Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1975]

If ever there was a man born to play an alien it was David Bowie.

Roeg cast Bowie whilst The Thin White Duke was at the height of his cocaine addiction: deathly thin, red shock of hair and living on a diet purportedly consisting only of glasses of milk. Bowie is as much a character in the film as 'Thomas Newton'. He was a celebrity androgyne who seemed separate to the overwhelming excess of the 70s modern world, but was actually wholly part of it. The same is true of Newton, the alien who falls to Earth, exuding naivety and innocence, yet strangely knowledgeable and intent on corporate conquest.

There is no escaping how strange this film is: it raise more questions than it answers. Newton's plans for space travel seem to peter out, the motives of his business enemies remains vague, the parallel lives of Newton and the scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) never quite converge. Instead the alien images of Earth seem to offer some sort of explanation - but what? Roeg, ever the exquisite photographer, gives us moonscape deserts, washed out slag heaps and clinical interiors; all scenes of extra-terrestrial life, yet situated here on Earth.

The story is slim: Bowie's alien is on a mission to acquire water for his drought ravaged home planet. He has learned of Earth through intercepting our TV transmissions. He arrives with money and knowledge of exactly how to set up a corporate monopoly on scientific advances only he knows of. Rip Torn is a womanising academic who's life seems connected to the fortunes of Newton. Along the way Newton is distracted and corrupted by drink, women, TV (lots of it), guns, and money.

Was the film meant to be shallow? Perhaps. The synopsis above is quite a spoiler, yet it is 3 sentences long. At times it is like the most tongue in cheek moments in a Godard film: the Americans are very American, so much so that the film seems like a pastiche or attack on American cultural vandalism. The TVs, the adverts, the greed, drink and fast food: We are all Americans now. But we knew that already.

The films seems to disintegrate at the end after so many orgies, moments of hysteria and strange sex scenes. Did anyone in a Nicholas Roeg film ever actually fuck? If you were confused by the bizarre elbow-chewing wrestling match Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie performed in Don't Look Now then you ain't seen nothin' yet.

I apologise if this makes little sense. The film is so odd, so compelling, it can only be approached elliptically. At the end you kind of feel like Newton, confronted with a series of images bombarding you, yet you remain impassive and strangely compelled. Could Bowie have managed such impassivity without the numbing effects of coke? Who cares. Its a great film. Watch it. I'm going to listen to Station to Station.

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