Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Classics Revisited: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Directed by: Nicolas Roeg.
Written by: Paul Mayersberg based on the novel by Walter Tevis.
Starring: David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth), Bernie Casey (Peters), Jackson D. Kane (Professor Canutti), Rick Riccardo (Trevor), Tony Mascia (Arthur), Linda Hutton (Elaine), Hilary Holland (Jill), Adrienne Larussa (Helen), Lilybelle Crawford (Jewelery Store Owner), Richard Breeding (Receptionist), Albert Nelson (Waiter), Peter Prouse (Peters' Associate), Jim Lovell (Himself (Commander of Apollo 13).

When I first watched Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in my high school – and then college – days, I found the film to be rather thrillingly ambiguous. Here was a different kind of alien movie – one where the alien wasn’t here to either help or destroy humanity – but rather for his own purposes, that the movie only barely bothers to explain in its final act. It was also rather daring that in the end, the alien ultimately fails – his weakness for the human vices he develops is ultimately his undoing. I didn’t fully understand the movie – I didn’t really understand it at all if I’m being honest – but I liked it. It was visually amazing, and had an odd performance by David Bowie at its core – and if there was ever a rock star born to play an alien, it was Bowie in the 1970s. However, watching the film for the first time in about 10 years again, I’m no longer sure I would describe the film as thrillingly ambiguous – I may be more inclined to call it borderline incoherent. What once struck me as daring choices that served to deepen the films mysteries, now strikes me as some rather shoddy storytelling. I always knew I didn’t fully comprehend the film – and now I think I know why – no one fully comprehends it, not even the filmmakers. I do not demand that a film necessarily wrap up all its mysteries – I don’t need someone to solve David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. or Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color for me as examples. But the storytelling in both of those movies is so confident that I feel at least Lynch and Carruth could fully explain them if there were so inclined (they aren’t). I’m not sure you can say the same thing with The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) arrives in America with a British passport, and 9 basic patents that will revolutionize earth’s technology, although what these are is left pretty vague (some akin to digital photography is one of them though). All he really wants to do with them is make money – a lot of money – and quickly. He hires a lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to be the head of his company – to run the business end of things while he does, well, I’m not quite sure actually. All he really seems to do is hang out with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) – who introduces him to earthbound sex, and the joys of alcohol and TV. Meanwhile, a former college professor, Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) – a notorious womanizer, leaves his position in Academia and comes to work for Newton’s company (doing what, again, I’m not sure). He begins to suspect that something is not quite right about Newton – and will eventually “catch” him as an alien. This leads to Newton revealing himself to Mary Lou – which does not go well, and leads to his eventual imprisonment. Throughout the movie, we are treated to flashbacks to Newton’s home planet – a dry, desolate desert, and shots of his family – a wife and two kids. He’s on earth to try and save his planet – and his family – and he gets close to being able to return to them before he is captured, and imprisoned inside a luxury hotel, where he undergoes medical tests and is plied with alcohol.

I don’t think The Man Who Fell to Earth makes a whole lot of sense if I’m being honest with you. It seems like director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg skipped over some fairly important scenes and explanatory passages because they didn’t much interest them. What they were interested in was creating strange imagery and an overall surreal tone in the film – and in that they undoubtedly succeed. Bowie is great as Newton, because he really does seem to be otherworldly, even before he “reveals” his true self. It’s more of his mere presence than his performance that makes it work. Candy Clark is quite good as Mary-Lou – a lonely, somewhat pathetic woman who grasps onto Newton tightly, but never quite realizes something is wrong with him.

In terms of plot, The Man Who Fell to Earth asks the audience to connect the dots – but I don’t think it gives you all the dots to connect. Look at the plot description on Wikipedia (which I looked at to ensure that what I thought happened did in fact happen) and you’ll find lines like “However, just before his scheduled take-off, he is seized and detained, apparently by the government and a rival company; his business partner, Farnsworth, is murdered. The government, which has apparently been told by Bryce that Newton is an alien, holds him captive in a locked luxury apartment, constructed deep within a hotel.” (Emphasis, mine). That’s two “apparentlys” in the span of three lines – and no one has bothered to correct it on Wikipedia, probably because they cannot really argue with it – the movie never does really explain who imprisons Newton, why or how they knew about him in the first place. When later, he finds that his prison has become rundown, and is now unlocked, and he’s free to walk away, that’s never explained either. In the final scenes, where Newton is now free and apparently still rich, we never find out how he was able to keep his money. Perhaps these are the kind of dull, boring explanatory scenes that often drag down a movie – but without them (and this is just a few examples) – I couldn’t help but think that the movie doesn’t really make any sense. It’s not ambiguous as much as it’s vague and undefined – which are two different things.

When I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth years ago, I loved it. It seemed daring and different, and I didn’t much care that it didn’t make sense. It’s still daring and different – but I care a little bit more that it never really comes together and that it doesn’t make any sense. I still think it’s a good movie – if for no other reason than because I think we can all agree that a film like this could never be made today – at least not in any mainstream way. If it were made today, it would be by someone like Shane Carruth, working outside the system, where the demands aren’t as rigorous, and people are more willing to take risks. Make no mistake, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a risky film. It’s an interesting film in how it depicts American culture, collapsing under the weight of all its vices, and a pessimistic view of humanity. I admire the film as much now as I did when I first saw it. I just don’t like it as much.

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