Saturday, May 31, 2014
By Joseph Lanza
I’m often skeptical about new (and expensive) technologies that lure me into buying a whole new video library, and I still believe that Blu-ray is worth the trouble for only special movies. But watching Criterion's now out-of-print Blu-ray of The Man Who Fell to Earth made me feel like a kid seeing an amusement park for the first time.
The exceptional photography looked better than ever (better than even in the actual cinemas that often had lousy prints). After so many years of watching this film over and again, I saw details I never consciously processed before. And in a wonderfully perverse reverse, the viewing experience augmented my appreciation for color in the “real” world. The flowers and sky outside looked so much more vibrant, and even such mundane attractions as an Amish market offered eerie eye candy.
Now to the film itself, which never dates and always fascinates. After what seems like a near-eternity since its American premiere in the summer of 1976, I conclude that there has never been a film like it. It takes so many chances and uses such bold strokes to do what most directors would shrink from even attempting. The Man Who Fell to Earth impressed at least two esteemed science-fiction legends. Philip K. Dick loved the film and used its subsidiary theme of interplanetary signals as an inspiration for his 1981 novel VALIS. J.G. Ballard called it “a brave failure" but was impressed by its "mix of elegant photography and fashionable dislocations.”
But the more I watch it, the more I feel this is director Nicolas Roeg’s greatest success, the film where he was truly in control of the message that haunts his best films: that we crave emotional ties but usually – even after what seems like a stupendous relationship -- end up removed and alone. Okay, it sounds depressing, but Roeg’s talent is his knack for conveying existential nightmares as less of a curse and more the stuff of visual and intellectual allure. By the time Roeg was ready to film The Man Who Fell to Earth, he knew this was not going to really be a science-fiction movie.
Walter Tevis’ novel (and to some extent Paul Mayersberg’s early drafts of the screenplay) fit more into the comfortable associations most viewers identify with space aliens who use their advanced technology to either play havoc with Earth (Mars Attacks!) or advise our planet to clean up its act (The Day the Earth Stood Still). But as any sensitive viewer who has seen the film at least once (my suggestion is to watch it at least five times before judging it), The Man Who Fell to Earth’s biggest alien/loner is not Thomas Jerome Newton (played by an equally alienated David Bowie), but the quietly desperate viewer who expects a tightening of loose narrative threads that Roeg purposely allows to fray.
The mere shell of the story is often illogical and even trite. SPOILER ALERT: A space alien (armed with a British passport) splashes down to Earth, arriving in New Mexico (the UFO-friendly home of Roswell). By selling a large supply of gold rings he presumably brings with him, he accumulates enough capital to employ an eccentric gay lawyer (played by Buck Henry) to patent an astounding innovation: self-developing film. After marketing the product, Newton forms a vast corporation and an fuel conservation program to help him return to his drought-stricken planet and the dying wife and children.
In the process, Newton finds the companionship of a working-class Southern gal (Candy Clark) and a womanizing college professor (Rip Torn) who leaves his stale job to join Newton’s firm. But Newton’s “romance’ with the Southern gal grows sour as he gets moody, and she fails to appreciate his ability to ejaculate through his pectorals. The professor makes overtures to be the alien’s friend but turns out to be a Judas figure who, from what we can gather, sells him out to a government-corporate cabal that sees Newton’s ascent as a threat to the status quo. Newton’s space mission gets aborted, the poor gay lawyer and his lover get snuffed, the professor and the Southern gal hitch up and grow old together, and the final reels involving Newton’s incarceration and his eventual (and mysterious) freedom are moments that are the most confusing yet invite the most speculation. By the close, the once-androgynous alien with the British accent looks more like a slobbering American drunk, his head hanging over his liquor as a big band version of “Stardust” plays in the background.
This spare synopsis hardly does the film justice – a problem that is really my point. The important parts of the film are what hover in between the plot lines. “My whole film crew was so puzzled by what I was doing,” Roeg reflected when I interviewed him in 1986 for my book Fragile Geometry, “and in a strange way, I think this helped the film. I wanted the story to be told through Newton’s mind, how his thoughts could wander through the past, then the future, or even some point in time that never existed, until we’re not sure where he is or where we are… If you’ll notice, the most interesting time reference in the film is the fact that Newton’s camera innovation was only about five years ahead of our own technology. Today, self-developing film is nothing new. That’s the ruse.”
That “ruse” goes back to the 1966 film Fahrenheit 451, which I think its cinematographer Roeg really directed (even though Francois Truffaut gets the credit). Here, the "future" world uses straight razors and throws out the electric ones, subverting shopworn yarns that equate chronology with progress. Seeing past such ruses frees viewers to get to the film’s core. In Fahrenheit 451, the governmental banning of books leads to emotionally fractured people who can barely kiss. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, those feelings linger.
It's a human-as-alien story about nostalgia, and any attempt to make it science-fiction is futile because Roeg fills it with too many narrative booby traps, protecting audiences from getting snared inside of a "genre." “What drew me to The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Roeg continued, “is a real story that happened to a friend of mine who was with the Egyptian army. He had a nice family and was well situated, but he had to leave Egypt after Farouk was overthrown and everything changed. He went to America and had to leave his wife and children behind.” That theme of loneliness and nostalgia permeates the film.
Oddly, of all the Roeg films deploying alienation techniques, this alien epic is the director’s most human work. The woozy, confounded, and sometimes irate reactions that audiences had at its American premiere in the summer of 1976 were also part of Roeg’s ultimate design. The film could be an elaborate variation on a lost soul wishing for a long ago and far away paradise.
It could also be another yarn about an Englishman abroad. At times, Newton evokes the Dennis Barlow character from Tony Richardson’s film of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Roeg even has that film’s co-screenwriter Terry Southern appear in a cameo. Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita also haunts the screen; or more precisely, the bric-a-brac fortress of solitude where Humbert’s nemesis Clare Quilty resides in Stanley Kubrick’s film version resembles the rooms (even down to the ping-pong table) that Newton’s conspirators devise to imprison him.
Perhaps the film’s most telling ruse is the intentional date stamp with which Roeg begins and ends a story that appears to transpire over several decades. Shooting took place around the summer of 1975, and there are a couple of details that reveal this. In the beginning, when Newton makes his first visit to the patent lawyer, the 1976 Bicentennial flag hangs from a building that Newton sees from a New York skyscraper window. Near the film's end, the professor (who’s aged about thirty years while Newton stays relatively young) goes into a music shop to listen to a record that Newton inexplicably records as a last-ditch interplanetary message. There, Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans is prominently displayed, the records are only $4.66 apiece, and the medium is still the 33 1/3 vinyl LP. Even the young people in the store look as if they just stepped out of a 1975 college yearbook.
Is this a retrofitted future? Are we back to the era of the “antiquated sound equipment” that Newton chides Oliver Farnsworth for possessing when they meet for the first time? “We hear most everything on the radio these days,” Nathan Bryce says at the end of the film, once he tracks Newton down and finds out the alien uses that quainter alternative to television to communicate with his wife.
Or perhaps the evil cabal that conspires against Newton proves successful after its head CEO makes this contradictory statement: “This is modern America, and we’re going to keep it that way.” In any other movie, these discrepancies would be ludicrous gaffes. But here, they make perfect sense since Roeg intends to let the tale unfold (or in this case twist and knot) with spasms of ambiguous and/or subjective time. This is what makes the film so special: the more confusing, the more fun the watching.
Posted by Joseph Lanza at 10:30 PM