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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).
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.
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.