The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
By Richard von Busack
Opens Sep 16: Miami Beach Cinematheque;
Opens Sep 28-29: the ACME Screening room, Lambertville, NJ;
Opens Sep 30: Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Austin; Belcourt Theatre, Nashville
Opens Oct 14: Kahala Theatre, Honolulu
Opens Oct 18: Avon Theatre, Stamford, Connecticut
Opens Oct 21: Athena Theater, Athens, Ohio
Opens Oct 27-28: Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; International Film Series-CU Boulder in Boulder, Colorado
Opens Nov 1: State Theater in Modesto, California
Opens Nov 5-6: Guild Cinema in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Opens Nov 9: Carolina Asheville in Asheville, North Carolina.
Opens Nov 25-27 at the Texas Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX
An alien comes to Earth to save his planet and ends up thoroughly probed. 1976 audiences stayed away from a cut version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, though it’s a midnight-movie favorite. Six years after, they showed up in droves for E.T., a 1982 feel-good fantasy of alien/human healing. This new rerelease, with director Nicolas Roeg’s full-frontal love scenes intact, shows how wrong the audiences were.
In uncut form, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a less tragic (some would say less soppy) film, more suggestive of a Christian allegory than a blatant religious fantasy. Today, it looks like the kind of film that was only possible in the 1970s.
And its concerns are far ahead of its time.
Who worried much about cataclysmic water shortages and sharing fluids in those days as opposed to today? (And the no-comment interracial and gay partnerships in the film also seem part of its genuine futurism.)
In the lead David Bowie is mesmeric. It wasn’t easy to believe him as a withered vampire (in Tony Scott’s occasionally sexy but terrible The Hunger). However there were many people at the time—and perhaps some today—who entertained reasonable doubt over whether Bowie was actually a terrestrial.
The Man in question arrives in New Mexico via interstellar flight. (Roeg uses stock footage of rocket stage separations to indicate it). He carries with him a rack of identical gold wedding rings, which he pawns to get a bankroll.
Then to New York to pose as the reclusive inventor “Newton”. With the help of an owlish patent lawyer (Buck Henry) he becomes a multi-millionaire thanks to several advanced technologies he brought with him from space.
“Newton” adds to his team a dissatisfied, promiscuous physics professor (Rip Torn) who has been sleeping with his students. (Caught at it, Torn gives the still-classic excuse: “I’m younger than most of these kids, they’re already middle-aged.”)
Now with his business whirring away, Newton can retreat back to the desert while he finances an interstellar ship. Like Ozymandius in The Watchmen, “Newton” likes to watch a dozen TVs at once.*
Soaking up TV rays, “Newton” starts to become a fan of melodrama: he watches the betrayal in The Third Man, the late-harvest emulation of Lubitsch’s cynicism in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon.But there’s something he hadn’t expected. He develops a kind of love for a maternal housekeeper named Mary Lou (Candy Clark). She introduces “Newton” to something earthlings really love: alcohol.
The San Francisco born source-novel author Walter Tevis had a drinking problem, and that’ll be no surprise to those watching the film’s last section: a riot of Bukowskian drunkeness and debauchery. Anticipating the closed-in fatalism of the ending of Sid and Nancy; part of the problem is the human sex “Newton” tries, but can’t really have. Quick inserts reveal how it’s done in his home world: a lot of balletic leaping and releasing of milt, which sounds a lot more ridiculous than it looks.
Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) was a cinematographer turned director whose visuals were essential to 1960s film (Lawrence of Arabia, Roger Corman’s Mask of the Red Death, and the 1967 Casino Royale). Roeg’s film is heavy on the mood and light on the logic; true sci-fi fans will get a little furious watching the scene where “Newton” tries to indicate where his planet is: “I’m not an astronomer, but it’s over there (pointing at the horizon).” The literalists may also have trouble with “Newton’s” sad human weakness: this interstellar traveler gets terrible vertigo in elevators.
Slim, sweet and drawling, Clark never topped her acting here. She’s always going to be better known as the imago in the blonde curly wig in American Graffiti. Yet Clark has everything here Stella Stevens had in her comedy roles and Shelley Winters had in her parts as a desperate, clinging woman. She plays the kind of cupcake that goes cloying on a man; Clark would have been a terrific Charlotte Haze in Lolita. “Are you married? I thought so…Am I like your wife? I thought not.”
It’s a planet-crossed romance, and the moment where Mary Lou learns “Newton” isn’t just alienated, but a genuine alien, is portrayed with great revulsion and terror…and yet it’s easy to see how this shock turns into salty drunken familiarity. She tempts him devilishly to stay on Earth, a planet that’s got everything an alien can want.
Bowie is dressed chicly in costumes by the late Ola Hudson, mother of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Slash. He is the pioneer of the late 70s avant-garde fashion, seen in the Davids Byrne and Lynch, of buttoned-to-the-top shirts without ties. His hair is hennaed to a radioactive orange hue. Roeg revealed a key to this film during a recent film festival appearance. According to him, “Newton” was prepared for his journey by the aliens who only knew of earth from TV. And they hadn’t got the earthling disguise quite right; perhaps that’s the reason for the violent hair color. (Bowie’s naturally mismatched eyes only help this role.)
While Pauline Kael thought of Man Who Fell to Earth as “a Little Prince for adults,” it’s not sticky like that; it’s far too Dionysian. Roeg relishes the messy way earthlings entertain themselves. And Bowie’s recessive, shyly Stan Laurel-like qualities yield to moments of vicious punky humor. Hear the way “Newton” curls some contempt around the word “visitor” when it’s being used as a pretty euphemism for “extra terrestrial”. Note his response to the question, “What are they like, your children?”: “They’re children. They’re exactly like children.”
The Man Who Fell To Earth has connecting tissue that’s missing, as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Malick and Roeg share certain story-telling trends, as contemporaries and mystics. They share a faith that audiences will connect the dots and understand the allusions: that they’ll understand time is passed if the actors suddenly show up in grey wigs (as opposed to throwing them a bone through a slow fade in or a title.)
The temporal shakiness throws viewers; but it fits the character, since “Newton” can apparently has visions into the past sometimes, it’s one of his gifts.
But the scenes of the governmento/corporato conspiracy against “Newton” are staged like afterthoughts, badly written and strangely justified. “Newton”’s home world Anathea is shot in New Mexico’s White Sands. There, he and his nuclear family pose in moisture suits with hoods, looking distressingly like the Teletubbies; there’s a commuter train waiting for him, an otherworldly trolley that is like a cob house with sails.
It’s all another example of how things that are commonplace to hack directors trip up the real visionaries. The kind of thing done with a few simple computer programs in 2011 could have made the alien world so that no one would have any serious questions about its alienness, or how “Newton” got here.
Roeg still made a gorgeous, strangely tender sci-fi films whose noir tendencies go beyond the soundtracks’ use of Artie Shaw’s “Stardust”; On screen, Bowie never did anything better than this portrait of an exile suffering a typical exile’s fate.
* For that matter, there’s a hideo-comic defenestration scene in which another character ‘falls to earth’, predicting the fate of The Comedian.