The Cult Club: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
5:00 PM on 09.10.2012
David Bowie's big screen debut was Nicolas Roeg's tale of alienation, sex, and the human condition
[The Cult Club is where Flixist's writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
My friend Dylan used to say, "Sometimes I feel like an alien." It was about how he didn't understand people or human interactions. The older I get, the more that statement sticks with me; the older I get, the more I feel like an alien. It may be why I have an odd affinity for the POV of aliens in books and movies. Because, really, what is an alien on Earth but an outsider who can observe human bulls**t without acknowledging the veneer? They offer another mode of critique to explore the weirdness of the world.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, we get various outsider views of American shortcomings during the 1970s. There's David Bowie as a visitor from another planet, and Brits Nicolas Roeg and Paul Mayersberg as director and screenwriter, respectively. At the heart of the film is a W.H. Auden poem about a painting by Breughel, a healthy dose of sex, and an alien who doesn't notice his own fall until it's too late. All he's got is the tragic hand-flapping before gravity catches up, like you see in cartoons.
The Man Who Fell to Earth wasn't ahead of its time but entirely of its time. Like its main character, the film simply sat in the center of the me decade observing, and feeling like an alien.
The Man Who Fell to Earth was Roeg's third solo outing as director, and it's easily one of his best, right up there with his eerie masterpiece Don't Look Now (1973) and his debut Walkabout (1971), the latter of which helped fuel my teenage obsession with actress Jenny Agutter. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the film follows Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to Earth in order to send water back to his drought-stricken planet. To fund the rescue mission, he becomes the head of his own international company, World Enterprises, and then unwittingly turns into a reclusive celebrity. In the process he loses sight of what brought him to Earth in the first place. The memory of Thomas's wife and children is always there, but they become less real and more ghost-like as the film progresses. In Thomas's visions -- some are memories, others may be bleak glimpses of the present or just Thomas's own conjecture -- his family waddles through sand dunes with large, cat-eyed, forlorn expressions. At points they simply stand bereft beside their home, a mix of work shed, monorail, and sailboat.
While Thomas himself is a fascinating portrait of someone who becomes all too human, it's the supporting characters of The Man Who Fell to Earth that help make it memorable. There's Mary-Lou played by Candy Clark (Roeg's girlfriend at the time), a housekeeper at a New Mexico hotel who eventually becomes Thomas's lover. She's a simple down-home girl who turns into the complicated, uneasy partner of a business mogul. There's college professor Dr. Nathan Bryce played by Rip Torn, just a few years after he tried to kill Norman Mailer in Maidstone (linked video NSFW). Bryce picks up coeds and fucks them silly, eventually sublimating his urges for 18 year olds by working for World Enterprises. And there's attorney Oliver Farnsworth played by Buck Henry, who does his best to protect Thomas and his World Enterprise holdings throughout the course of the film.
Watching each of these supporting performances play out holds The Man Who Fell to Earth together. The film is about mood and time rather than plot, and both are conveyed through people. Clark is especially good, her broad smile eroding as she and Thomas retreat from the world to their Japanese lake house. All the supporting characters age while Thomas remains the same. The make-up has held up nicely, or at least it's more believable than Prometheus. The older Dr. Bryce looks a lot like an older Rip Torn, and ditto the older Fransworth like an older Buck Henry. Clark's age make-up is harsher -- think Lea Thompson at the beginning of Back to the Future, but the alcoholic bloat is nowhere near as kind. She wound up aging more gracefully in real life, kind of like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). While Thomas is ageless, he grows just as world-weary as the supporting players -- his soul is what gets older and more pathetic rather than his body.
The movie is mainly a showcase for Bowie, and Thomas is a great vehicle for him to inhabit. With the Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke personas, Bowie was able to explore notions of rock and role idolatry, the cult of celebrity, and artistic reinvention as a kind of self-discovery and self-alienation (personality as art; personality as phenomenology?). It was Bowie playing an outsider as a critique of the culture at large for those in the know -- the hip-to-it crowd who saw celebrity for the the bullshit it was but loved the bullshit too. This sort of shtick would be adopted in different forms and for different reasons by people like Klaus Nomi, Marilyn Manson, and Lady Gaga. Thomas gets Bowie's shock of red hair -- something quintessentially Ziggy -- and the chic of The Duke. He's a hybrid Bowie: both a stage presence as a screen presence. Bowie was always acting throughout his career, but this makes it big-screen official.
The rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton seems to find expression in lots of Bowie's music before and after The Man Who Fell to Earth. There's "Space Oddity" (1969), a correspondence both obvious and coincidental. The song's spiritual sequel "Ashes to Ashes" from Scary Monsters (1980) might be a better expression of the character by the end of the film: "Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom's a junkie / Strung out in heaven's high / Hitting an all-time low." There's lots of Aladdin Sane (1973) in there as well -- a fractured personality, panic, paranoia, mental deterioration filtered through a chaotic piano solo, a sense of a person's life being torn up by the rigors of celebrity. The sex, drugs, and rock and roll of "Cracked Actor" seem to suggest the coming of The White Duke and the fall of Thomas, where the only things that are real are sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Then we get to "Fame" (1975), that overt essay on the bullshit of celebrity.
David Cronenberg once said that he doesn't think of his movies as thematically connected through time but more like autobiographies -- he thinks of them in terms of what happened on a given day of shooting. Bowie seemed to take that approach to his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Coked out of his mind, Bowie would simply show up on set and read his lines the way he was feeling that day. And it worked. What better way to play a celebrity space alien with a substance abuse problem than being an alienated celebrity with a substance abuse problem? So while Bowie is playing a role and a synthesis of his music personas, he's also being completely himself (albeit a lost soul). The concerns of The Man Who Fell to Earth were the concerns of Bowie the man.
Bowie intended to score The Man Who Fell to Earth but Roeg opted for different music -- songs that were folksier, with occasional sound textures made of dissonant chimes, blips, and whale song. Parts of Bowie's unused score would inform the album Low (1977), the first of the Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno. The man, the music, the movie -- all connected, no bullshit.
With drugs and rock and roll out of the way, it's time for the sex, and The Man Who Fell to Earth has a good amount of it. Sex is an essential part of being human and an essential part of the narrative; sex is a supporting character, conveying mood and time just like Clark and Torn and Henry.
When we see Dr. Bryce romp with coeds, it's aggressive, hedonistic, caveman wrestle-fucks -- sex as physical conquest, it's meaningless but it's lively. In one scene (restored in the director's cut), a coed grabs Dr. Bryce's flaccid dick and says to it (not him initially), "You know, you're not at all like my father." At first it's like she's speaking into a microphone, but she's talking to him through the only part that she cares about. They've come to a mutually agreeable reduction of each other: he's just old cock who can up her grades, perfect for an undergrad getting through lower div; she's just young pussy with daddy issues, perfect for a guy going through a mid-life crisis. Ain't we got fun? But Dr. Bryce gives it up to work for World Enterprises, and so much is said (maybe more than his accompanying voice over) when he turns down a willing coed with a simple, paternal touch of the shoulder.
There's even a character arc to Mary-Lou and Thomas's relationship told through sex. It starts idyllic, the sort of thing you'd see on the cover of a romance novel if they favored actors of slighter frames rather than models of heaving bosoms. Their next sex scene is one of alienation, with Thomas in his true form and Mary-Lou frightened out of her life. And yet she's curiously drawn to his prone figure in bed -- it's the lonely, disenchanted state of their relationship. In an interview for the out-of-print Criterion release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Clark said she and Bowie felt uncomfortable with the nude scenes and felt a little icky about doing them. This ickiness is all over this scene. The final sex scene between Thomas and Mary-Lou is ugly. It's sex in desperate squalor by two drunks, one of them unflatteringly older, both crueler; the graceless Dr. Bryce scenes without the youth or the joy.
What's remarkable is Roeg's cross-cutting, which harkens back to Don't Look Now. In one of the most famous sex scenes of the 1970s, we watch Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie make love (supposedly for real) while also watching them get dressed. The Man Who Fell to Earth goes beyond that. Dr. Bryce and a coed are intercut with a kabuki theater battle; Mary-Lou and Thomas's first scene is intercut with shots of domestic bliss; during the alienating sex scene, we get images of extraterrestrial mating, and it could have been something out of Ken Russell's Altered States (1980) -- a psychedelic freak-out full of cottage cheese and milk. The final sex scene has choice snippets from earlier in the film to remind the audience just how ugly these lives have gotten. By doing this, Roeg takes an outsider view of sex and offers a cynical evaluation of human relationships -- even intimacy falls, like Thomas, like Mary-Lou, like Icarus into the sea. And no one seems to notice.
Everything's drying out or collapsing or decaying in some way, and Roeg's conveying a lot of this through his collisions of imagery and sound. These correspondences also create a wigged out vision of the America bizarre. There's something heightened about outsider views of American culture, where all the good and bad of the country's rhapsody are underlined, italicized, and bolded. Think Vladimir Nabokov's take (via Humbert Humbert) in the novel Lolita or Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical vision from In America (2002), ditto Paul Verhoeven's satirical take in RoboCop (1987) or the hopes and disenchantments of Billy Wilder's movies.
I mentioned the score filled with blips and whale song, but there's also radio static, presses printing, telegraph communication, traffic. The world is filled with a kind of unending cultural static. Even the pastoral areas seem packed with lives lived. During one scene, Thomas suddenly catches a glimpse of a pioneer family who, in turn, sees a limo on the dirt road. Even those open spaces are inhabited by unseen information.
The images continue, with Thomas seeking answers to life on Earth through television. He watches several at the same time, addicted to the glass teat just like he's addicted to gin. It's a parallax view that leads nowhere since there's no truth to most television, just the stuff on the surface. Thomas laments to Dr. Bryce at one point that the problem with television is that it shows you everything about life on Earth but all the true mysteries remain. His mind is rotting from facts without answers, but the TV is a palliative so he can't help but watch junk. It seems to anticipate lyrics from the Talking Heads song "Crosseyed and Painless," a kind of alienation through information overload: "Facts are simple and facts are straight / Facts are lazy and facts are late / Facts all come with points of view / Facts don't do what I want them to."
Thomas's plans to save his planet get diverted, and he deals with the pain of failure with TV and Beefeater. He's too out of it to realize what's happened. He's become one with the Auden poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" and the Breughel painting the poem's about, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." The painting depicts the wax-winged boy as a body mostly submerged save for thrashing legs. Life around him carries on. In the Auden poem, "everything turns away / quite leisurely from disaster"; Thomas's mission viewed by the people of the Earth: "not an important failure." (In a William Carlos Williams poem about the same painting, the fall is described as unnoticed and "unsignificant.") Going back to "Space Oddity," peeling a memorable line out of context, Thomas's predicament boils down to a helpless statement of fact: "Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do." We're all in the same boat.
Maybe the only other people who could have played Thomas Newton are David Byrne or Brian Eno, but it would be a different iteration in a different era, and it may not have been the film for Roeg. And that's why I think that The Man Who Fell to Earth really isn't a movie ahead of its time but of its time. The failure to notice the fall of Icarus and the death of a dry planet is about the failure of the me generation to step outside itself -- the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, and the greed -- and understand its own bullshit.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is of its time because Roeg was at the height of his powers and doing things uniquely outside the mainstream; because Bowie, who tried to stand outside of celebrity culture and comment on it, was at the perfect point of his career to play both himself and an alien; it's a movie whose sense of weirdness and narrative experimentation (it hops through time briskly without signposts) is so linked to the 1970s. The 70s might be the last era that a film like this could get made since they don't make them like this anymore. Similarly, we don't have a Bowie-like figure because there could only be one Bowie and his time has past; and we don't have another Roeg because he's an artifact of the era.
Almost all works considered ahead of their time are really just perfect reflections of their time -- it just takes a decade for people on the inside to sober up and realize what the outsiders noticed all along. The Man Who Fell to Earth calls attention to something in our skies as well as something kicking its legs and slowly, helplessly drowning.
Next Month... It's time for a little campy Bondage with EIC Matthew Razak as he takes us on a trip through Casino Royale (1967).
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
July: Batman (1966)
May: The Apple (1980)
April: Santa Sangre (1989)