Bowie gave us a beautiful and challenging body of music that has, for the most part, remained fresh and ageless. He also gave us memorable cinematic characters that were all unique and totally Bowie. 

As a Christian, I do believe in a life after death and, no, I do not know Bowie's final relationship with his Maker. I hope and pray that Bowie recognized his Savior in those final days, but only God knows that for sure. However, Bowie will continue to live on and his creative output will remain immortal even if he was not, despite his seeming otherworldliness while living. 

May you rest in peace, David Bowie. I shall let you have the final word in hopes that this is the reality of where you are now:

Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now

-"Lazarus" from Blackstar

The Hunger (1983)
dir. by Tony Scott
Starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon
Language: English
Runtime: 97 minutes
Rating: R