The Man Who Fell To Earth

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #304: Nico­las Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.

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Musee des Beaux Arts

About suf­fer­ing they were nev­er wrong,
The Old Mas­ters: how well they under­stood
Its human posi­tion; how it takes place
While some­one else is eat­ing or open­ing a win­dow or just walk­ing dul­ly along;
How, when the aged are rev­er­ent­ly, pas­sion­ate­ly wait­ing
For the mirac­u­lous birth, there always must be
Chil­dren who did not spe­cial­ly want it to hap­pen, skat­ing
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They nev­er for­got
That even the dread­ful mar­tyr­dom must run its course
Any­how in a cor­ner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their dog­gy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratch­es its inno­cent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how every­thing turns away
Quite leisure­ly from the dis­as­ter; the plow­man may
Have heard the splash, the for­sak­en cry,
But for him it was not an impor­tant fail­ure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs dis­ap­pear­ing into the green
Water; and the expen­sive del­i­cate ship that must have seen
Some­thing amaz­ing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had some­where to get to and sailed calm­ly on.
-Auden

The plan­ets were sure­ly aligned for the pro­duc­tion of The Man Who Fell To Earth. David Bowie was deep in the midst of his androg­y­ne star­man per­sona, Nico­las Roeg was grow­ing ever defter in his direc­to­r­i­al skills and Wal­ter Tevis pro­vid­ed the nov­el to bring them all togeth­er. I’d say all three are peas in a pod; com­bi­na­tions of mys­tic and cyn­ic that para­dox­i­cal­ly sub­vert the mech­a­nisms they hate by using them; albeit for dif­fer­ent goals. Bowie was a space prophet as Zig­gy Star­dust, offer­ing the hope tran­scen­dence through music and drugs to the piti­ful humans on a hell­ish earth. Roeg was beat­ing the drum against mate­ri­al­ist Amer­i­can cul­ture and the soul­less­ness it engen­dered [and still does, in my hon­est opin­ion] and Tevis was explor­ing the exis­ten­tial psy­chol­o­gy of mod­ern life in his writ­ing.

This con­gru­ence fits hand-in-glove with my own spe­cif­ic inter­ests: David Bowie, Cin­e­ma and Sci­ence Fic­tion and I am essen­tial­ly inun­dat­ed with things to talk about in rela­tion to this film. I’ll try to con­cen­trate on the specifics of the film itself.

I’d best get this out of the way right off the bat. This film is full of sex and nudi­ty. Chock full. Rip Torn plays the wom­an­iz­ing professor/scientist Bryce, and must have had an absolute­ly won­der­ful time rolling around in his bed with at least half a dozen naked nubile coeds. Yet Roeg is obvi­ous­ly more mature than I am, because his uses of nudi­ty, while tit­il­lat­ing, use that tit­il­la­tion to high­light and enhance his cri­tique of Amer­i­can deca­dence. I find it rem­i­nis­cent of Fellini’s Satyri­con in this respect.

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Bowie’s char­ac­ter, the alien Thomas Jerome New­ton, arrives on plan­et with a plan and a goal, but is ulti­mate­ly unpre­pared for the cul­ture which ensnares and destroys him, turns him trai­tor­ous. This progress can be mon­i­tored by com­par­ing him through­out with the deeply flawed char­ac­ters with which he inter­acts. Gra­ham Fuller’s essay [linked below] cov­ers this down­fall very well, so I’ll skip it.

I didn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoy Wal­ter Tevis’s book, but the movie keeps rather well to its plot, and is enhanced and refined by Roeg’s treat­ment and Bowie’s inter­pre­ta­tion. I’m actu­al­ly pret­ty tak­en aback at how much I enjoyed the film as cin­e­ma and not as enter­tain­ment [which is how I usu­al­ly like my sci-fi]. Although Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is bet­ter known for mak­ing Earth seem alien to us Earth­lings, Tevis man­ages to make you believe it and Roeg makes you skin-crawl­ing­ly feel it.

Roeg’s dis­dain for Amer­i­can cul­ture bor­ders on preachy, but it fits well with Newton’s turn-coat illu­sion­ment; it doesn’t over­whelm the film, bare­ly. I won­der how much of Bowie’s taste influ­enced the pro­duc­tion val­ues of the film as well. The album Low is rumored to be asso­ci­at­ed with the film, [as the album cov­er also sug­gests. It is a pret­ty good album, sort of pro­to-elec­tron­i­ca/am­bi­ent], but the Newton’s fas­ci­na­tion with Kabu­ki and Japan­ese aes­thet­ics hark back to the day’s of Zig­gy Star­dust, and Newton’s rude boy appear­ance in pub­lic seems to echo the lat­er stages of the Dia­mond Dogs tour.

The film is def­i­nite­ly worth a watch. The act­ing is superb on all fronts, espe­cial­ly Can­dy Clark’s por­tray­al of Mary-Lou, and although Roeg still uses the zoom far too heav­i­ly for my taste, its a beau­ti­ful film in all oth­er aspects.

DVD Beaver Review NSFW
Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Gra­ham Fuller

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