Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth

I stopped by the Landmark Lumiere last week to see The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The Man Who Fell To Earth starring David Bowie & Candy Clark; with Rip Torn & Buck Henry; directed by Nicolas Roeg; (1976)

Nicolas Roeg is a well known director despite a modest output. I saw his latest feature, Puffball (2007), at the 2008 Dead Channels.

Dead Channels was the festival former Indiefest programmer Bruce Fletcher tried for two year after he left Indiefest. I heard Bruce Fletcher was programming the Idaho Film Festival. Idaho? On the festival's website, Executive Director Lyle Banks states "In 2009 Bruce Fletcher and I made the decision to move the Film Festival to March to offer the festival a greater ability to attract films that are otherwise unavailable during other times of the year...It is necessary to announce the suspension of the film festival until our executive and leadership teams are reconstituted. Our plan is to have a team in place and ready to produce the festival for March 2012, and possibly a smaller showing in Boise in 2011." I notice Bruce's name is not among the staff listing. I also recall he was programming the Vortex Room too.

How did I get on this subject? I remember...Nicolas Roeg. Looking at his credits, I see that I'm unfamiliar with his films (at least when he is the director). There is Puffball which I was less than enthusiastic about (although I can remember it clearly 3 years later) and The Man Who Fell To Earth which I'm familiar with because I'm a modest fan of David Bowie's work. It makes me wonder how I'm familiar with Roeg's name.

The Man Who Fell To Earth pretty much says it all. David Bowie plays the alien who has come to earth in search of water to ship back to his drought-stricken home world. He uses his planet's superior technology to take out patents and create a powerful and successful tech company. His goal is to use the company to finance regular shipments of water and ultimately himself back to his planet. While on earth, he encounters various humans. There is Candy Clark as Mary Lou who becomes his girlfriend, Buck Adams as Farnsworth - his patent lawyer and eventually president of his tech firm and Rip Torn as Dr. Bryce, a bored and unethical college professor who comes to work for the firm. Bowie's character goes by the name Thomas Newton (from England).

The film follows Netwon's efforts and I noted a few things. First, television and alcohol are the ruin of Newton. Earth's television signals emanate into outer space and presumably that is how Newton came to choose Earth. Newton likes to watch TV with a dozen sets going at once. Although initially abstinent, close interaction with Mary Lou leads Newton to indulge in sex and alcohol to a destructive degree. I also noticed that Newton seems to hold Japanese culture in highest esteem.

Eventually, Newton's success and eccentricities (and perhaps Bryce's perfidy) attract the attention of a quasi-governmental agency which holds Newton captive and performs experiments on him. By this time, the effects of the alcohol and TV as well as extended absence from his family and home, have rendered Newton dysfunctional.

The plot definitely seems secondary to Roeg's innovative flare for visuals. A few scenes are inspirational. In one scene, Newton transforms from human to his natural state and Roeg frames the transformation with montage of water and human/bipedal forms in something closer to performance art than film. Towards the end of the film, in a scene I read was original censored out of the US release, Newton handles a large handgun before having sex with Mary Lou. The audience thinks he will shoot her but it turns out to be loaded with blanks and the scene moves to the surreal as darkness is punctuated by the flashes of the gun being discharged and their naked bodies writhing. Both scenes were enhanced with the musical soundtrack.

Speaking of naked bodies, I sometimes forget how provocative the 70s were. Rip Torn does the full monty despite having a middle-aged spread. In some well-simulated sex scenes, the audience discovers that Mr. Torn is circumcised. Far from gratuitous (although there were two comely actresses in the scenes), Torn's sexcapades were actually important to the development of Bryce's character.

At nearly 2 hours, 20 minutes, The Man Who Fell To Earth could have benefited from some edits. I scratched my head for certain characters. Bernie Casey shows up as a government agent, goes for a nude swim in his pool and then gets it on with his white wife. Farnsworth is gay for no particular reason and his death is comically absurd. The Man Who Fell To Earth has some personality and flavor which seemed de rigueur of films in the 70s and painfully absent from films today.

I can't give a blanket recommendation of the film or say I fully enjoyed The Man Who Fell To Earth but I'm glad I saw it and there is a lot to appreciate in the film. Roeg's skills as a director, the editing, the soundtrack and the performance of the main cast are all exemplary. Bowie's appearance can be startling which anyone who has seen Ziggy Stardust knows. At other times, the plot and film seem to take on affectations. Also, some of the special effects probably looked cheesy 35 years ago much less today. On the whole, I'm glad I saw The Man Who Fell To Earth and hold it up as an example of a certain type of film which is, unfortunately, no longer made. I'm also eager to see some of Roeg's other films.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth

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