Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Candy Clark

When a trusted source first recommended Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW by saying it was the scariest movie he had ever seen and had the best sex scene he'd ever seen, I suspected I was about to find a new favorite. I was not disappointed. And yet somehow I never really followed up on Roeg's filmography. Yes, I saw WALKABOUT somewhere, and eventually saw PERFORMANCE (co-directed by even crazier Donald Cammell) but I never undertook the kind of systematic study that Roeg clearly merits from DON'T LOOK NOW alone. In fact, it appears he's made a dozen films on his own, one as recently as 2007. But of course, it was his classic bit of 70s weirdness with David Bowie that first drew my attention, so let's start there.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is called science fiction (Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in an effort to bring water back to his home planet and ends up stuck here) but it’s more accurately described as an art film. The film sports all the qualities you want in arty 70s cinema; showy editing, psychedelic musical sequences, several explicit sex scenes, lackluster special effects, unnecessarily obtuse storytelling, general nihilism. And I mean all that in the best possible way. You couldn't make this kind of ponderous, pretentious experimental film today, because people would get turned off by the very things that make it awesome: it's ponderous, pretentious, and experimental. And they'd be right; we know better now. People tried that shit already and found out it doesn't work very well. But there's a kind of giddy joy in watching these upstart Brits experiment with this doofy crap the first time around-- there's a sense of genuine optimism, somehow, that by pushing the boundaries they'll communicate more deeply, more honestly. It feels rebellious, bold, earnest. Honest.

Basically, its kind of fun to enjoy the innocence of a time when someone thought you could get people to take seriously the idea that Bowie's home world looks like a bunch of mannequins wrapped in tin foil living in wigwams with wings in the desert and put that image in the middle of a serious, dark dramatic film.

And you know what? You CAN take it seriously, because the filmmakers are good enough that they convey to you how serious they find it. Their genuine lack of modern cynicism and been-there-done-that weariness is infectious, and makes their ambition to try new things honestly feel way deeper and more effective than would be possible now that we know better. Like those corny scene transitions with the on-and-off cuts in EASY RIDER. Everyone loves that shit about the movie, but has anyone ever tried it in anything else, ever? Of course not, because actually it's pointless, distracting, and ugly. But it’s still fun to watch someone try it so optimistically, so hopeful that they're on to something big.

Anyway, if you can step back and allow yourself to enter a world of 70s hedonistic innocence, the movie is pretty great. Bowie's performance hovers around outright catatonic, but he's still absolutely mesmerizing to watch. His nonacting only adds to the alien quality of the character, and makes us more curious as to what he's thinking. He's the central character in all this, but the film switches perspectives between him, his lawyer and later CEO (Buck Henry) a former chemistry professor (Rip Torn) and his lady friend (Candy Clark). They're all great, but the floating perspective gives the whole thing an unusual unfocused cadence. The characters don't exactly have their own arcs -- they're all connected to Bowie and his story, but sometimes we watch them doing their own thing anyway. Rip Torn (Jesus Christ, was he ever this young??) doesn't even meet Bowie until about halfway through the movie; its clear that he's going to meet him, but we just keep watching him do mundane things (like have tons of explicit sex with his female students. Ok maybe mundane was the wrong word) until they finally meet -- and then, amusingly enough, Torn basically ends up having almost nothing to do with the plot at all, nor does he have any particular arc of his own. It's the sort of thing you'll find either unique and charming or amateurish and frustrating.

There is a story somewhere in the middle of all the style and narrative experiments -- Bowie needs to return to his home world, and so uses his superior alien technology to become incredibly wealthy, founding a company whose secret purpose is to build him a ship to get back to him family and home world. Things go wrong, though, as he begins to fall prey to human vices, and eventually ends up being kidnapped and imprisoned by people interested in his origin. The movie's quite a bit of fun as we watch Bowie taking Earth by storm and indulging his weird alien quirks to the confusion of everyone around him, but turns surprisingly dark as things suddenly turn against him. The fall to Earth, of course, is metaphorical - the trappings of 70s America end up consuming and turning against him to the point that he loses everything that ever had meaning to him. The fact that he's an alien with no context for what he's experiencing makes the usual 70s excess feel more degrading and dehumanizing. Or actually in Bowie's case, far too humanizing. We're used to the kind of humiliation and pain that being a human entails - we expect it, it makes sense to us.

To Bowie, though, the whole thing is new and insane. The willfully noncommunicative narrative helps us feel his confusion and utter lack of perspective on what's happening to him. Who exactly kidnaps and imprisons him? Is it the government? Some rival company? There are no answers to be had here, because they don't mean anything to the visitor anyway. Time has little meaning to him either; the movie sees the lead characters (except for him) progress from early middle age to old age, but without any specific reference to the passage of time. Does he stay in his hotel room for a few months? Years? He always looks the same, there's no way to know.

In fact, the whole thing is vague and surreal enough that you might even argue that there's some ambiguity about exactly what's really happening. There’s perhaps enough evidence to suggest that maybe Bowie is just a sad, isolated human so broken down by the dehumanizing culture that he doesn’t even identify with his own species anymore. Maybe telling himself he’s an alien and that he has a home to go back to, where things make sense, where he’ll be accepted and loved – is the only way he can find a reason to go on. Using the already inscrutable persona of Bowie adds a meta-layer to all this, particularly when the poor visitor gives up ever being able to return home and becomes –get this—a rock star in an effort to communicate his alien loneliness, shame, and regret to the only people who could ever really understand him.

Ultimately, it’s a film about not being able to go home again – whether you’re E.T. or just a lonely, smart, impossibly thin British weirdo. We’re already so alienated that it takes an actual alien to try and articulate that deep, crushing loneliness seem explicit or worth remarking upon. Roeg has an unusual gift for finding the unseen costs to the soul and making them seem heartbreaking all over again. Here, he cleverly disguises an examination of universal youthful alienation in a story which seems safely removed from our own experience until the exact moment we find ourselves experiencing that all-too-familiar pain of feeling like a stranger in an inexplicable world. Like the prime years for feeling this pain, the movie can be unfocused, dramatic, ostentatious, excessive, superficial, mercurial, and completely convinced of its own special genius. But that doesn’t make its pain any less real, nor does it blunt its gut impact in the end.

Like all of Roeg’s films, it’s a challenging, occasionally excessive work. But it’s inarguably the work of a unique master, and well worth the effort for anyone who appreciates this sort of thing.

Also: [SPOILER] to my knowledge it’s the only 70’s film where two unknown doughy middle-aged guys in business suits show up to put on sparkly gold helmets and throw an old man and his body-building gay partner out a 50th story window. So it has that going for it too.


  1. Okay, forget what I wrote on my blog; I will comment even if I don't really have anything interesting to say.

    I was kinda underwhelmed by DON'T LOOK NOW (great ending, though) and did not at all care for WALKABOUT. I seem to recall THE WITCHES being awesome, but I haven't seen it since I was a kid. Bottom line, Roeg was not someone I was in any rush to follow up on. But damn it if you don't make this one sound intriguing.

    I must admit to a general ignorance of Bowie's music outside of his best known hits and the SPACE ODDITY album. Since it sounds like Roeg was using and/or commenting on Bowie's stage persona in this, do you think Bowie fandom is a prerequisite for better understanding the film? Or is that just an extra layer, and an ignorant fool like myself should still be able to appreciate most of what the film is doing?

  2. Dan -- MAN WHO FELL is more DON'T LOOK NOW than WALKABOUT, but somewhat more eventful. DON'T LOOK is, I think, an intentional anti-narrative, where we all know something bad is coming but can't get enough of a fix on the story to know where it's coming from or when. Meaning, the point of a lot of the story is to sit there and make you sweat it out waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    MAN WHO FELL is much more eventful and even a little fun. But it too features an oddly wandering narrative which is sometimes deliberately opaque and uneventful. I like that about it, though, and it never feels like a slog like the middle of DON'T LOOK does.

    As for Bowie's place, its not so much that Roeg uses Bowie's stage persona; its more like he's accutely aware of the unusual qualities Bowie naturally exudes. Bowie's music doesn't even really play into it (in fact, I dont think he even has a song on the soundtrack -- we never hear him sing in the film although we're told that he does). It's more than Roeg understands that we already read Bowie as kind of an inscrutable weirdo, and that he can build off that perception which is already attached to Bowie the pop culture figure.

    The Roeg film you should really watch is his brilliant, painful BAD TIMING, which stars Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel. In the doc that accompanies the Critereon edition, Roeg says he picked Garfunkel (who plays a professor of psychology) because he'd seen him give a lecture to college students and understood that he'd be perfectly at home in the role of a guy who is the natural center of attention and interest for this demographic. Indeed, when we see Garfunkel (for all intents and purposes, another non-actor like Bowie at this stage of his career) take the center stage, he effortlessly assumes that particular air of authority, which provides the foundation for his character. I think it's similar with Bowie in this one; Roeg's not exactly interested in his specific fame; just in the peculiar qualities of the man which underlie his fame and make him a unique and immidiatly captivating individual to watch.

    Which is a round about way of saying that no, you don't really need to know Bowie's work to enjoy the film. But more than that, I think its a unique approach to casting non-actors which speaks to Roeg's deceptively subtle construction of character. There are certain things which we can easily read in the unusual people he casts, and hence we respond to the characters on a more gut level.

    And yes, THE WITCHES is awesome. Totally did not know he directed it. A far cry from his extremely challenging 70s and 80s films, but still a fun time. His 83 film EUREKA features Gene Hackman, Theresa Russel, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci, and Rutger Hauer, which is pretty much a dream cast for anyone of cultured taste, and has to be pretty lousy if I've never heard of it. But, I'm giving it a chance to blow my mind next.

  3. Okay, BAD TIMING is going on my Instant Queue.