Bowie, rarely as effective again on screen, completely inhabits the role of the fallen angel, his otherworldly persona and physical frailty perfectly meshing with Newton’s own.
Following apprenticeships at various London film studios, Nicolas Roeg worked his way up to camera operator on, among others, Ken Hughes’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960) before gaining writing credits on Cliff Owen’s A Prize of Arms (1961) and Lawrence Huntington’s Death Drums along the River (1962). It was as a cinematographer that Roeg established his reputation as a distinctive cinematic visionary. Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Franí§ois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1965) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) all in some way looked forward to Roeg’s own visually and thematically arresting work as director, where colour was used to symbolic effect to probe taboo subjects and linearity was eschewed in favour of complex time leaps and splintered narratives.
Beginning with Performance (1968, co-directed by Donald Cammell), a tale of identity crisis set amid London’s late 60s criminal underworld and taking in Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Roeg became the leading light of British film, establishing a run of films that remains unparalleled in contemporary cinema. Frequently focusing on characters cut adrift from their usual moral and physical surroundings, Roeg seemed unstoppable until first Bad Timing (1980) and then Eureka (1983) ran into problems with their uncomprehending distributors. The director found himself at odds with an industry increasingly resistant to his pioneering vision and tendency to shine a light on areas of the human psyche many would prefer left darkened.
In more recent years, The Man Who Fell to Earth has arguably emerged as perhaps the director’s most characteristic and richly rewarding work. Adapted from the Walter Tevis novel by Paul Mayersberg (who would also script Eureka), it’s a film that takes pleasure in resisting categorisation, retaining the science fiction origins of its source material while heavily accentuating Tevis’s less overt allusions to capitalism, corporate power (the film remains the closest Roeg has come to any kind of political statement) and the alienating effects of contemporary American society. The first non-children’s film that I can ever actually remember seeing, it is a work that seemingly contains all the infinite possibilities of cinema (often in a single frame), and I return to it periodically for inspiration and stimulation. It is not and never has been universally loved. It was cautiously received at the time by critics, as so many of Roeg’s films were: Nigel Andrews, writing in The Financial Times, accused it of having ‘enough ideas for six different films; and far too many, in my opinion, for one’.
Initially favouring Peter O’Toole for the central role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to a fertile earth in order to save the inhabitants of his own dying planet, only to become marooned as a potent cocktail of sex (courtesy of Candy Clark), gin and television slowly take control, Roeg instead dipped once more into a pop star pool that had proved so effective with Mick Jagger and Performance. Roeg became convinced that David Bowie, the recent subject of a BBC Alan Yentob documentary charting a tour of America of equally irresistible and infinite temptation, was in fact his Newton. The financiers (the film was among the first ever British-financed movies to be made in the United States) failed to share the conviction, expressing their scepticism as to whether the singer could actually act. Roeg remained undaunted, exclaiming, ‘what do you think he’s doing when he gets up in front of 60,000 people to perform?’ Bowie, rarely as effective again on screen, completely inhabits the role of the fallen angel, his otherworldly persona and physical frailty perfectly meshing with Newton’s own.
Beginning with stock NASA footage of a space rocket leaving earth before cutting to a vessel - assumingly jettisoned from the rocket - crash-landing back to earth in a New Mexico lake, Roeg and Mayersberg frequently undercut the genre elements of their material (in fact they don’t seem especially interested in the novel at all) in favour of thematic juxtapositions and kaleidoscopic cross-cultural allusion. In one of the more overt, a randy college professor later seconded into Newton’s expanding business empire (the alien arrives on earth with a small stock of gold rings that he swaps for cash and with a number of futuristic product patents that will allow him to amass a fortune), Bryce (Rip Torn), is seen lingering over an image of Brueghel’s Icarus. The Man Who Fell to Earth also incorporates W.H. Auden’s contemplation of the Greek myth (‘the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on’), emphasising Roeg’s interest in the notion of watching and being watched.
When Newton takes his first tentative steps on earth he is observed by an unknown spectator, who will again later appear at the alien’s bedside once he has undergone a series of painful and incapacitating medical examinations. Newton himself turns voyeur. Initially using television to learn about his new planet and humankind through the medium’s multiple images and signals, he fashions a wall of television screens to which he ultimately becomes addicted. Television helps fuel Newton’s increasing paranoia, with Roeg and Mayersberg suggesting that the modern technological age of observation and endless consumerism is corrosive. There are elements of this also perhaps in the film’s incredibly prescient presentation of an increasingly global America nostalgic for its past (the music of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw and the flashbacks to sequences involving early pioneers, glimpsed by a weary Newton from his limousine), yet enthralled to the point of obsession by the notion of its future. The Man Who Fell to Earth concludes with a shot of the crown of Newton’s head, an image similar to that of Turner in Performance just before Chas puts a bullet through it, revealing a man utterly broken and adrift, who has undergone the process of becoming human only to discover, to his cost and that of his homeland, what a wilfully destructive race we are.
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