Part 12: Feeling gravity’s pull
“Think of him, classically, as a magus, both a magician and a juggler,” Jay Cocks wrote of Nicolas Roeg in a 1976 issue of Time. “Roeg is a filmmaker interested not only in working spells, but in finding new connections between themes and images, keeping ideas spinning in the air like small silver balls, letting them fall in patterns that seem random but are, in fact, precise.” As rich as that description is, it’s the opening of a review that suggests Roeg’s contemporaneous film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, fell short of his previous work—or, more accurately, took the whole magician/juggler business further than it should. Cocks’ adulatory description of Roeg’s technique wasn’t the only lofty talk surrounding the director at the time, however, nor the only suggestion that he might have tried to push his latest film further than people were ready to follow.
Roeg was coming off Performance (co-directed by Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don’t Look Now, all radically inventive efforts that brought an experimental edge to narrative films. A great cinematographer before he became a director, Roeg filled each film with remarkable visuals, but it was his approach to editing that set them apart. Roeg made time fluid and unpredictable, but always toward lyrical ends. Don’t Look Now famously cuts between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s characters feverishly making love, and a more sedate aftermath that suggests their passion won’t be enough to get them through the crisis at hand. Walkabout ends with a quietly devastating flash-forward. In a 1976 interview with The New York Times in 1976, Roeg speaks of “taking away the crutch of time, which the audience usually holds onto” referring to The Man Who Fell To Earth as “rather like a lifetime which goes in fits and starts. At the end of people’s lives, it is difficult to find what the actual story is.”
Roeg sounds upbeat talking about the film itself, but otherwise, it isn’t a particularly happy interview. Roeg watched helplessly as Donald Rugoff, The Man Who Fell To Earth’s American distributor, recut the film, trimming it by 20 minutes, partially under the influence of a test screening for Dartmouth students and the input of a Colorado psychiatry professor/film buff. Yet Rugoff considered even this bowdlerized version an iffy proposition, and per the Times, he “considered adding a prologue asking [audiences] for their indulgence.” The full version has been restored in current home-video versions, but it’s hard to see how anyone could think a few trims, even major cuts, could make The Man Who Fell To Earth any less of an enigma.
The film opens with a man (David Bowie) walking down a desolate hillside. It ends with him nursing a drink at an outdoor cafe. The man, who gives his name as Thomas Jerome Newton, looks like he hasn’t aged a minute from the opening, yet all the other characters in the film have grown visibly older, sometimes seemingly advancing by decades from one scene to the next. The years, however, seem to have stayed in place. The film opens and closes in an America conspicuous in its 1970sness from the first scene to the last.
One example of many: Newton makes a fortune introducing new inventions to the market, including an audio device that supplants the conventional stereo and replaces records with metallic orbs. Yet when Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) goes shopping for music late in the film, he visits a store filled with records, including Young Americans, Bowie’s then-current album, sporting a cover where Bowie appears much has he does in the film. Newton’s inventions have, as characters emphasize repeatedly, reshaped the world. Yet the world looks much the same.
Though Man Who Fell To Earth was Roeg’s most expensive film to date, his financial limitations might account for some of this. But this slipperiness is too persistent, and too foregrounded, to be the result of accidents, laziness, or budget restrictions. In fact, it’s in keeping with an element of the film that’s set up in the opening scene. As Newton descends the hill, a man dressed in a suit watches his progress. With the help of lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), Newton spends the film building an empire that upsets the status quo in photography, communication, and seemingly every other aspect of modern life, with the ultimate goal of sending himself into space. At the last minute, that aim is disrupted by unnamed agents of the government, big business, or both. Poised to travel to the stars, Newton almost makes it. But, in truth, he was never going to. The men in suits and the powers behind him had other plans from the start. Roeg takes a moment to flash back to that moment on the hillside, and the image of Newton being watched, as Newton’s plans start to unravel, and time becomes a noose that’s been waiting to tighten since the film began.
His unmaking goes back even further, all the way to the title, and the novel that inspired the film. In time, Newton, while living the life of a Howard Hughes-like recluse, reveals himself to a few around him as an alien, a refugee from a drought-stricken planet who achieves his human appearance by covering up his cat-like eyes and sexless body. He’s literally a man who fell to earth, if “man” is the right word. Roeg has suggested it’s possible to read all the cutaways to life on Newton’s home planet and images of his strange biology as a delusion. It takes some mental acrobatics to do this, but then, the film doesn’t really lend itself to any reading that doesn’t contradict itself in some way or other. The 1963 Walter Tevis novel from which Roeg and writer Paul Mayersberg adapted the film is much clearer on this point, even if it’s more explicitly grounded on Earth. Unambiguously an alien, the novel’s Newton finds his unearthly genius undone by the forces of the government, but also his own weaknesses, primarily for alcohol. Tevis is otherwise best known for writing The Hustler, and in some respects, he told the same story twice: one of young promise clashing with entrenched power and earthly distractions. Newton changes the world, but then it absorbs him.
That’s one strand at work in Roeg’s film, but only one. Others threaten to push it out of the way as the movie’s vision expands. In one sequence, Newton and Mary Lou (Candy Clark) ride through the countryside to the accompaniment of “Try To Remember” from the musical The Fantasticks, as Newton flashes to images of life on his once-grassy home planet, a verdant watercolor painting, his alien family walking through a desert, a train-like alien craft, then back to Earth, where Mary Lou goes on about her childhood love of trains, and how riding trains isn’t what it used to be. Time destroys everything except what memory preserves. Unless, that is, nothing gets destroyed. This is followed by another scene of the couple riding through the countryside, and Mary Lou’s appearance suggests some time has passed. As they ride, Newton sees through time to the pioneers who once lived where they’re now traveling. They seem to see him, too, then they vanish from his view and they from his. Yet for that moment, time has ceased to become a barrier. The movie slips right through it.
In hallucinatory moments like these, The Man Who Fell To Earth seems on the verge of slipping away from the restraints of film, or at least the sort of film that plays in theaters between the releases of The Bad News Bears and The Omen. Roeg keeps getting distracted by sidetracks, spending a lot of time with Bryce’s sex life early on, then lingering later in the film on the home life of Peters (Bernie Casey), one of Newton’s antagonists. He’s a character of no great consequence, yet he gets both a sex scene and a moment where he asks his wife, “I wonder if we do and say the right things?” It’s as if the movie forgets who the hero is supposed to be, and wanders off to watch what’s going on from the sidelines.
Yet the digressions make the film more powerful than any straightforward telling could possibly be, as the seeming jumble of images and ideas land in, as Cocks suggested, a meaningful arrangement. Bryce beds college girls, but thinks of his ex-wife and children living in another city. Newton yearns for a family far away. Peters puts his kids to bed and frets over whether he and his wife are living as they ought to live. One rhyme follows another.
The Man Who Fell To Earth finds other sorts of connections simply by casting Bowie in the lead. It was Bowie’s first starring film role, but hardly his first experience acting. Bowie studied theater under Lindsay Kemp, a famed actor and mime artist who also taught Kate Bush, and brought a sense of theatricality to his music career, both onstage and off. At the height of his fame, Bowie never seemed less comfortable than when he was required to be “David Bowie,” as evidenced in painful appearances with Dick Cavett and Dinah Shore. Onstage, however, was another matter, and the first decade of his career saw him shifting from art-rocker to glammy space alien to rock ’n’ roll djinn to blue-eyed soul singer, yet the transformations looked more like evolution than calculation. Who Bowie was could change from month to month, even day to day, and that constant metamorphosis became his defining trait, while also making him seem not quite human.
A year before the film’s release, Bowie made an appearance on Soul Train, a then-four-year-old music program that paired photogenic young dancers with stars lip-synching their current hits. Coming off the soul-drenched Young Americans, Bowie performed that album’s last single, “Fame,” and “Golden Years,” a hit that later appeared on his 1976 album Station To Station. By all reports finding the depths of a personality-warping addiction to cocaine, Bowie looks frail and nervous as he talks to host Don Cornelius in the interview segment about his upcoming film, the Nicolas Roeg-directed The Man Who Fell To Earth. “It’s a bit like a Howard Hughes story, but he’s sort of an alien. But he doesn’t look like an alien.” “And what part did you play in the film?,” Cornelius asks. “Those three!” Bowie replies, laughing nervously, then adding, “But he’s one person.”
From there, the brisk interview proceeds to talk of Bowie’s upcoming tour, leaving Bowie’s puzzling assertion that he’s playing “those three” after mentioning only one character hanging in the air. A year later, Bowie told Cameron Crowe in a Playboy interview, “I still don’t understand all the inflections Roeg put into the film. He’s of a certain artistic level that’s well above me.” Years later, talking to David Fear in Time Out New York, Roeg said of Bowie, “We really didn’t need to talk about the role at all; he was the part the moment he stepped on to the set,” continuing, “He kept himself separate to the point that others started to think of him as this mysterious ‘other,’ you know? So much of that performance is simply Bowie being himself—and that’s what's so brilliant about it!”
Though Roeg considered both Peter O’Toole and Michael Crichton for the part of Newton (the latter because of his extreme height), it was the role Bowie had been rehearsing for for years, in one way or another, whether he was creating the alien-messiah character of Ziggy Stardust or presenting his bisexuality as both an act of defiance and a threat to the status quo. Whether he thought he was playing one role or three, or ever felt like he understood what Roeg was up to, his sense of remove and obvious frailty work for the role.
He had a hard time shaking the role. Plans fell through for Bowie to provide the soundtrack for the film, but both Station To Station and its follow-up—Low, the first installment of Bowie’s three-album collaboration with Brian Eno—arrived with images from the film on their covers, and a sense of alien remove to their sound. The role followed Bowie to unexpected places, too. Philip K. Dick’s 1981 novel VALIS takes its name, in part, from a fictional equivalent of The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is written by and starring Dick’s stand-in for Bowie, rock star Eric Lampton. Dick had long explored themes at the heart of The Man Who Fell To Earth—the slipperiness of time, inhuman beings that force a consideration of humanity’s definition—so it’s little wonder Roeg’s movie got swept up into the writer’s later-life personal cosmology, which was defined by a search for signs and wonders following a mystical experience in the early 1970s. Accordingly, the film in VALIS concerns a new messiah’s arrival on Earth, which is apparent to those who know where to look.
Others, it just baffles, much like the Roeg film that inspired it. In another New York Times article, Vincent Canby lumps The Man Who Fell To Earth in with The Missouri Breaks and Mother, Jugs, And Speed in a list of June flops, although the film enjoyed worldwide financial success. Like Cocks, he mixes admiring words with warnings that Roeg has gone too far this time:
At its best moments, The Man Who Fell To Earth has the cool, no-nonsense clarity and direction of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s also funny in a way that refuses to pander to conventional expectations. But by having too much on its mind, it sometimes appears to have nothing.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote:
Here’s a film so preposterous and posturing, so filled with gaps of logic and continuity, that if it weren’t so solemn there’d be the temptation to laugh aloud. And yet, at the same time, this is a film filled with interesting ideas—it’s like a bunch of tentative sketches for a more assured film that was never made.
Those who embraced it, however, turned it into a cult classic (as Ebert acknowledged in a softer reassessment in 2011), and time has been kind to a movie at least in part about time’s deleterious effects. America eventually saw Roeg’s full cut of the film, and it’s since been embraced as one of the director’s best, and a key element of Bowie’s iconic status, as much as any of his albums. Yet while it was the fullest flowering of a certain kind of experimental, thoughtful, tripped-out science fiction that sprouted after 2001, it arrived near the end of the season that would have let it thrive. Within a year, Star Wars made science-fiction films more popular than ever, while also changing what audiences thought of when they thought of the genre. The Man Who Fell To Earth would look strange in any era, but after R2-D2, it looked positively, well, alien, the product of another time, even if that other time might be the future. This made it harder for those who saw science fiction as a place to pursue strange ideas—or at least those who didn’t know how to rework those ideas into the shape of effects-filled big-screen spectacle. But for a while, at least, some could chase them as far as they dared, leaving a trail for others to follow.
In the final scene of The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bryce tracks down Newton, who’s become a shadowy, half-forgotten figure after his foiled space journey and a subsequent imprisonment. He has, however, kept busy, recording and releasing an album under the name The Visitor, in hopes that it will be played on the radio, and someday reach the family he left behind. On Earth, it might just be another song on the radio, something to be played for a while and forgotten as tastes change. But those who knew how to listen could hear it for what it was. It’s this album that sends Bryce to the record store where Roeg doesn’t attempt to hide an ad for a David Bowie album, maybe even placing it in the frame deliberately. Bryce is wracked by guilt at his past betrayal of Newton, and upon finding him sitting outside, nursing a drink, looking ill, ageless, and beautiful, he can’t bring himself to lie. “Did you like it?” Newton asks. “Not much,” Bryce replies. “Well,” Newton says, “I didn’t make it for you, anyway.”
Next: Space sucks