Monday, August 11, 2008

I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough, don't you?

The Man Who Fell to Earth is the rare example of a perfect marriage of director, star and source material. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Walter Tevis' novel, the story of an alien who visits our planet to save our own and his gradual failure is ideally suited to the strengths and preoccupations of director Nicolas Roeg and star David Bowie; at once cerebral and kinky, Roeg's films sharing with Bowie's music a fascination with shifting identity (Roeg's Performance uncannily paralleling Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars), polymorphous sexuality and, of course, alienation. One can also find a correlation between Bowie's Burroughs-inspired free-associative songwriting process and Roeg's radical, nonlinear approach to editing. So it's no surprise that The Man Who Fell to Earth is a mind-blowing sensory experience; dense, elusive and deeply sad, its uncanny sense of otherworldliness and introspective approach to science fiction set it apart as one of the very best films in the genre.

Like Brueghel's Icarus (referenced early in the film), the arrival of Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) on our planet goes mostly unnoticed. Newton's mission is to find a way to bring water back to his dying planet; to do this requires great wealth, so he sets about using his advanced knowledge of technology to make a fortune as an inventor. Whether Newton is literally an alien or, as Buck Henry (who plays Newton's befuddled business associate Oliver Farnsworth) suggests, a human genius who lives in a dissociative state, he is what Chuck Klosterman calls "Advanced" - a few steps ahead of the rest of us, destined to be co-opted and misunderstood. One of the rare movies of its kind to adapt the perspective of the visitor rather than the humans who encounter him, The Man Who Fell to Earth sees the world through Newton's eyes: Roeg and DP Anthony Richmond find ways to make buildings, automobiles, televisions and everything manmade look completely alien in their sheer arbitrariness. Newton's mission (with water the source of life and, by extension, meaning) is thwarted by a world that prefers gratification and distraction - tv, booze, sex and religion - to something more sustainable (a world, as Newton observes of tv, that shows us everything but doesn't tell us everything). His flight is cut short not by the heat of the sun but by our banality and contempt for anyone who seems different, even if they have something to teach us.

All of this is present in Tevis' book, which is also more overtly political. But while Roeg's film is critical of humanity's foibles, it's never didactic - Newton never lectures us or orders us to change our ways like Klaatu did (though I love The Day the Earth Stood Still for different reasons). As Newton admits to college professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), "We'd have probably treated you the same if you'd come over to our place." Roeg admits that there is something seductive about apathy; as Tommy sits, wasted, watching fifteen TVs at once and screaming "Get out of my mind!" it's impossible to avoid our own addiction to distraction. Roeg is sharp but never unsympathetic; the film's love/hate affair with humanity is embodied in the character of Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a motel cleaning lady who becomes Tommy's lover. As played by Candy Clark, Mary-Lou is sweetly innocent, and their sex scenes (as with all such scenes in Roeg's work, explicit but never dirty) suggest a real connection. But Mary-Lou is also naive and needy; in one of my favorite images from the film, as Mary-Lou asks Tommy if he doesn't think there must be a God up there somewhere, Roeg gives equal value in the frame to Tommy's bemused expression and Mary-Lou's wide-eyed Spielbergian wonder. When Tommy reveals himself to Mary-Lou, her idealism is confounded by the (literally) sticky reality of her lover; Roeg, who emphasizes the distance between people, suggests that it's our repulsion at the slimy, primal truth of difference and attraction, that keeps us from truly connecting.

In Roeg's hands, sci-fi tropes like "space" and "time" take on a radical new context. Time becomes meaningless in the narrative, its passage marked only by the aging of the human characters as the world stays permanently 1976. Roeg's images only seem random until you see them as a form of dialogue within the film; when he juxtaposes Bryce's rough sex games with a student with a Kabuki swordfight, the collision of dissonant images and sounds is at once sexy, disturbing, and theatrical, saying more about sex, violence and performance than either scene would on its own. Roeg's free-associative approach, a collage of allusions, symbols and double meanings accompanied by the ambient soundscapes of John Phillips and Stomu Yamash'ta, is a risky one - when it fails, as it would later with 1983's Eureka, the result is nearly impossible to decipher (though still very entertaining). But when it succeeds, as it does here and through the rest of his remarkable filmmaking streak from Performance to Bad Timing, his films substitute traditional continuity for what Dennis Cozzalio terms "graphic continuity," a highly subjective approach that, at its best, strikes at the heart of how we are knowing what we are seeing.

And at the heart of the film is Bowie, playing the part he'd been rehearsing for all of his life. One can sense the loneliness of "Space Odyssey," the glam contrivances of Ziggy Stardust and the ambisexual hedonism of Diamond Dogs in the odd, detached Mr. Newton. Bowie's performance is internal, understated, but there isn't a moment we don't believe him in the role. Part of this is the baggage Bowie brings to the film, but Roeg is doing more than exploiting Bowie's public persona; as he did with Mick Jagger's sexual ambiguity and would do with Art Garfunkel's quiet egghead image, he locates the complex nature of Bowie's appeal. When Tommy, stirring a glass of champagne with a gun, declares "I see women and men," it's a brilliant fusion of character, actor and celebrity, our identification with the alien forcing us to consider our own feelings of otherness (it's also kind of hot). This creative symbiosis would continue with Bowie's Low, which began as a soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth and is Bowie's best and most innovative album. Neither Low nor The Man Who Fell to Earth It's not for everyone, but nothing truly great can please everyone; as Tommy tells Bryce, who admits he doesn't like the alien's foray into music, "I didn't make it for you."


Matthew H. said...

Man Who Fell To Earth is Roeg's best film in my opinion. While enjoy Performance a great deal I think MWFTE best captures what I most enjoy about his work...The cinematography. And how can you go wrong with David Bowie playing an alien?

Bemis said...

For me, Roeg's top five would be this, Don't Look Now, Bad Timing, Performance and Walkabout. As I've said elsewhere, what an amazing streak.

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