Aloof, merciless, terrifying, David Bowie is my favorite Pontius Pilate. In his bored, British accent he is empire. He is Senatus Populusque Romanus. He is Britannia. He is Pax Americana. He is lethal. This Ziggy Stardust, this Aladdin Sane, this Thin White Duke, this chameleon that has captured our hearts, now he is he who condemns Jesus to die. This actor is more than Pontius Pilate. He is David Bowie as Pontius Pilate. However we cast Pilate in our personal Passion Play, we never envision him as the singer of “Starman.” Today, we perform the Stations of the Cross. From station to station we travel. At the Fifth Station, we encounter something new and unexpected. We encounter David Bowie.
Bowie’s Pilate unnerves us, unsettles us. On screen, we see the vision of a man that means so much to us, whose music brings us to literal tears, in the imperial robes of Rome. Bowie’s personae always challenge us. His Pilate is no different. But Bowie’s challenges are mostly treated as welcome opportunities for creativity. In Bowie’s decades of sound and vision, we find empowerment and resistance to cultural norms, to social expectation, and to institutional power. Here, as Pilate, Bowie is institutional power. He is earthly norm. He is political expectation.
But he is curious. Pilate brings Jesus to his stables, away from the maddening crowds, nearby a shrieking horse.
“I mean can you do a trick for me, now. See?”
“No. I’m not a trained animal. I’m not a magician.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
The horse snorts. And Pilate is done. But he is still curious.
“Tell me what you tell people on the streets.”
Jesus begins to tell Pilate, in his Dafoean way, Daniel’s Dream of the Statue. Pilate dismissively interrupts him, knowing where this is going.
“And Rome is the statue, I see.”
This is a clash of worlds here in a spotless stable of carefully bred animals. There are no amateurs here. We all know what’s going on. Pilate sits beside Jesus.
“You know it’s one thing to want to change the way that people live, but you want to change how they think and how they feel. Either way, it’s dangerous. It’s against Rome, it’s against the way the world is and, killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things – we don’t want them changed.”
“You do understand what has to happen…”
And Pilate prophesies. He almost seems to pity Jesus. Pity is a manifestation of institutional power.
The scene is riveting, stark. Pilate overshadows Jesus here. The power and menace of Rome is clear.
Watching Bowie in anything now seems to take on some weird, melancholy light. The trouble with apotheosis is that we are always left behind. Oh, yeah. Blackstar. Oh, yeah. Ashes to Ashes. Oh, yeah. Let’s Dance. Oh, yeah. Last Temptation of Christ. Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision? When we see our icons and idols before us and we undergo that strange encounter and reflection? They’re never who we think they are or who we want them to be. The frustrating thing is that they die and they don’t die. And we keep telling the story about where we were when it happened, when we heard. We keep telling the stories that affect us, that keep us moving forward… or at least moving. Let’s dance under this moonlight, this serious moonlight.
So when I see David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, he becomes folded anew into the Passion by virtue of the fact that he is now deceased. He is now part of Scorsese’s Last Temptation in ways that he had not been before. Bowie’s mortality, which I think unexpectedly reminded us of our own, and presence sets up a greater attention to the role he plays as Jesus’ executioner. Pilate takes on new life and power because of that life and power of David Bowie. Here is the power of performance. Here is the power of the Passion.