IT IS 1976 IN AMERICA. Gerald Ford is in the White House but will lose his seat to Jimmy Carter in November. Soon muscle cars and disco are soon on the way out, Apple Inc. and hip-hop are on the way in, and science-fiction moviegoers choose from (i.e. must endure) the likes of ‘Embryo’, ‘Futureworld’, and ‘Logan’s Run’. In almost one year to the day, ‘Star Wars’ will arrive and transform the genre virtually overnight, followed shortly by ‘Close Encounters…’ A more adult revolution, ‘Alien’, is three years out. But that new day has not yet dawned, and thus hokey jumpsuits and cockamamie pulp plots are still the modus operandi for most. But not for all.
In the summer of this year, perhaps some inquisitive few manage to escape Logan’s carrousel and discover a new beacon in this twilight of an era: ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, the cinematic adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1962 novel. Obliquely transformational in its own right, the film was directed by Nicolas Roeg (‘Walkabout’) and starred an iconoclastic young Englishman named David Bowie, who’d just scored his first major hit in the States with ‘Fame’. He is the eponymous man, called Thomas Jerome Newton, whose goal is to save his own drought-ridden planet through alien technology that will make him fabulously wealthy on Earth. The details are hazy, really, but it’s clear that the first several steps of his scheme are rather quickly effected before shadowy government figures confound his efforts, leaving him Earthbound, despairing, and riddled with human vices. It’s an unmitigated tragedy, but like its leading man quixotic, aloof, and thus difficult to empathize with as we might a traditional tale of rags to riches to rags. Belonging neither to the pre- or post-Star Wars world, it rather echoes the Earth-crashing themes of the 50s, psychedelic splendor of the 60s, and even presages the existential gloom that would develop in the 80s.
Thus the film can be a jarring experience to anyone with conventional expectations, told as it is through abrupt intercuts with little connectivity between them and languid actors who slur through their blocking as if doused in glycerin. We have little concept of how and when we get where we are, and each new awakening seems like it takes forever-no-time at all. Better to give up guessing and just experience it like a dream, or perhaps an epic-length music video only half-sung.
Whatever the point of his escapades, the unique presence of ‘The Man…’ himself is reason enough to stay till the end. Though still new to the States in 1976, Bowie was already quite invested in science-fiction as a lifestyle, having sung of space oddities and spiders from Mars, etc., as early as ‘69. This was his first feature film, though, and his extraordinarily photogenic frame had not yet translated into a great rapport with a kinetic camera. Some of this might just be chemical, though, since his aquiline nose was dispatching heroic quantities of cocaine during the filming. While deeply compelling as a figure and a presence, he sometimes seems to float through the film as if he’s lost attention or motivation. On the one hand, his languorous movements and eldritch complexion make him look quite convincing as something fallen from the sky. Alternately, a more lucid leading man might have helped pull the film’s narrative together a little more instead of leaving it slouched across the editor’s desk, a little drooly.
Another dissociating element of the film’s production—this one more tactile in its effects—is the treatment of passing time. We’re given to understand that the film follows Thomas Newton through decades of life from a precipitous landing through a meteoric rise to fame and an eventual imprisonment at the hands of government forces preoccupied with optics, highly reminiscent of Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, released five years earlier in 1971. (Both films are based on books released in the 60s: ’62 for Anthony Burgess’s ‘Clockwork’, ’63 for Tevis’s ‘Man’.) Yet for all the events that transpire, Roeg and company make precious little effort to advance the state of society at large, so the strongest indicator that any of what’s on screen extends beyond a single bad acid trip is the increasing weight of years that sag the faces of the supporting cast while Bowie remains upright, eternal, fragile, and pure. Around him, his ‘handler’ Nathan Bryce (a randy Rip Torn) and sometimes beaux Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) become puffy from drink and advancing middle age. They are an iris of action trapped between Bowie, the shining central pupil, and the hazy whites of their universe, bloodshot and static and dry.
And then the plot. Given all the government muddling and the timeframe of the film’s release, there are undoubtedly political points to be made. Yet they are given too little context to resonate with depth, so instead of reflecting on ‘the man’ or any serious parallels to geopolitics, we’re instead left grappling with the vibrant imagery of ‘Alien Orgasm’ (a real chapter title on the DVD). Perhaps the film was more intended to reflect Bowie’s own sense of distance from his peers and his newfound ‘Fame’ in the contradictory grandeur of the United States, but this was certainly not the original thrust of Tevis’s book. Roeg, for his part, revels in this kind of wordless wonder wandering that prefers to see instead to say. In these senses, then, ‘The Man…’ is their perfect vehicle, and it might just be best not to look underneath the hood after all these years.
So ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ chose an auspicious time to take his plunge, poised between epochs, circumspect in the shadow of the Death Star until more concerted, latter-day audiences sought him out anew. Frankly rather clumsy with its functional details, the film remains intensely memorable for its visuals: creative, dissociative, but intensely reflective of its era—Andy Warhol must have approved of Newton’s kaleidoscope of TV screens. And maybe those alien eyes can divine meaning in the layers of this film with the utmost ease. But for most humans it will leave a stranger impression—for good and ill—of an abstract power that skates across the horizon line, pregnant with power that cannot be fully explained, and may never have existed at all.