Only in the 70s: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
FOR THIS instalment of Only in the 70s, Truan puts on his finest analyst’s glasses, dusts off his snob cap and tries to determine what the fuck is going on with David Bowie.
In Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie is an alien from a planet suffering from a terrible drought who has come to earth, under the pseudonym of Newton (geddit?) in order to procure a source of water for his starving planet. It seems a straight enough synopsis, but Roeg somehow manages to extrapolate Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel into a story more impenetrable than Linklater’s Waking Life and more baffling than Lynch’s Lost Highway.
This is not to say The Man Who Fell to Earth is a terrible or meritless watch by any means; it lists some captivating performances and imagery, and its subdued, surreal tone prevent it from sinking to the level of the camp or ridiculous. Since its Blu-ray re-release in 2011, the film has received some renewed praise as an ‘absorbing and beautiful’ independent cult classic. Personally, I’m a bit more reserved about it. Roeg’s clear ambition is belied by an extremely disjointed narrative and an impulse to make the film so ambiguous as to verge on being innocuous.
Nor is The Man… as gripping as one might hope from a film promising David sodding Bowie as an alien. It has its moments, to be sure, (my personal favourite being the one where Bowie loses his shit with a tray of cookies for some reason), but generally the tone is slow, thoughtful and considered. Once Roeg begins to reveal a few sparse plot-points it becomes far easier to get invested in the film, but in many ways it’s too little, too late.
The film is at least remarkable for its complete lack of temporal structure, with no verbal reference to time or place occurring. Apparently, this was Roeg’s express intention: “To push the structure of film grammar into a different area by taking away the crutch of time which the audience holds onto.” The problem being that, where one might reasonably expect the central turmoil of Newton’s race against time to save his starving people to preside, they instead only appear as figments in Newton’s imagination that he has perhaps long given up hope of saving, and it is very hard to care about the placid-faced aliens in shrink-wrap who turn up periodically in Newton’s visions like a fever dream.
We’ve no idea how long they have left or how long Newton’s been working to save them. This creates an effective sense of dysmorphia in the latter half of the film as Newton grows more and more despondent, more a slave to alcoholism and self-gratification, but it nevertheless makes the film’s narrative structure almost as flimsy the furry garden shed which we’re supposed to believe carried Newton across the universe.
For the first hour or so of the film, viewers will not only be mystified by Newton’s motivations, but will struggle to comprehend what is going on in general. As the narrative cuts between Newton doing… science? And business? At various times, in various places, eliciting the aid of erstwhile patenter Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to help make his inventions (whatever they are) marketable and sercure the enormous amount of funds Nelson’ll need to achieve his operative goal of bringing aid to his desperate planet and family.
Meanwhile, the self-asserted “cliched cynical scientist” Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) – who devotes his time to sleeping with his students in awkwardly protracted sex scenes – assumes an unspecified role in Newton’s organisation and gains his trust. Torn effectively acts as the conduit through which the evasive Newton interacts with the human scientific psyche, and as such his character is largely a placeholder, whose scenes play second-fiddle to Newton’s real human confidante Mary-Lou (Candy Clark).
You’ve got to commend Clark. She’s surely got one of the most thankless roles in cinematic history in Mary-Lou: a lonely, deprived and more-than-a-little crazed maid at the hotel Newton sets up shop in, who quickly forms a fascination and one-sided passion for the emotionally unresponsive Newton. Although hardly a flattering character, Clark is brilliantly believable as the obsessive and needy Mary-Lou, desperate for affection from a man she knows she knows nothing about, horrified and enticed in equal measure at the thought of what she might discover about him. She imposes herself along with her twin pre-occupations of hard drinking and television as a means of making him stay, eventually robbing him of the drive to save his old world.
Throughout the film, Roeg clearly gets the best out his actors, particularly Bowie and Clark, crafting a believably one-sided relationship between the obsessive Mary-Lou and the initially impassive, yet increasingly debauched Newton. However, it’s hard to feel as if his style is not exploitative at times, particularly in regards to Clark, as she has seldom a scene where she’s not obliged to strip off.
Sexuality is obviously a huge part of the characters’ individual drives and it rarely comes across as gratuitous, but Roeg tends to linger extensively on pretty explicit sex scenes which don’t always lead anywhere apparent. I suppose at least no-one could accuse Roeg of not being equal opportunities with his full-frontal nudity.
Unsurprisingly, the best thing about The Man… is Bowie himself, who captivates throughout a plot that often slows to a snail’s pace. He’s eerily effective in evoking an otherworldly and simply alien quality which successfully resonates where the film might otherwise have lost its audience with the sheer preposterousness of some of Roeg’s action.
Though throughout filming Bowie remained heavily addicted to cocaine, the physicality and emotion he brings to the role are palpable. Where the emotively-challenged Newton could’ve easily come across as robotic and dull, Bowie’s interpretation seems uncomfortable in his own skin; he can make the script’s most innocuous lines seem somehow profound, like Newton’s response to Mary-Lou: “Your children… what are they like?” Newton: “They’re like children. They’re exactly like children.’ Despite his gaunt appearance, Bowie actually had to gain a stone to play the role of Newton, taking himself up to nine stone from the mere eight he’d managed during the Diamond Dogs tour the previous year.
For me, it’s a real shame that The Man Who Fell to Earth is the confusing mess that it is, not least of all since this was the first major British picture to ever be produced across the pond. Bowie puts in an enthralling performance as the visitor from the stars, a role he was born to play; the film has strong, evocative themes in the literal, as well as figurative, alienation with which Nelson is constantly surrounded.
Roeg’s contemplative and insightful style, with its power for communicating through imagery the emotional responses left unstated by the characters themselves, had worked beautifully in his previous production Don’t Look Now (1973), one of my personal favourite films. But here, however, it feels like Roeg literally lost the plot. There are too many intangibles and loose ends for The Man… to be the satisfying watch you can normally expect from Roeg.
There’s nothing to say that morally ambiguous and inconclusive narratives can’t work in film; in fact, they make up many of the greats. Aguirre, Wrath of God (72) has a similar, horrifically sloppy structure, with hardly any of the plot or the protagonist’s ambitions, being revealed till the literal last minute, yet it still excels through stylisation and tone. But where Herzog evidently knew what effect he was trying to create with Aguirre, I’m not convinced that Roeg aimed for anything beyond ambivalence.
In his own press release for the film he essentially admitted he was asking his audience to build their own narrative with his piecemeal materials:
“I wanted to have a sign at the front of each cinema which said: ‘All those who enter here, please come with an open mind. Don’t expect it [the film] to come together in the way in which you are familiar, it is a different kind of animal and it breaks new ground.'”
If nothing else, The Man Who Fell to Earth could very well be regarded as an excellent microcosm of all things 70s: it’s heavily sensualised without being purely tasteless; it has an almost childish fascination with large and ill-explained mechanics and energy principles; bright glaring colours and fashions are all the rage and everybody, literally everybody, drinks like a fish. There’s also no denying the impact the film would have on Bowie’s later career, directly inspiring his Thin White Duke period, with many shots from the film being used on future records like Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977).