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June 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth

cast: David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, and James Lovell

director: Nicolas Roeg

139 minutes (18) 1976
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum blu-ray region B

RATING: 10/10
review by Andrew Darlington




The Man Who Fell to Earth on blu-ray
The Man Who Fell To Earth

It opens with a NASA film clip, a flaring cone of contoured distortion-field fire. A projectile splash-downing into a lake... as in Planet Of The Apes. Then a lone figure on the landscape, descending towards derelict mine-workings, as the soundtrack shocks from pure eerie silence to his feet slurring sand to a chiming electronic vibraphone. And even from these opening moments The Man Who Fell To Earth is seen to be observed by a suited-figure. From the start, these elements set the tone for the film. There's a long perspective over the length of a concrete bridge leading to 'Haneyville village: population 2850' (population 1400 in the source-book).

The visitor (David Bowie) is startled, first by a passing car, by a kids' inflatable fairground play-mobile, then by a hectoring drunk. His reactions betray he's unfamiliar with these things. The camera is his eyes, it sees what he sees, and what he sees is strange. Louis Armstrong's Blueberry Hill seeps faintly from the pawn-shop radio as he carefully explains, "I'm British, I have a passport." TJN - Thomas Jerome Newton. The locals interpret the incomer's stilted oddness as Englishness. He exchanges his ring for $20. Later, as Holst's Planet Suite: Mars, Bringer Of War thunders, he drinks a cup of water from the river with a kind of wondering delight. This, too, is something he's not used to. As his biographer Paul Trynka points out, as a boy, Bowie was enthralled by BBC television's The Quatermass Experiment serial, which used Holst's Mars, Bringer Of War as its theme. Perhaps this is a conscious continuity..?

There's a flash-forward jump-cut to the same alien - Newton, interviewing patents-lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). The lawyer goggles through thick distorting-lens glasses at pages of hand-scripted equations. They represent "nine basic patents" he burbles incredulously, with these Newton "can take RCA, Eastman-Kodak and Dupont." New York street-scenes swirl by and TV news drones on. This is David Bowie's first and, by some stretch, his best acting role. Largely in the same way that Mick Jagger's finest screen-work was in Performance (1970). Both are rock stars essentially impersonating aspects of themselves, or aspects of their own images. Both movies were directed, or co-directed by Nicolas Roeg.

The first British movie to be made entirely in America, Bowie began filming The Man Who Fell To Earth in July 1975, just as his single Fame - co-written with John Lennon, was peaking at #1 on US charts. By then he was mutating away from his Ziggy Stardust/ Aladdin Sane personas, but the film benefits from the androgynous alien quality he brings to the part, as established through those career-phases. Although he's rarely turned in a convincing movie performance since, he brings exactly the correctly underplayed air of alienation to this part. Something perhaps not entirely unrelated to Bowie's taste for cocaine during the filming?

Other elements of his real-life were also drawn in to enhance its reality, Tony Mascia, Bowie's bodyguard, serves the same on-screen purpose for Newton. Whereas Newton's limousine is also the one Bowie uses for the Omnibus 'Cracked Actor' documentary. In much the same way, the film informs his subsequent albums, Station To Station (1976), and Low (1977), both of which use film-stills for their cover artwork.

Later in the screenplay, as Bryce flips through records in the music store, Bowie's Young Americans is clearly visible, as is Bob Dylan's New Morning album-sleeve. By the time of the film's London premiere - 18th March 1976, Bowie was touring the US to promote Station To Station. The Village Voice accused The Man Who Fell To Earth of being "choppy and vague," something that "produces puzzlement without involvement," and hence "fantasies without feelings," yet critics David Miller and Mark Gatiss (in They Came From Outer Space, 1996) suggest "there are some affecting, beautifully-shot sequences, as well as enigmatic and symbolic moments" of considerable power.

And even now, years - and decades later, this is a film that still polarises opinion. To me, its dislocating otherness has a haunting quality that makes it unique. Even the contrived disjunction, of sequences set on Newton's arid home planet; have a weird otherworldly attraction. Roeg had worked as Roger Corman's cinematographer on The Masque Of The Red Death (1964), and with François Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451 (1966), before co-directing Jagger with Donald Cammell. Roeg also directed the disturbing and equally enigmatic Don't Look Now (1973). While the production team of Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings went on to collaborate on The Deer Hunter (1978).

Now there's Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) in college, dissatisfied with the curriculum and his mound of books, having playful sex with a student whose coursework he's just been marking. She uses a camera to film their romp. He notices the camera is a World Enterprises innovation, using self-loading, self-focusing film. Again, there's effective use of silence, as sound drifts in and out of register, with fast-cut film-splice. This is no strict serial-narrative. There's a deliberate separation between the characters, and their worlds. They inhabit their own inner dimensions. Although identity is never just a question of appearances, there are visual clues and inter-connections.

In the book he browses - 'Masterpieces In Paint & Poetry', he references Auden, and Pieter Bruegel's Icarus. This is a metaphor: the boy who fell from the sky. The movie is even less specific than the book, making Newton's motives for being on Earth deliberately vague. The original novel by Walter Tevis was published in 1963. He revised and tweaked the text, including advancing the dates, for the film tie-in re-publication in 1976, with the Pan edition carrying a cover-photo of Bowie.

Tevis, who was born in San Francisco (28th February 1928), but was raised in Madison County, Kentucky, died in 8th August 1984. He was not a genre writer, though he had short stories featured in If, Galaxy, and The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction during the 1950s, and two in Omni, much later, and Tevis' novel, Mockingbird (Doubleday, 1980), features an android in an illiterate decaying 25th century New York. But his other, more high-profile books are mainstream fiction, two of which were also filmed - The Hustler (1961), and its sequel The Colour Of Money (1986), both reflecting his preoccupation with pool-playing. All of which means that Newton's story flows as accessibly as an airport bonk-buster, dialogue-heavy and lightly digestible.

Yet its central theme grabs and intrigues from the start, using sci-fi references in a satiric jokey kind of way. As when Bryce conjectures "if Newton were a Martian or a Venusian, he should, by all rights, be importing heat-rays to fry New York or planning to disintegrate Chicago, or carrying off young girls to underground caves for otherworldly sacrifices." Instead - despite his impenetrability, Newton is a more complex character than such drive-in creature-feature clichés suggest. As Forrest J Ackerman (in World Of Science Fiction, 1997) perceptively observes, the aliens Newton represents are "not simply grotesques with purely evil intentions," while his motives are balanced off against the terrestrial "capacity for malice."

The final part of Newton's cast of characters, his coalition of the willing, arrives as train sounds blur by outside the Hotel Artesia, and a frail Newton faints in the ascending elevator. The novel's floozy hotel-maid Betty-Jo is prettied-up as Mary-Lou in the luscious guise of actress Candy Clark, late of George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973). In a neat switch on convention, she picks him up with ludicrous ease, and carries him into the room. "What do you do?" she asks. "I'm just visiting," he responds.

To her, that implies he's just visiting the town, to him, it expands to his role on the planet itself. He tells her he is 'Mr Sussex', continuing the pretend-Englishness. She's fussily maternal around 'Sussex', in a natural un-contrived way. To writer Tevis, she became "a kind of useful pet," to Newton, a pet who is "entirely unsuspicious." She's probably not unused to the devious vagueness of men passing through her life. She's obviously been damaged by previous relationships, compensated for with a fondness for alcohol. She calls Newton 'Tommy', as in "you know, Tommy, you're really a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks. That's why I like you." They bond in an oddly affecting way, both of them adrift and not quite attuned to the world. His life, he explains, is "not secret, but private," as Jim Reeves' Make The World Go Away plays in the background.

In New Mexico, Bryce is job-interviewed by Farnsworth. He joins the team, working on fuel for Newton's spacecraft. The landscape from a speeding train blurs by, creating its own sense of time and space. As Try To Remember yearns nostalgically on the soundtrack, it prompts Newton into memories of his distant home-world. Driving back into Haneyville, he's accompanied by odd visions. In a disconnected leisurely way, he experiences audio-visual hallucinations of early hick settlers. Or else he slips out of time to also become visible to those same pioneers? The landscape becomes weightless, the sound of a western movie drifts across the bleak New Mexico landscape... until it connects to what Newton's watching on TV.

What does this mean? Is it proof of Newton's receptiveness to place-impressions? Open to the spirit of past times..? Evidence of the earlier extraterrestrial visitors Newton alludes to - "there have always been visitors," the alien visitations to his own world as well as to Earth. He sees their footsteps and their places. The lake where he first splash-landed provokes flashbacks to his immersion. Newton buys Mary-Lou a telescope. Through its lens she sees coronal solar flares shimmy away into squiggly viral spermatozoic tears. Roy Orbison warbles Blue Bayou, a song about longing for lost yesterdays. The movie's enduringly iconic image is of Bowie/ Newton up against the wall of TVs. A montage of flick-shimmering screens, cartoons, martial arts, Elvis in Tickle Me, wildlife copulation, Mutiny On The Bounty, and Harry Lime's The Third Man theme.

"Strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you anything," he explains, "it shows you everything about life on Earth. Perhaps it's in the nature of television. Waves in space..." The image of a family on a World Enterprises TV-ad prompts images of the visitor's own distant family. Clad in head-to-toe prophylactics, their faces fed by moisture drip-tubes. He uses media-overload to drown out sensation; to numb the pain of his situation. Increasingly finding solace in drink too, sharing Mary-Lou's fondness for its ability to anaesthetise the problems of living. He becomes alcohol-dependent and video-obsessed.

The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction (1996) detects at least two levels to the film: the surface plot about the alien building his trillion-dollar business empire in order to finance his journey home, taking water to his desert-planet. And an underlying theme, more "concerned with the human condition." About how brave hopes and ideals are corrupted and betrayed by the "short-term pleasures" of "sex, booze, greed and drugs." As his interplanetary project approaches its delayed completion, things begin to unravel. Bryce suspects the truth about Newton, and covertly x-rays him. Newton allows this to happen. He also reveals himself to Mary-Lou. Bowie's slim, near-translucent frame and expressionless non-acting are perfect.

She sees his real hairless lizard-eyed self, screams and wets herself. The cookies she's baked, which he irritably bats into the air, whirl like alien bodies in watery copulation. But she's stronger, she joins him in the shared reciprocal honesty of nakedness, in a gesture of acceptance, "I don't care what you are, or who you are." Steeling herself, but loving him, she resolves "I lifted you up once..." But although she accepts him, she can't cope with her impossible love, and retreats into lament and booze. When Oliver attempts to pay her off in preparation for Newton's space-shot, she hysterically rejects it, sobbing "I want Tommy."

At the same time, the government, which has been tracking him since the film's opening moments, is moving against Newton, and World Enterprises, deciding "this company is technologically over-stimulated," and that "the American consumer can assimilate only so many products in a given time, and then no more." Newton's chauffeur, Arthur, betrays him. Newton is seized, imprisoned, and subjected to stressful tests. In one trial, despite his protests, he is x-ray-bombarded. In the book this results in blindness, in the movie his contact-lenses are merely fused to his retinas. Whatever, blinded by science, he retreats further into himself... Meanwhile, Farnsworth and his gay lover are assassinated. He's flung through skyscraper plate-glass, touchingly apologising to his murderers when their first attempt fails.

Finally, Newton is allowed to leave. No-one stops or hinders him. He no longer represents a threat. His organisation is broken. Earth is now his asylum-world. There's a long-drawn-out coda tracking the entropic heat of the character's fading after-lives. Bryce and Mary-Lou dine together, helpless to assist Newton as he endures the 'tests'. Their lives dislocated by their encounter with the alien. In the sense of Bowie's song-lyrics, he'd "opened strange doors that they'd never close again" (Scary Monsters & Super-Creeps). They are now living together, at Christmas he's working dressed in a Santa costume as Bing Crosby croons True Love on the radio. She's briefly reunited with Newton (as the soundtrack plays John Phillips' Hello, Mary-Lou). He mixes her a drink with a silver pistol then sucks alcohol off the barrel. He mock-executes her. Then they have sex.

They never have sex in the book, in the film they do ("I think he kinda liked it," Candy Clark confides to Bowie biographer Marc Spitz, "he got a kick out of it"). He gives her his last ring. Ironically, it doesn't fit. Truer to the book, Bryce also has a final meeting with Newton. In a record store he buys a vinyl album called 'The Visitor', "just another future song" recorded by Newton as a way of broadcasting a last message to his wife on their now unreachably-distant home-world. He tracks Newton down and they talk.

"Did you like it (the record)?" asks Newton. "Not much," he answers truthfully. Is Newton bitter about the way he's been treated on Earth? "No. We'd have probably treated you the same if you'd come over to our place." Newton still has money. Has he given up hope? "There's always a chance." As they separate, maybe for the last time, the waiter cautions "I think maybe Mr Newton has had enough, don't you?"

"I think maybe he has," agrees Bryce. Yes, Thomas Jerome Newton, the man who fell to Earth, has had enough, in every way...



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