Tag Archives: David Bowie

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , Buck Henry, Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

DAVID BOWIE: AN ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE

With news of ‘s passing, our review for Zelig (1983) will be pushed back to next week.

This excerpt from author Keith Banner’s blog 2 +2=5 gracefully expresses what the loss of David Bowie means: “Bowie was a weirdo that somehow found a way to make weirdness majestic, worth putting up with. Of course it’s January when David Bowie dies. Cold silvery light, frosted-hard glass, that sense of loss locking into place: roads, tree-branches, ditches, power-lines. He was silvery like that somehow, frosty; you didn’t know him, you just experienced his atmosphere. That’s exactly how I remember him. Just enough cold to make you shiver, just enough strangeness to make you feel scared, just enough glamor to make you understand, just enough video to freak you out. Once somebody like him goes, you get what he means, and it’s startling. You’ve depended on his strangeness to get you through. I have. Truly. Depended on David Bowie’s oddness and fearlessness and creepiness, his shapeshiftingness, his ability to disappear and reappear. It gave me hope. Gives me hope still. He pursued a swarm of off-kilter notions that turned into a kingdom.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)Bowie’s music is going to be covered for quite some time, but for this site, we will cover his second career as a celluloid actor. Apart from The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), and Labyrinth (1986), his films have not received the same kind of publicity and exposure as his music. Indeed, Bowie rarely spoke of his film acting, and repeatedly turned down roles that others competed for (he once rejected the role of a James Bond villain, saying with shrewd sarcasm, “I don’t want to get paid watching my double fall off a cliff for five months”). Although Bowie possibly considered his body of film work to be a dabbling in the medium, his screen persona was (to borrow that overused, suave cliche) chameleon-like. In sharp contrast to the cement tradition of everyone from Bing Crosby to Madonna, Bowie did not rest on his musical laurels or rely on his celebrity status to forge a zombie-like cinema rendition of his pre-existing persona. Indeed, Bowie is probably the pop music icon who has been most successful in establishing himself as a legitimate actor. His stage personality, as a reflection of his life, was restlessly birthed from a highly refined sense of the absurd and a razor-sharp perception of artistic trends. When he immersed himself in the medium of film, he did so with concentration and humble thoughtfulness.

Bowie’s first authentic performance of note was in Nicolas Roeg‘s cult classic The Man Who Fell To Earth. The film is vintage Roeg. Roeg was a more uneven director that his cultists are prone to admit, and The Man Who Fell To Earth presents an uneven landscape. Bowie’s persona as fashionably weird is in full throttle. It’s an inspired bit of Continue reading DAVID BOWIE: AN ACTOR RETROSPECTIVE

CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.

Still from Labyrinth (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.

COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).

There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Read the official Certified Weird entry here. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn

PLOT: An extraterrestrial visits earth in search of water, but becomes distracted by alcohol, television, corporate politics, and a tempestuous relationship with a human woman.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Roeg’s usual penchants for nonlinear storytelling and rich, occasionally disturbing imagery are stretched to their breaking points here; the resulting film is not always coherent or consistent, but it is fascinating and intermittently very weird.

COMMENTS: Only Nicolas Roeg would have taken a story roughly in the vein of Starman or E.T. and turned it into this.  Instead of falling into a facile, friendly relationship with earth’s inhabitants, Roeg’s spaceman, Thomas Jerome Newton, is afflicted with a severe case of culture shock.  Struggling to simultaneously save his faraway family and understand human behavior, he ends up failing at both, and the film traces out his steep rise-and-fall arc with a plot so disorientingly scrambled that it sometimes threatens to become stream-of-consciousness.

Through this frenzied editing style, we’re witness to Newton’s past, present, and future, although it’s rarely clear which is which at any given moment.  This extreme nonlinearity conveys the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, as flashbacks bleed readily into the film’s putative reality or its characters’ fantasies; however, this also tends to make plot developments foggy and render motivations obscure.  In this sense, it’s a very messy film, often more interested in delving into Newton’s frazzled interior logic than in aiding the viewer’s comprehension.  Stretched with epic sweep over 138 minutes, the film’s detours and repeated segments (like that of the spaceship crashing) can get frustrating, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is more about visceral sensory experiences and emotional intuition than narrative flow.

Under those terms, the film is a qualified success.  Newton’s skyrocketing financial fortunes, his dalliance with a sweet small-town girl named Mary Lou (Clark), his alcohol-driven decline, and his subsequent institutionalization are all tightly interwoven, delineating a tragic, decades-long trajectory.  The tragedy is further illustrated by the interspersed snippets of memory and fantasy, including a violent musical interlude set to the song “Hello Mary Lou” that recalls the “Memo to Turner” scene from Performance.  Also like Performance (and the rest of Roeg’s early films), The Man Who Fell to Earth abounds with graphic sexuality, which becomes one more avenue for Newton’s experimentation with life on earth.  Both formally and morally, this film is tailor-made to offend conservative sensibilities.

The film’s mounting transgressions are compounded by the way that Bowie’s cadaverous, androgynous body blurs the line between human and alien, especially during the lengthy sex scenes.  His star power and otherworldly aura make the film’s sci-fi conceits believable, since with his shock of unnaturally red hair, his eyes (which are different two colors), and even his British accent—which stands out against the voices of his American costars—Bowie is believably not of this world, and when he chooses to remove his human skin and eyes, the outcome is only marginally stranger than the his original appearance.  As he changes from freshly arrived naïf to contaminated wino, Bowie anchors the film, his intractable presence acting as a counterpoint to Roeg’s flighty direction.

Since Roeg speaks in such an indecipherable visual language, it’s hard to know what to make of The Man Who Fell to Earth.  It’s partly a spaced-out parable about capitalism and chemical dependence, and possibly a satire of the rags-to-riches American success story.  Although it drags on too long and is often unfulfilling, it’s still inexplicably captivating.  When it’s all over and the poor man is stuck here on earth, you’re left with a film that’s as enigmatic, tormented, and unexpectedly beautiful as the pale face of Bowie himself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story is complicated. It is set up as a near-total mystery that unfolds bit by bit, leaving—it must be said—a few small unexplained gaps. The price paid for this method is a certain confusion; the gain is the spectator’s tingling desire to have the puzzle work out.”–Richard Eder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)