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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Mask

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At the end of 1968, Bowie was putting on a multimedia show with his girlfriend Hermione, combining music and other arts. One of the numbers was a mime piece called 'The Mask', in which Bowie employed the little bit of mime he learned from Lindsay Kemp. The piece was performed for his promo film Love You till Tuesday as well, and thus it was preserved for posterity. It's an obscure Bowie piece, but truly startling when you first stumble upon it, because it prefigures so much of what was to follow.

The piece is narrated by Bowie, and begins with him walking down a crowded street.

I was walking home, sort of… aimless, and I happened to glance in the window of this, well, em… junk-shop. And there it was!

He enters the shop, and picks the thing up. It turns out to be a smiling mask, and when he wears it, he turns into a happy smiling person. He pockets it, and runs off without paying.

When I got home, I put it on for me mom and dad.
"Oh son! You do make us laugh! That was very good!"
I put it on for the lads at the office.
"Oh, fabulous! Oh you have turned out to be a card!"
And in the evening, I took it to the pub.
"Oh, bravo, bravo, what a wag!"

We see that his daily life is a routine, boring and meaningless existence, and that he is an unremarkable person. But once he puts on his mask, the atmosphere changes into a happy one and everybody finds him entertaining. The mask, then, injects content into his life and makes him likeable to others. The next logical step soon follows.

It soon got around. Everyone knew. Then, it was the local concert.

He enters showbiz, and takes his mask persona to the stage. And lo, the mask is so entertaining that he immediately becomes a star.

Autographs, films, television… the lot! Had a very strange effect on me, though.

We then see him doing the regular star routine, like signing autographs or getting photographed and interviewed. In the meantime, however, it is becoming harder to distinguish between his regular face and his mask face, and it seems to be taking over him. He even starts to develop a diva attitude.

I didn't notice, of course, until that night, at the London Palladium…

The inevitable ending arrives one night, during a show at the London Palladium. We see him on stage, putting on the mask and getting cheered again by the crowd, but when the show ends and he attempts to take the mask off, he finds that it is stuck to his face. He struggles to remove it but fails, and in the end it suffocates him and he collapses.

The papers made a big thing out of it. "Strangled on stage!" they said.

Did he die? It isn't clear. The last thing we hear is ambulance sirens, and…

Funny though, they didn't mention anything about a mask.

In the end he finds out that he himself was meaningless. All that the public saw was the mask, and he was totally identified by it. No one cared about him, only for the character he played.

This short segment reveals quite a bit of what was going through the mind of David Jones, the young man who donned the mask of the artist David Bowie, who would in turn don all sorts of strange masks to communicate with the crowd. Well before any of these masks brought him the fame he dreams of here, we find that he already harbored the fear that these masks will take over him, erase his identity and eventually kiIl him. This fear explains a lot of what was to follow.

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