David Bowie and the existential horror of "The Hunger"

creeplin:David Bowie & Catherine DeneuveThe Hunger

If you look at David Bowie's career as a whole, you might say that he gets paid to be stylish.

Not "cool", oh no. "Cool" is what has been accepted. "Cool" is mainstream, marketable, and predictable. "Style" is about the harmonious correctness of being, which needn't necessarily jell with contemporary sensibilities. "Style" is forever.

And that's what his 1983 film The Hunger is about: forever, immortality, the true costs of persistence through time, and the effect on the soul.

As a narrative, this film is nothing we vampirophiles haven't heard before. The Hunger defies many conventions of the vampire myth but it does not dispense with its most important theme, that if you want to live forever, you must be damned. But the way in which this film distinguishes itself is in its use of style to make this point aesthetically as well as thematically.

This is a film which is unmistakably an 80s film. And yet it does not seem old. It is not what most people would call "timeless". Timelessness is the quality of being able to separate a film from its cultural context. It is the ability of a film to move forward in time, to trick us into thinking it was made yesterday, through the immediacy of its storytelling and the universality of its technique.

Blood Simple I would characterize as a timeless 80s movie. Likewise, Die Hard. These are movies which could have been made last year and simply set in the 80s. These are their own kind of special.

But The Hunger accomplishes what is arguably the harder task: it makes the viewer feel as if the past is present. Instead of the film moving itself forward in time, it moves us back. It presents an image of the past with such unhesitating vividness that we do not experience it through the veil of nostalgia (or nostalgia's ivory-tower cousin "appreciation" [shudder]). It manages to seem like now without seeming modern.

What is particularly fascinating about this accomplishment is that it mirrors the feelings of the characters. To Bowie's vampire John, the time of perfumed wigs and harpsichords is not that long ago. Its image has not faded with time. A damned kiss in the fragrant stables, with hay dust coiling in the sunlight, this is not "past". How can it be "past" when its colors loom with the same intensity as the present?

But if there is no attenuation of memory with the passage of time, how is John to wrap his mind, and his heart, around what his life has become? How, for that matter, are any of us?

The pain of immortality would not be in watching the centuries fly by, but rather in feeling them stack up against our limited capacity to hold them in our psyche, an endless series of "presents" for which our mind has developed some limited capacity to unpack into a one-dimensional narrative. But only sixty or seventy years' worth, not centuries. Not millenia.

The clarity of the events in our past is almost unbearable now, with our normal, puny lifespans, filled with a handful of memories for each of the handful of stages in our lives. What effect must there be from having one's past contain more events than we are built to withstand?

Our vampires John and Mirium, for all their lusty power over the lives of mortals, betray a sadness in their eyes which they dare only attempt to acknowledge and expore in their music, their sole intermedium with which to confront the fact that a life of meals of blood is not the limit of their damnation. Their longevity has exposed them to a glut of experience, an over-saturation of memory which their human frames cannot accommodate.

The beauty of this film, and its shameless, aching adoration for a time long past, these are representations of the internal lives of the vampires. And the vampires themselves are representative of the tragic horror of our species' lust for life despite our limited tolerance of it.

This holiday season, as we visit our older relatives and pull them close to wish them health and long life, look into their eyes, and see if you can see the sadness of John and Miriam. What everyone around them calls "the past" exists for them not as some sepia textbook relic but as a glowing, vibrant Now, a real place and time which still exists, but with which they are solely and uniquely burdened.

The tragedy of the aged is their burden of the past-as-present. They hear inside their hearts the past continue to insist that it is not an artifact of an arbitrary combination of time and memory; it is a thing which exists and is yet too beautiful to be believed.

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