Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 15, 2016 6:33 pm 
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Marooned savior

The Man Who Fell to Earth is only partly a science fiction film. It's also a kind of Western, and a satire of Seventies America and capitalism; Nicolas Roeg is the alien, exploring Fenton Lake, Jemez Springs, Artesia, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, glimpsing gas stations, Japanese theater, and big American cars, taking a foreign peek at Manhattan skyscrapers. When we return to this film now (I actually saw it forty years ago but it had altered in my memory), we ourselves are aliens revisiting the Seventies, when a rich man might actually ride around in the back of a dark blue Lincoln Continental, an enormous, crude, but wonderful object, like the big white telephones with thick curly white wires the businessmen manipulate when doing deals in the film.

It's also, more than anything, really, a love story -- the strange affair of the skeletal, elegant young rock star alien with the British passport, Thomas Jerome Newton, "Tommy" (the late David Bowie) and the maid in the little Artesia, New Mexico hotel, Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a lonely, sweet, awkward girl who falls madly in love with this otherworldly, delicate creature (with the exquisite manners, and the distant manner) -- and then is horrified (and wets herself, a detail cut out of the shortened American original release) when she sees the yellow cat eyes under the fake lenses he wears.

He "fell" to earth, sliding down a hill beside an abandoned ramshackle mining building in the town of Madrid, New Mexico. He sells a ring in a town shop for twenty dollars -- inexplicably, since he has a thick roll of $100 bills. (Inexplicably but memorably, since one never forgets one's first acts on a new planet.) He has flown in with little more than jet lag from another galaxy, yet when he rides up two floors in an elevator operated in the hotel by Mary Lou, he gets a nosebleed and passes out. And touchingly, she picks him up in her arms and carries him to his room. He's that frail and insubstantial.

We know the premise. He brings a raft of high tech patents to a lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), through him founding a high tech company to raise billions so he can fund his return to his home planet dying for water and ferry in the few surviving inhabitants. He has come to Earth for water. But he becomes trapped, a marooned savior: he can never leave. There are other characters, notably scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a priapic academic who likes fucking eighteen-year-old girls but gives that up to join Newton's company, run largely by Farnsworth, while Newton leads a reclusive life, watching dozens of television screens at once (to the despair of Mary Lou) and gradually acquiring Mary Lou's enthusiasm for gin. It replaces water in his affections.

This is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, and those who have read that say it elucidates Roeg. But Roeg has made a film -- very much his kid of film. He is not interested in working out a story. He lets themes and characters percolate in uniquely cinematic ways, and likes to intercut two violent, unrelated scenes, even overlapping dialogue from The Third Man and parallel lines exchanged between Mary Lou and Tommy, and intercutting images of them making love when they first met and now, when she has grown blowzy, but he has not aged at all. Roeg revels in dissonance and dislocation, and enjoys trapping things in a loop, and is not entirely happy to move the action forward. He likes freezing time between flash-forwards and flashbacks in his film Don't Look Now. He likes having Chas (James Fox), the gangster, caught in the static world of Turner (Mick Jagger), the dissolute druggie, in Performance, his first film. It's extraordinary to think that the trippy, unique, fully formed Performance was Roeg's feature debut, and that his very next film was the haunting and memorable Walkabout, one of the most important films ever made about Australia.

But Roeg had had long experience working as a cameraman for the likes of George Cukor and David Lean before he started directing his own films in his early forties. He has a splendid, original visual sense, and his films are intensely cinematic. Nonetheless in person, four decades on, some of the visuals of The Man Who Fell to Earth are disappointingly ordinary. What isn't ordinary, and had turned out to be a more brilliant choice then he ever knew, is David Bowie. Bowie is strange and alien in spades. He has an immediate, intense presence, And he's strangely appealing. He's weird, but he's familiar-weird. And he has a delicacy and transparency that make you want to pick him up and take him to bed, the way Mary Lou does.

Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth both meander, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is too long. The American version may have been wrong to cut out some of the sexy or nasty bits, but there are repetitious scenes toward the end that merely show Roeg stalling because he doesn't want to end. Having Newton fall forward in a a drunken stupor so his broad-brimmed hat fills the end credits is a nice touch. It's not made clear why Newton starts getting drunk when at first alcohol didn't affect him. Roeg and his writer Paul Mayersberg haven't bothered fully working out these details from the novel. In his original review, Jonathan Rosenbaum elucidates the movie showing it actually does have a plot (he obliges with a very pedestrian summary), but argues Roeg's keeping it "only semi-comprehensible" is a good strategy to avoid the "banality" of the scenes being shuffled together. Rosenbaum is unkind and dismissive, but we can agree with him on this: that the one "consistently unimpeachable source of fascination in the movie is David Bowie’s extraterrestrial persona and performance: genuinely uncanny with his asexual ambiance, surreal red hair, chiseled features and underplayed reactions, he offers one of the eeriest screen presences since Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett."

Well. For this strange filmmaker who is Nicolas Roeg and this strange creature who is David Bowie, we make allowances. Especially now.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, 139 mins., opened 18 March 1976 in London, and ten days later in New York. It had a rerelease in June 2012 in the UK and in April 2015 in France. There is a two-disc DVD and Blu-ray Criterion Collection edition with audio commentary by Roeg, David Bowie and Buck Henry, interview with Mayersberg and Tevis, Candy Clark and Rip Torn, the text of the novel and two essays. But all this has gone out of printt -- unfortunately, since David Bowe's death 10 January 2016 in Manhattan has brought renewed interest in the film. It was shown for free along with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence at Lincoln Center, in NYC. Watched for $9 at a special showing at the Rialto Elmwood Theater in Berkeley, California, 15 Jan. It continues there through 21 Jan.


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