by ALBIN WANTIER
An unreleased widescreen version of Lazarus shows Bowie more visionary than ever
A couple of months ago I wrote a long article in which I explained my personal interpretation of a series of clues that Bowie had spread in the Lazarus video.
They give us some keys to understand the deepest meaning of the artist’s very last appearance.
A new ‘detail’ is now added to the long list of those little messages left around by Bowie in his last moments. On 17th January, seven days after the death of the Thin White Duke, the reliable website David Bowie News announced a ‘widescreen’ version of the Lazarus video. The article linked to the personal page of the director Johan Renck, without any further details.The official video of Lazarus is indeed framed in an unusual 1:1 ratio, in a square format. It could the director’s decision, maybe referring to Instagram (a media which Bowie never officially used). Nevertheless the square format shows some problems for the viewer: some frames are really tight, sometimes cropping the image. Artistic choice? It’s possible, but the result isn’t always outstanding. For example in the shot below, clumsily off centered.
The ‘widescreen’ version, that is with the ratio 16:9, could have answered this question. But it was sadly removed by the author a few hours after its release and literally disappeared from the Net. Who took it away? Nobody knows. The magic of the Net is that anything never really disappears. David Bowie News was able to catch the widescreen version again and upload it… before it would disappear again, but not quickly enough. We just had the time to analyze it in details.
First remark: the 16:9 version is the original edit. The square ‘official’ ratio presents an image reduced on the borders. As a result the cut has cropped the image, as in the picture above. The original format is much more appropriate: if you compare the exact same shot from the 1:1 and the 16:9 version, the latter shows a much better balanced frame.
In the wider version some images seem more interesting compared to the official version. For example, the scene in the room shot from above. In my opinion the rectangular one is esthetically the best. The comparison between the two versions leaves no doubt.
Why then would one want to wreck the original picture? The reasons can be found in the details on the borders of the original version. If we focus on them, in the 16:9 video, we can see that many visual elements disappear on the square ratio: one is more anecdotal, the other gives us the key to understand the story narrated in this video.
Let’s start with the anecdotal one: to lengthen the suspense. The skull on the desk. It already surreptitiously appeared in the square version, but its presence is more tangible in the 16:9 format.
In my introduction to Schapiro’s book, I resumed a theory largely shared on the social networks: would it be the skull of the astronaut already seen in the Blackstar video? Without a doubt. Is this Major Tom, the main character of Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes? Quite sure. So, the presence of the skull reinforces the testamentary dimension of the Lazarus video.
The second element that disappears from the shots can lead to different interpretations: when the character of David with the black and white striped costume is sitting at the desk writing in his notebook, we can see in the upper left corner the other Bowie (dressed in a white shirt) laying still in his bed. Interesting, isn’t it? This shot appears at least twice: at 2’41 and 3’02. Each time David is in his bed, as dead. In the official version of the video this ‘detail’ is hidden.
But the double presence of Bowie in the same framing is much more than a detail: it helps us understand the narrative sequence of the video. We are able to firmly deduce that the Bowie in costume embodies a posthumous presence, the spirit of the artist. His dead body, motionless, is left to the background, while his soul (his creative inspiration?) is frantically writing his final message before moving backwards and disappearing in the closet.
The testamentary power of Lazarus, already discussed, takes accordingly an additional dimension. When David creates this video clip, he must be aware that it will be his very last performance. Not only he knows that death is getting closer, but he even decides to film the moment of his passing, exactly how he wanted the world to see it. So, he stages his last breath, intentionally comforting for the audience: although the artist is dead, his soul is still there. Obviously aged and weakened, he uses the costume he was wearing during the shooting session with Steve Schapiro in 1974, a period of time when he was questioning the meaning of life, during the Station To Station era. Now, peaceful, he has written his last chapter and is ready to vanish.
It’s hard not to be touched by such a beautiful message. How – we wonder now, knowing that he was fighting against the illness – has he found the strength to deliver such a sharp and intelligent message to the world? Only Bowie could have done it. In the light of these elements, no one can deny that the only purpose of the 1:1 format was to hide the still character of Bowie on his bed. It now leads us to a more mystic interpretation of this incredible video.
Obviously, the biggest question remains: why did he change his mind? The video was published on 7th January, the artist died on 10th January. Has the record company chosen to withdraw the original framing? Whose call was it? Did his entourage take such a decision, already too much worrying about his health and preferring not to underline the situation with this kind of posthumous message? Or did they still hope he would survive?
Nobody knows. Maybe one day the director Johan Renck will answer this question. At the moment the only certainty is that Bowie had anticipated his departure with a mind-blowing precision and an incredible clear-sightedness.
A last detail would feed the debate: are there two or three different Bowies in this video? In some frames he wears a really heavy make-up. In others he doesn’t. Is this all deliberate? Or was the make-up simply intended to hide is health state, getting worse when they were filming?
(Translation: Matteo Tonolli)