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“Life on Mars” — the Video (1973)

Director Mick Rock takes his video-as-living-photograph technique to its ultimate with his third Bowie video. And it works stunningly well. “Life on Mars?” is one of Bowie’s best-known videos, capturing one of his most iconic looks (so much so that Barbie made a doll commemorating the look in 2022). Rock managed to marry an arresting visual image with one of Bowie’s — well, I’ll say it— one of Bowie’s best songs, to leave an indelible contribution to the whole idea of David Bowie.

For all that, surprising little happens in the video. “Video-as-living-photograph” is my term, not Mick Rock’s. What I mean by the phrase is that Rock captures Bowie singing entirely within the frame of a shot. He uses this technique in his video for “John, I’m Only Dancing,” but cuts away to some dancing goblins, and in “The Jean Genie,” he intersperses stationary footage of the band with concert footage and shots of Bowie and model Cyrinda Foxe popping up around San Francisco.

But with “Life on Mars,” Rock and Bowie are all in. Bowie never leaves the frame. He stands in his baby blue suit, exaggerated makeup, and fire engine red hair against a white backdrop and sings. He gestures, he looks around, but he doesn’t dance or go anywhere. There’s no band, no props, no story, no special effects to speak of. The whole video is Bowie, looking as distinctive as he ever looked, singing in place by himself.

Bowie doesn’t move in the video, but the camera moves. The camera zooms in and out and shows Bowie from different angles—up, down, straight on. This has different effects, at least for me. Bowie’s face is revealed by the camera panning back. This way the full oddity of his appearance doesn’t just explode into view. The shifting camera angle creates a sensation of the song moving along in a way the otherwise stationary Bowie himself does not.

All of this enhances the power of the song and its lyrics. It would not be hard to imagine a video for “Life on Mars?” that attempts to depict the events of the song, perhaps showing, for instance, a girl with mousey hair in a movie theater. It is also easy to imagine that strategy actually detracting from the song. Think, for instance, of the video for “China Girl.” The video, depicting Bowie romantically interacting with an ethnic Chinese actress suggests that the song is about a guy with a Chinese girlfriend. The lyrics and circumstances of the song really suggest something totally different. With “Life on Mars?” Bowie and Rock don’t show us what to think.

And what are we supposed to think about Bowie’s visage? His makeup is so white as to almost merge with the white backdrop. The blue eye makeup and red hair are so vibrant as to almost—but not quite—come off as clownish. The video was made a couple of years after Bowie recorded the song, at which time he actually had a more effeminate — but less alien — appearance. So what are we to make of this version of Bowie? I think the answer is, something totally original.

And so he was. As was the video.

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This is the third in my series of commentary on Bowie’s videos as videos, rather as simply an excuse to discuss the song.

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