It sits at the centre of an incredible outpouring of cinematic creativity that began, and continues to this day, with his co-direction credit with fellow maverick Donald Cammell on Performance (1970) and includes, during the 1980s, a sequence of equally fascinating films in Bad Timing (1980), Eureka (1983) and Insignificance (1985). Although he has not been as prolific in the last two decades, Roeg is recognised as one of the greatest living British directors whose unique visual style critic Steve Rose describes as "unpredictable, fascinating, cryptic" and it marks out his work in the 1970s and 1980s.
... the victim of his own success and that of human, corporatist greedThe film depicts the arrival of an alien, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), who has travelled to the Earth on a rescue mission to aid his dying planet (a prescient theme tapping into our ever growing concerns about global warming). His superior technology, and the unique patents it offers, allows him to play and control the markets and create a vast conglomerate. Amassing the financial benefits of the consumer products he has introduced, he sets out to create a space programme that will enable him to return to his world and bring his family back to Earth.
However, he becomes the victim of his own success and that of human, corporatist greed, industrial competition and state xenophobia and is prevented from carrying out his launch via a kidnapping. He is instead the object of interrogation and examination in order to discover just how alien he claims to be. In the process, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), the woman he has a relationship with and whom he befriends in a New Mexico hotel, and Dr. Bryce (Rip Torn), the scientist he trusts with the space project, are either forced to sell out or willingly hand him over to the authorities.
Roeg's major theme of media control is symbolised by Newton acquiring knowledge about Earth and its human society through television broadcasts. Once on Earth, he becomes obsessed with the way television shapes human morals, thinking and behaviour, watching dozens of channels simultaneously to see if he can grasp some hidden truth about the deeply flawed creatures he has come to visit.
... Bowie and Roeg's own interpretations of the homogenising effects of American cultureThe film is a commentary on how media, particularly television, saturates and intervenes in the affairs of the world and is both welcoming and alienating in its desire to educate, entertain and inform, its world of appearances as kaleidoscopic as Roeg's own vision for the film. As Newton notes, "Strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth but the mysteries remain". Human society is seen in abstract, where truth is absent and everyday life is rendered through advertising and marketing as simply the surface of things, the simulation of life.
The media invades and corrupts Newton's mind as much as the alcohol and sex pollutes his body. As he progresses through the America of the 1970s, symbolising both Bowie and Roeg's own interpretations, as Englishmen abroad, of the homogenising effects of American culture, his own identity begins to deteriorate, to disappear and he becomes less real, less alien. This is visually expressed in Newton's human disguise which at the beginning of the film is distinct and separate from his true alien form.
As soon as he reveals that disguise, and shows his true self to the young girl, Mary-Lou, then the film begins its closing in of the distance between human disguise and alien self. By the end of the film, as scientists bombard him with x-rays that only he can see, he literally becomes stuck in human form. The attempt to see beneath his skin has condemned him to his humanity and the scientists only find flesh that is familiar to them and simply do not realise that identity is more than flesh and bones and outward appearance.
... a jigsaw puzzle of imageryMirrors, cameras, masks, reflections litter the film and underpin the theme that appearance is everything, where as Gerard Loughlin observes, "sight is always mediated; knowledge always imagined" and as the film draws to a close, and Newton is abandoned and lives a reclusive existence, we begin to wonder if he is simply delusional and whether his alien identity and the vision of his alien world and family are just simply figments of his imagination.
Newton also falls victim to a group of unidentified state and corporate interests as his technological marvels begin to destabilise the economy, headed by Peters (Bernie Casey) who leads this resistance to the dominance of Newton's company World Enterprises and declaims, 'This is modern America and we're going to keep it that way."
As Newton drowns in a whirlwind of suspicion and treachery from the human scientists, bankers, lawyers, politicians and market analysts, Roeg swings the film through various collisions of cinematic space and time showing us the truly alien world that we call our own in contrast to the now barren and dying alien planet of Newton's origin. He fits together a jigsaw puzzle of imagery that sets up a contrast between the urbanised cities and rural landscapes of America, the rationalist and the spiritual symbols of life on Earth and death back on Newton's alien world.
The symbolism of Icarus descending from the heavens is of major importance, appearing in a reproduction of Bruegel's painting in one of Newton's World Enterprises' books and transformed into the funnel of water that erupts from a lake as Newton recalls his splashdown on Earth. It reinforces the idea of Newton as a Christ-like figure, one that knows "all things begin and end in eternity" yet the human representatives of the world refuse to acknowledge as they labouriously commercialise, commodify and de-humanise everything around them. Newton's potential as the outsider who will disturb or threaten our world order, the lives of human beings and the binaries of gender, politics and religion is neutralised by these very controlling forces.
Bryce's betrayal, made even greater when he denies to Mary-Lou that he has seen Newton when in fact he witnessed the various scientists attempting to remove his human disguise, is cleverly alluded to by Roeg's use of a scene from The Third Man (1949). This classic British film, wherein the central character Holly Martins also betrays an old friend, Harry Lime, is cross cut into a scene where Bryce and Mary-Lou eat in a restaurant and wonder if they did the right thing handing him over to the authorities and where Newton is examined while watching the film on a large screen in the laboratory. Meanings are conducted across the scenes and from the film clip, including echoes of the dialogue, that Newton is watching in a typically elliptic bit of editing from Roeg. Mary-Lou (the name alluding to both Magdalene and the mother of Christ) offers nurturing and understanding to a fragile and vulnerable Newton and there is a visually arresting scene where she, while working as a chambermaid, picks up the unconscious Newton, who has blacked out after an elevator ride, and cradles him like a doll or a child and carries him to his hotel room, suggestive of the tending of the body of Christ either as an infant or recovered from crucifixion.
... an amalgamation of Bowie's previous personasAt the centre of the film is, of course, David Bowie. Roeg clearly understood the messianic qualities of the rock or pop star, having worked with Jagger on Performance previously, and indeed both films use rock/pop iconography and here Bowie's identity bleeds into the narratives and visual allusions. Newton can therefore also be read as an amalgamation of Bowie's previous personas, particularly referring back to the space-age, alien saviour depicted in the Ziggy Stardust era of his career and then anticipating the cold, isolated figure of The Thin White Duke replicating Newton's spiral into booze-addled outsiderdom.
The film also plays with 'otherness' and depicts a number of forms of sexual congress between men and women, men and men, alien and human and old and young (Bryce's female student fixation) that reflect the film's own reflection of the cultural clash between Europe and America. Tevis's novel often enquires into Newton's sexual preferences, with characters often surmising that he is homosexual even though he claims to be married with a family. In Roeg's film, when Newton reveals his true form to Mary-Lou she is only temporarily revolted by his 'queer' alien body and its ejaculatory fluids and returns to his bed later in the film, as an older women, for one of the film's more comically arresting sex scenes.
The film's themes of queer or gay sexuality are not deliberately projected onto Newton, even though the liminal state of his body and gender are foregrounded, and the queer themes hinted at in the novel are instead centred around Newton's lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and his partner Trevor. We see both men living a comfortably domesticated life where Newton's beneficence provides them with huge financial and commercial power. Gerard Loughlin notes in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology that one of the most striking moments in the film, where Peters's henchmen not only kidnap Newton but also throw Oliver and Trevor out of the window of a multi-storey building, also suggests that the threat of deviant homosexual financial power and lifestyles is vanquished by dominant heterosexual family life. As the two gay men are hurled out of the building, Roeg tracks one of their bodies flying through the air and cuts to a shot of Peters diving into a pool, then emerging to embrace his glamourous and beautiful wife and then say goodnight to his children.
... cinema as a 'time machine'Roeg's visual sensibility, caught from the beginning in that bizarre shot of an inflatable fairground attraction threatening to break from its moorings as Newton travels from desolate mining town into American suburbia, is allied to a stunning use of music and sound. Musical director John Phillips's soundtrack mixes in jazz, blues, soul, classical (Holst is prominent) popular ballads (Orbison's 'Blue Bayou') and electronic soundscapes (BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Desmond Briscoe supplying some of those) with superb dexterity, often bringing songs together with stunning imagery.
A stunning film where Roeg takes the non-linear narrative of Don't Look Now and fragments it even further with rapid intercutting of material that epitomises his obsessions with time shifting through the story. Allusions and associations challenge your perception of what is past, present and future and acknowledge Roeg's own view of cinema as a 'time machine' and his mastery of montage and mise-en-scene, his use of landscape and light. In the middle of the visual pyrotechnics he manages to provide room for some good performances from Bowie, Candy Clark, Buck Henry and Rip Torn.
The film is presented here in a digitally restored, high definition version and it really is superb. Detail, colour, contrast and stability are exceptional and the Blu-ray format is ideal for such visually poetic films like this. I can't recommend this highly enough. It looks like it was made yesterday, never mind in 1976. Sound is in mono and is reasonably good, managing to capture well both the dialogue and the complex mix of effects and music. However, what happened to the 5.1 mix on the original DVD is a bit of a mystery so keep hold of the DVD for that if you want an alternative to the film's original mono mix and for the PDF of the original campaign brochure which is also missing here.
Watching The Alien - 25 minute documentary originally featured on the UK DVD release and ported over from the US Anchor Bay edition. Interviews with Roeg, producer Si Litvinoff, production designer Brian Eatwell, costume designer Mary Routh, Candy Clark and cinematographer Tony Richmond.
Nicolas Roeg (dur: 33mins) New interview with the director that spans his early days in the industry and on to the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Tony Richmond (dur: 21mins) New interview with the film's cinematographer.
Paul Mayersberg (dur: 31mins) New interview with the screenwriter about how he adapted the original Walter Tevis novel, developed the script and worked with Roeg on the film.
Candy Clark (dur: 27mins) New interview with the actress who played Mary-Lou with questions on how she came to be cast in the film and the experience of working with Bowie and Roeg.
Walter Tevis (dur: 4mins) A very brief extract from the CBS radio interview conducted by Don Swaim in 1984. (The Criterion edition has a much fuller version of this)
This edition also includes the original theatrical trailer.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
British Lion 1976
Optimum Home Entertainment / Released 4 April 2011 / Blu-Ray Catalogue No: OPTBD0978 / Region B / Cert: 18 / Running Time: 134 mins approx / Ratio: 2.35:1 / Video: BD50 / 1080p / Feature Audio: Mono / Audio Codec: AVC/MPEG-4 / Subtitles: English
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