Monday, January 18, 2016

Nicolas Roeg | The Man Who Fell to Earth

The shocking and surprising death of singer, actor, painter, and costumer David Bowie on January 10, 2016, led me to hear again several of his many important songs, watch his performance tapes, and revisit several of his films, two of the most important of which, Into the Night and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence I had previously reviewed in previous My Year volumes. At first I thought I might wish to write an essay on his larger career, but having read a number of such pieces, I felt I could contribute little that hadn’t already been said.

      Having never before seen his first film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is currently out of print in its many DVD versions, I bought a used copy of the earlier Anchor Bay version (the newest having been published by Criterion), and determined to review it as a kind of memoriam to the great, transformative figure.


fall of a god

by Douglas Messerli

Paul Mayersberg (screenplay, based on fiction, The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis), Nicolas Roeg (director) The Man Who Fell to Earth / 1976

No one has ever claimed that Nicolas Roeg’s fascinating 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth makes logical sense. All right, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is an alien from another planet who drops into earth to check out the possibility of shipping water to his own drought-stricken planet. That he happens to end up in the relatively dry state of New Mexico and. once there. proceeds to hawk an extraterrestrial ring for just $20, when, we soon after discover, he is already loaded with a fistful of American100-dollar bills is unexplained. Maybe he just needed a little spending money for daily living, intending to spend the rest on hiring a patent lawyer, Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry).

       That Farnsworth can quite easily read the complex mathematical renderings which represent the vague inventions that our world has never-before known, I suppose, is something that we overlook, just as we can ignore the fact that the film makes utterly no attempt to explain what these patents have represented and how Farnsworth manages to sell them for millions of dollars so very quickly. But why does Roeg spend so much energy early-on in his discombobulated film with the sex life of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a university professor who specializes in sex with his young co-eds is never truly established? And why Newton should want to hire him, over all others, as his fuel-technician, planning as he does to build rockets to carry the water back and forth between earth and Newton’s unspecified planet is totally inexplicable.

And what attracts Newton back to New Mexico to establish his colony? Okay, it must have been easier to film there. Of course, it’s a beautiful spot, and foreign directors have long been driven to express the vast, empty spaces of the American landscape and its equally empty culture through desert locales.

      It is there, during a temporary hotel stay, that Newton meets the all American girl, church-going, TV-watching, alcoholic Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a woman so lonely and abused that she is delighted that someone might bother to listen to her—which  Newton does with a dazed (according to Bowie, cocaine-induced) stare into space; we perceive it as part of Newton’s inability to adjust to his new planetary locale. Evidently the man who has recently fallen at incredible speed from his rocket, can’t deal with fast earth-bound movements; even an elevator ride sends him reeling. In any event, once Mary-Lou gets her hands on him, carrying him into his hotel room, she is unwilling to let go until he too is hooked on TV and alcohol. But being an alien, evidently, he can watch not only one TV channel but simultaneously digest a whole bank of them, as if living in a world created by the video artist Nam June Paik.  
        Is it any wonder that their relationship begins to dull, and he turns to his new fuel technician for friendship? Although seemingly happy with his new job, Bryce, again without explanation, begins to suspect his employer and sets up an X- ray camera to capture the real alien look of Newton. It’s not a pretty sight, as we perceive, when Newton reveals himself to Mary-Lou who goes screaming out of the house. 
     No matter, Bowie/Newton quickly gets beautiful again, and continues to work toward his goal of creating a rocket to bring the earth-water home. Betrayed by Bryce, again for reasons that are not entirely clear, Newton is stymied—arrested and locked away into a series of secret hotel rooms, where, kept under alcohol sedation, he is prodded and poked by all sorts of scientists who try to determine who or what he truly is, also accidently, and for no reason whatsoever, sealing his human eyes onto his own alien slits. Farnsworth is murdered, apparently by the conglomerate of the US government and a rival company.
      Strangely, all this seems not to matter much. If anything Bowie/Newton, still staring off into space, gets younger, while Mary-Lou, evidently missing the old days, and looking like hell a few years after living in an alcohol-infused relationship with Bryce, drops by for a visit; both quickly agree that they no longer love another. Soon after, he discovers that the door to his prison has been left unlocked. Was it ever really a prison? Perhaps the open sesame was simply giving up his former girl. Does it matter?  He escapes, but no longer has any place to go, the people of his own planet having long ago died.
       In short, it’s hard not to agree with film critic Roger Ebert who described The Man Who Fell to Earth as being "so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren't so solemn there'd be the temptation to laugh aloud." Reportedly when Paramount’s Barry Diller first saw the finished work, he refused to pay for it, claiming it was nothing like the film he was promised.

       Yet, Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony Richmond, have created in this film such a beautiful looking color work, and Bowie—even when staring meaninglessly off into space—is so mesmerizing that it’s hard to dislike this movie. And at moments (even in little lines such as “I just need to sleep, Mary Lou”) Bowie deadpans his alien in a way that almost matches Peter Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of another kind of alien in Being There three years later. And, finally, this film has a lot of likeable music, organized by The Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips.

     Even if the movie doesn’t say as much as it might like to have about what we human Americans might do to a more intelligent and beautiful species, it does suggest that this galaxy-trotting, lanky Christ (literally carried to his salvation by his commonplace Mary) might never get back to heaven, hinting—perhaps unintentionally—at a sort of Wagnerian fall of the gods. And isn’t that, after all what Bowie really was, a kind of alien-like god, having just a few years earlier turned his golden mop of hair into a frizzled red cap to create the first of many personae, Ziggy Stardust, also an alien from outer space.

Los Angeles, January 18, 2016

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