I must have seen ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ a hundred times or more, as it was a significant influence on many of my generation. The many themes of this excellent film include love, betrayal, cynicism and loss. The story is based on Walter Tevis’s novel (scripted by Paul Mayersberg) about a solitary alien, who comes to earth in search of water. Thomas Jerome Newton arrives in 70s America and uses his advanced technical knowledge to become rich and powerful; it seems with the intention to helping his home planet. Incidentally, he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clarke) whilst hiding out, somewhere in the South West. She provides the normality Newton craves, and her honest love for him counterpoints the hypocrisy and Kafkaesque environment into which he is eventually falls; an obvious double play on the title.
Nicholas Roeg was at the height if his power when he made this film. And casting Bowie (in transition from LA to West Berlin) was a masterstroke. He initially thought of Peter O’ Toole for the role of Newton, but Bowie’s clipped and neat Englishness is perfect against the kitsch backdrop of 70s America in which the film is set. Bowie’s appearance, as well as the emphasis on things Japanese, and a European minimalism, captures the essential otherness of Newton; somewhere between alien, ascetic and eccentric. A lost figure, who despite gaining the world, was ultimately powerless as to his own fate.
The idea of the alien had of course been with Bowie for several years by then. This had taken the more obvious form of the visitor; an alien saviour in the form of Ziggy Stardust. By the time of this film however, Bowie was suffering a coke induced meltdown that had him becoming more preoccupied with the concept of mental fracture, a feature of his next few albums.
The story has been seen as an allegory of the descent into alcoholism, and alcohol indeed affects Newton, adding another layer of meaning and possible interpretation to the story. As has been said many times before, The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is a science fiction film without any science. And indeed, the focus is on the poetry of relationships, landscapes and places. The fundamental mysteries are evoked through Newton’s eyes, as he sees the strangest of worlds around him. One of the beauties of this film is in its capacity to imply and suggest, never needing to explain. Conclusions are left to the viewer.
In general, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ is well cast. Also, the look and feel of the film; from its location, props and wardrobe, through to its editing and soundtrack, are spot on. At the time, there was talk of Bowie doing the soundtrack. In the film, Newton makes a record called ‘The Visitor’. Charles Shaar Murray later asked the question; is this record ‘StationToStation’, ‘Low’ or the mysterious ‘Soundtrack’ ?
Many of Roeg’s trademark signatures are present in this film. The connection between graphic sex and death, as well as the echoing of details and mixed time frames. He also cleverly intersperses TV and film narratives to echo the character’s inner feelings and thoughts. We see the absurdity of Television through the untainted eyes of the alien; as Newton says ‘the thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you life on earth, but the true mysteries remain…. just waves in space’.
Combine that idea with Roeg’s focus on poetic phenomena in nature. Indeed, as much as this film is about mid 70s America, it is also a homage to the landscape of the American South West. The panoramic shots are perfect to place and frame the isolation of Bowie’s Newton. In Alan Yentob’s brilliant document of Bowie at that time called ‘Cracked Actor’, there’s a famous moment (in the same limo as the one used in the film) where DB muses on being amid the strangeness of Americana, and suddenly notices a fly in the carton of milk he’s drinking. He’s sees the fly soaking up all the milk around it as similar to his own assimilation of American culture. David Bowie himself took a great deal away from this film. The character, look and feel of Newton were so pervasive for several years after, that he graced the covers of his two subsequent albums ‘StationToStation’ and ‘Low’ (1976 and 77 respectively).
This restored version of the film irons out some of the smaller editing errors from the original cut, and looks spectacular. However, the quieter colour has resulted in at least one loss; a change in atmosphere in certain places. For example, at the beginning of the film, when Newton lies down and the passing of time is implied by the cutting together of two different film stocks. This originally added an extra layer of temporal displacement and mystery. But I quibble, as a fan.
Finally, within this serious and enigmatic film, there is also a great amount of humour. One gem of a moment occurs when Mary Lou talks with great emotion about God and the idea of life off the earth to a disinterested Newton. He initially says nothing, but his expressions are hilarious. Finally, straight faced and after thinking, he changes the poignant moment, replying ‘They’re so strange here, the trains’.
(C) Gideon Hall 2012 (Originally published in ‘Femalearts’ Magazine)