Friday, February 29, 2008

The Man Who Fell To Earth

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1963]
Written by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1976]
Written by Paul Mayersberg
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Here's a typical conversational exchange when two David Bowie fans meet:

Fan 1: "Have you seen The Man Who Fell To Earth?"
Fan 2: "Of course." or, alternately, "Yeah, a while ago."
Fan 1: "Did you 'get' it?"
Fan 2: "No, not really. But I got to see where the covers to Station To Station and Low came from. And I got to see Bowie's penis."
Fan 1: "Pretty much."

Every Bowie-phile worth his or her salt has to slog through The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's a rite of passage; it proves your love for the man and his art (and, yes, you consider what the man does to be art) is deeper than just shouting out "Wham, bam, thank ya ma'am!" when you hear "Suffragette City" on the radio. Oh, no. You're in this for the long haul. Your Bowie albums are the OOP Rykodisc remasters with the bonus tracks. Your favorite songs are deep cuts from the Berlin period trilogy. You roll your eyes when someone mentions "Modern Love." You are, let's face it, a total Bowie nerd.

Of course, the only reason that I know all this nonsense is because it describes me personally and many people with whom I am a friend or acquaintance. Long ago I rented The Man Who Fell To Earth and suffered through it. I was totally put off and decided to write the whole thing off as a case of self-indulgent 70s movie making best appreciated by film students who could wank off to all the "avant" auteur flourishes gumming up the narrative works. Then I found out it was based on a book. And then it became a part of the Criterion Collection. I'm not necessarily beholden to Criterion's definition of the canon (remember, these guys released a special edition of Armageddon), but when a movie gets a CC spine number, I generally try to give it the benefit of the doubt. And, besides, I was just a high school junior when I first saw the movie. Maybe my more experienced and refined cinematic palette (which has since grown to acquire a taste for several self-indulgent 70s auteurs) would be more amenable to the film. And I wanted to see David Bowie's penis. But before I could dig the Thin White Duke's walking stick, I had to read the book that first introduced Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial Icarus.

Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell To Earth is a novel about sadness. Newton has traveled to Earth as part of a last-ditch effort to save the surviving members of his race. He will patent his native Anthean technology in order to build a business empire, which will, in turn, finance a mini-space program designed to transport his people from their dying planet. Newton is Anthea's last hope, a burden of which he is acutely aware. He is stranded on a beautiful but strange planet amongst creatures who constantly straddle the line between civilization and barbarism. If he is exposed, he will likely be killed, at the very least prohibited from completing his mission. Things are a bit bleak.

It gives nothing away to say that things don't get better. As Newton's plan progresses, he becomes more and more disillusioned. By the time he is found out, Newton is so mired in doubt that capture almost serves to put him at ease.

Throughout the narrative, Tevis soft-pedals the science-fiction elements. Much like Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land or Dick in The Divine Invasion, Tevis uses the extreme metaphors afforded in sci-fi to get at a very real and human condition. Newton himself makes the point to Dr. Nathan Bryce, a research scientist and the closest thing the alien has to a friend, that it's not necessary to be a spaceman to be alone.

In contrast, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth is a film about corruption. Newton is an intergalactic innocent, perverted by Earth's savage ways. This second sort of "fall" (that is, one from grace) is visually evidenced by three repeated symbols: TV, alcohol, and sex. As Newton becomes more acclimated to Earth, and more successful, he watches more and more television. He also starts to hit the bottle, seduced into doing so by the sensuous (and frequently naked) harpy Mary-Lou. It's a standard Kulturkritik, and it might even have been a trifle effective were it not for the shrill tone with which it is broadcast.

How over-the-top is The Man Who Fell To Earth? It has a dramatic, slow-motion scene where David Bowie knocks a tray of cookies out of Mary-Lou's hand. Not enough for ya? How about a scene where Mary-Lou pisses herself when she finds out Newton's true identity? (Sidenote: Has dramatic urination ever been used well in a feature film? Every instance I've seen has been unintentionally comical at best.) Or how about how the character of Bryce has been changed into a total poonhound with a bad habit of banging his students? What about the ludicrous death of Newton's lawyer and his lover through defenestration? (Maybe it was supposed to be part of a "falling" thematic. Whatever it is, it doesn't work.) And let's not start on the Anthean love scenes; apparently physical intimacy on Anthea occurs by jumping up in the air and having marshmallow jizim sprayed all over you---like a Cirque de Soleil version of the final cumshot in Behind the Green Door. Behind this ridiculousness pounds an overbearing soundtrack which alternates from twangy country music to Holst's Mars - Bringer of War to harp music to what have you.

On the positive side of things, David Bowie was born to play the title role in this film. Rock star actors get a lot flack, think Sting in Dune, but Bowie is the exception that proves the rule. Plus, you get to see his penis.

As I explained above, if you're a Bowie fan, you're inevitably going to watch this movie. If you don't know Ziggy Stardust from the Thin White Duke, and if you only know the Criterion Collection from your Beastie Boys' DVD set, you can save yourself 2.5 hours and skip it. But if you have the chance to pick up the book, please do so. Don't let the pretentious film version or the science-fiction trappings scare you off. Alienation is universal, and Tevis's novel is a simple and beautiful evocation of this sad reality.


Scott H. said...

Wonderful blog - a fascinating idea along with some equally fascinating analysis. And some great choices for entries too; I would never have thought of comparing Pasolini's Gospel to the original text.

A said...

About the dramatic urinating scene: another great one comes in "The Exorcist," when Regan micturates on the living room's carpet while standing in front of her mother's friends who have gathered there for a party.