Beck contributed a rendition of “Diamond Dogs” to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. This live performance has decent sound quality, though the visuals are not great (which is odd because it seems to have been professionally edited).
Anyway, I’m using this as an excuse to write about another movie, Nightmare Alley. Bowie had nothing to do with that movie, but “Diamond Dogs” makes a passing reference to the 1932 movie, Freaks, which features actual circus side-show performers, many of whom had disabilities that were the attraction. They were the “freak show.”
I just saw Nightmare Alley, which very much has to do with freak show performers, with a special role for geeks. The geeks in the film are drugged, enslaved and brainwashed into performing extremely degrading, grotesque acts, particularly biting the heads off live chickens. The geeks represent the most debased of people living in a world of stark disparities. If you haven’t seen the movie, which was nominated for Best Picture in 2021, read no further.
I’m not going to summarize the whole movie, but in short it is about a con man who hooks up with a traveling carnival, learns “mentalist” tricks and makes his way to… Buffalo! Yes, Buffalo! I wasn’t expecting that. Here, I was watching this movie that I knew next to nothing about and suddenly Buffalo’s City Hall appears (and a radio broadcasts confirms that it’s supposed to be Buffalo in the movie, too).
Anyway, the con man, played by Bradley Cooper, is a pretty despicable low-life, despite being superficially charming. He’s very manipulative. He uses women until he moves on to the next one, less for sex and more to exploit them to improve his own station. He is responsible for at least two men’s deaths. I think its fair to say he murdered both of them, but he did so in ways leaving himself some plausible deniability (the one, his father, he allowed to freeze to death, and the other, a kind of carnival mentor, he “accidentally” gave the wrong kind of alcohol. In any case, he ignores various warning signs dropped here and there throughout the movie and ends up himself being played by a psychiatrist (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) who manipulated him into being an instrument for her own revenge, to be exacted against someone who, the movie implies, had abused her at an earlier point.
In the process, the Bradley Cooper character falls apart. But he doesn’t just fall apart— he descends to the point of his true self. His charm, physical appearance, self control, mental acumen and ability to read and manipulate others all descend to the point of his already rock-bottom moral nature. At the end, he finds himself at another carnival, where its leader attempts to lure him into becoming debased geek. The Cooper character recognizes the trap, but embraces the opportunity, ending the movie with the line, “Mister, I was born for it.” The character had reached his destination of self-realization. He was the lowest of the low.
The movie was long and at times slow. There were stretches where I wasn’t sure where it was going, but the end was arresting and brought everything that came before it together.
I can make a connection between the dystopia of the film and that of “Diamond Dogs.” I can also make the connection that Bowie, especially in this song and on the album as a whole, embraces decay and celebrates corruption. The cover of the album, Diamond Dogs, features Bowie as a freak show attraction. There is a parallel to be sure. But the movie really has nothing else to do with the album or the song, other than to use physical appearance as a reflection of character.
Nightmare Alley was directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose movies feature grotesque, monstrous characters (who are often not just monstrous, but actual monsters). Del Toro’s characters are misshapen either as an outward sign of their twisted nature, or, the exact opposite, in order to make the point that things are not necessarily what they seem to be.
Bowie, too used bizarre physical imagery as part of his message, but I think the points he was trying to make were a little different. In, “Rebel Rebel,” (also on Diamond Dogs,) the subject of the narrator’s affection has a face that’s a mess, and whose own mother can’t tell if he or she is a a boy or a girl. Where Del Toro would evoke such imagery either to suggest that the character’s nature is revealed or, conversely hidden by his or her appearance, Bowie is saying that it doesn’t matter.
Bowie, especially (but not exclusively) during his Glam period, presented himself as a freak. I have often read and heard some version of the idea that he gave comfort to all the outcasts. Part of Bowie’s message was that it was OK to be weird. That was kind of Guillermo del Toro’s message in The Shape of Water, but not so much in Nightmare Alley. In this world, artifice can only be maintained for so long. Eventually, one’s true nature comes through for all the world to see. And that’s not always pretty…