Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Falling To Earth!


One of the peculiar ironies of a famous person passing is that a lot of their work will get some attention it might not have gotten otherwise. I doubt without the recent clamor over the death of David Bowie that anyone would've dusted off The Man Who Fell to Earth and shown it on television. But since this 1975 movie is one infamous sci-fi outing I've never seen before, I gave it a go.


Wow! I had some inkling of the nature of the movie, but it's far stranger than I expected. The narrative is downright difficult to decipher and the imagery is often grotesque. It treads along like a dream, disjointed but with a vague sense of some hidden purpose.

The story is a simple enough one. An alien comes to Earth to get some of our bountiful water to return to his own world which is without sufficient supplies, in order to save the planet and his own family who he left behind. To accomplish this he uses his scientific skills to arrange for patents with which he mobilizes great wealth and political power to construct a spaceship. He is stopped just as he's getting ready to leave and is held prisoner and tormented by the government with a series of tests.


There's a whole lot here about the folly of modern society and its inability to apprehend and appreciate the natural bounty we take for granted. Some of the best scenes come early when the alien, named Newton, drinks so hungrily from the water he finds everywhere. Also early on the character of Mary Lou, a hotel maid who helps Newton and who eventually becomes his lover is fun to listen to and follow as she tries to make some sense of her man's weird ways.

The movie though is overwrought with other characters who are less well defined and who lack motivation or every meaning as they take up space in front of the camera. There are long conversations which appear to be about nothing much which occupy way too much of the movie.


I guess we're supposed to be wowed by David Bowie's freakish looks, but his not-completely adult slender body (while strange) combined with his peculiar sense of outlandish fashion don't communicate alien to me so much as poseur. His acting is pretty dreadful most of the time and he can hardly hold his place in scenes with tireless scene chewers like Buck Henry and Rip Torn.

Sadly the movie withers slowly and steadily as it lumbers on and on relentlessly to and ending with absolutely a whimper. I wish it were better, or even more interesting, and finally maybe just shorter, but it isn't.


Let me take this moment to comment, as have so many others, on the career of David Bowie. He was a lightning rod in his early days for those who aspired for the bizarre and the peculiar. To be honest I was never much of a fan of his music which seemed mostly to me reasonably solid pop, the kind of stuff that despite his androgynous antics played well on AM as well as it did on the slightly more dangerous FM stations. Bowie was the kind of rebel the powers-that-are like, one who is interested in success for all those around him. That's not to say Bowie was a sell-out, he wasn't since to my mind he made no claims as a revolutionary. Those seemed to be things put on him by others for most part; he seemed merely to want to stand out as any performer ought.  As an actor he was never more than mediocre (in the stuff I've seen), though I've heard many say otherwise. He had distinctive looks and was cast I suspect for those, more akin to a model than a for true actor. I despair finding a part in which he did much beyond the necessary and usually he was sub-par.  He was a remarkable intellect by all accounts and a savvy businessman, a guy who seemed to know how to stay in charge of his affairs. That's no small feat in the industries in which he made his way.

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9 comments:

  1. Bowie spoke to the Outsider in a lot of people who grew up with his music. Too, his music changed, challenged and evolved depending on which period of his life he was working though (the adolescent angst of Hunky Dory for example is a quite a different listen than the synch-based, lyrically sparse Low album for example.) He did have a good eye for surrounding himself with talented people (Mick Ronson, Eno, Robert Fripp, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc.) I suppose too, one should not lose sight of the fact that he was admittedly doing A LOT of cocaine over this period (including during the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth.) Also, what he did with this near-posthumous recent release (“Black Star”) seems like it will have people scratching their heads over it for a good long while. Is this just more disposable pop music - or real art in its truest sense? I suppose that’s up to the listener to decide. (I was fortunate enough to see him live once in 2002 and it was a very tight, hit-laden show. . . musically and visually quite stunning.)

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    1. I think of Bowie as a consummate entertainer, however you want to parse that, a master craftsman. Artist seems to me to be pushing it, but I'll defer to those who have a greater affinity to his work.

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  2. In the context of the times, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Nicolas Roeg's editing were cutting edge. I thought Bowie was really interesting in the vampire film The Hunger. A lot of his appeal may have been a fashionable veneer, but it was imagery that was original to him. Bowie came out of the Art Lab movement in the UK, which also nurtured Alan Moore early on. I think he took less of a rock and roll approach to his work and identified himself more as a creative artist, with himself as a part of his canvas. It's hard to remember how revolutionary he was forty or more years ago, because so much of his approach was adapted and incorporated by every one from Punk Rock to Las Vegas acts to fashion designers to art directors.

    I remember being really amazed when I encountered Nic Roeg's work on the film Performance, which starred Mick Jagger. His cutting techniques had an influence, I believe on the experimental storytelling of comics artists like Jim Steranko.

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    1. The Steranko connection is a fascinating one. I'll have to explore that. What Bowie had forty years ago, at least from my distant vantage point was shock, and I'll grant you that has been absorbed by others with increasingly less effect.

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  3. Really well said & excellent post on your part here, Russ. I particularly liked and agree with this: “It’s hard to remember how revolutionary he was forty or more years ago, because so much of his approach was adapted and incorporated by every one from Punk Rock to Las Vegas acts to fashion designers to art directors.” I would not have guessed at the Steranko influence…Enlightening…

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  4. Bowie was an artist. Audio was his canvas and his albums were his art exhibits. In this age of pop music and artists who are created by marketing campaigns, focus groups, and committees, I think Bowie was something remarkable. I don't always like all of his music either, but I always appreciate the mastery of it like I would a piece of artwork in a gallery or museum.

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    1. I think Bowie was successful because he was his own focus group and in control of his own marketing. That's the distinction I'd draw.

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  5. The influence on Steranko and others in comics is not documented anywhere; it's a personal observation of mine and no more than a theory. But Roeg's films were distinguished by staccato flash cuts in the midst of continuity that created a sort of warping of time between scenes or functioned as flash forwards. In the case of his most famous film Don't Look Now it sometimes functioned as prophesy. which was part of the plot. In Steranko's At the Stroke of Midnight, Steranko created a new kind of flashback that was a quick cut panel with the color washed out so that you had the effect of a literal flash. He played with this a bit more in the unpublished Dante's Inferno. I have no idea if he has ever mentioned Roeg as an inspiration.

    The rapid flash cut was also a part of the original Kung Fu television series. In the first Master of Kung Fu comic, Jim Starlin used a variation on the flash cut to go back in time by having little slivers of the past intercut with the present, gradually getting bigger until finally taking over the page. And in a later Issue involving a fight with Shockwave, Paul Gulacy experimented with a flash forward running in and out of the whole book so that you were seeing the beginning and end of the story simultaneously. There were similar continuity experiments in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. I'm sure Moore, at least, was aware of Nicolas Roeg.

    There was a fascinating period where this sort of exploration was going on with younger comics creators who were also cinema buffs. I'd love to see more of it.

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  6. I could never really understand why people wanted to relate to someone who came across as confused, and who tried to look like a girl. The best thing about The Man Who Fell To Earth is the two Jim Reeves songs on the soundtrack. Quite liked The Laughing Gnome, Space Oddity, and his intro to The Snowman. That's about it.

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