They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? 2008 Edition - #430
"And then he looked around him again, at the big hotel room, the almost untouched tray of liquor, and back at Newton, reclining in bed. 'My God,' he said. 'It's hard to believe. To sit in this room and believe that I'm talking to a man from another plante.'Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth has much the same relationship to its source as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has to Arthur C. Clarke's novel: the film gives the material a feeling of visionary wonder, and the book explains what the hell is going on.
"'Yes,' Newton said, 'I've thought that myself. I'm talking to a man from another planet too, you know.'"
-Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1963
I doubt you'll mind if I spoil the surprise, since neither the novel nor the movie is exactly a model of suspense: an emissary from Anthea - the locals' name for one of the planets in our own system, although which one is never explained - comes to Earth hoping to find some way to bring over the very small number of survivors of the nuclear wars that have reduced his people to some 300 souls, living the last few decades of the species' existence until drought and starvation take their inevitable toll. That emissary, calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, uses Anthean technology to make himself a very wealthy man, hoping to raise a vast enough personal fortune to send a capsule back to his homeworld with the supplies necessary to bring his people to earth. Unfortunately for him and the Antheans, the life of a wealthy man on Earth is one filled to the brim with booze and sex and a sense of infallibility, and in no time at all he's gone native.
There are many differences between Walter Tevis's book and the film, but the most immediate and noticeable is this: in the book, it's made clear by page 4 (earlier, depending upon the edition) that Newton is an alien. In the film, it takes more than an hour, although I'd be amazed if anyone has ever gone into it so blind that they were unaware of this "twist." This is not, by the way, an idle comparison, but an observation that goes to the heart of what makes the movie version of The Man Who Fell to Earth what it is: namely, a movie that requires a whole lot of work from the audience to make sense out of anything that's going on, in terms of plot, in terms of character and sometimes in terms of theme.
You could dismiss this as typically coke-enhanced pretentious art filmmaking: "Oh, if we don't explain anything, we'll seem clever!" That's really not what's going on, though. Rather, this is how Roeg and his film express the very important idea that life on Earth is really incredibly weird and confusing and anyone who wasn't born here would have a very hard time figuring out what the hell is happening in any given situation. That's another key difference between the book and film, by the way: the book makes some ritual genuflections in the direction of "Newton is confused by Earth customs," but nothing at all like the movie has accomplished within its first five minutes. And, moreover, nothing like the movie will end up covering before it's through.
Being an art film from the mid-'70s, it's hardly shocking that The Man Who Fell to Earth is rife with sex and nudity, things which are almost entirely absent from the book. And more importantly, absent from television in those ancient days before HBO. Since Newton was trained in the habits of human beings from TV broadcasts, it's when he is confronted with the parts of life that we don't see on the small screen that he's most lost (the book does something similar in confronting him with the realities of an economically stratified capitalist structure, but be honest: naked people are much more visceral than discursions into socio-political arguments). Accordingly, it's the film's second and most notorious sex scene - cut for the original US release, like most of the "naughty" parts of the film - that is perhaps the most discomfiting and seemingly-unmotivated part of the whole thing. That, mind you, is in a 139 minute cavalcade of discomfiting sequences.
Nicolas Roeg (an incredibly significant 1970s art house director whose films I've managed to completely avoid up till now) does a magnificent job of composing frames of immaculate beauty and horrible weirdness (in this he is aided by cinematographer Anthony Richmond, who would later shoot the abysmal Good Luck Chuck, and for this reason I wish to avoid giving him too much credit). It takes hardly any time at all for the iconic imagery to kick in: if it's not the completely decontextualised image of Newton wandering down a hill from an extreme long shot that does it, surely his first glimpse of a giant inflatable tent bobbing in the wind is enough for us to start regarding Earth (New Mexico, in particular) as a foreboding and incomprehensible place. It's worth mentioning that just about the only shots in the film that aren't at least a little crazy are the ones we see in Newton's flashbacks to his family on his homeworld: typical period sci-fi to the point of being trite.
It would be a lie to claim that all this would be for nothing without a strong central performance. A visionary director can overcome almost any obstacle, and to judge from what made it on the screen, Roeg was nothing if not a visionary. But it's still the film's immense benefit that Thomas Jerome Newton should be played by the one man in the mid-'70s who actually looked almost exactly like the empty-eyed lanky androgyne Tevis describes in his prose: David Bowie, his Ziggy Stardust phase just ended and and his soul-searing drug phase in full bloom. There might not be a better example that I am aware of in the English-language cinema of a celebrity being hired solely for his persona and being called upon to do virtually no "acting" whatsoever, and having the end result be as perfectly suited to the needs of the project as it was in this case. Bowie is one of the most characteristic-looking individuals of that oh-so-characteristic decade, and yet he disappears entirely into the role of Newton, all by doing nothing other than looking as otherworldly as he probably looks whenever he goes to the market for eggs. It's unfair, almost; the other performers in the film (Candy Clark; Rip Torn, looking impossibly young at the age of 44) have to do a great deal of heavy lifting, and they do it well; but they're nothing in the face of Bowie and his incredible Bowiness. The concept of "presence" is a hard one to convey, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is at least 50% Bowie's presence, and a masterpiece for that very reason.
All this adds up to a highly unconventional experience, and one that doubtlessly has left many smart people very angry at the film over the last three decades. De gustibus non est disputandum; it's the shocking indifference to meaning that's the film's greatest apparent flaw that I would call its most exciting feature. At any rate, it has lost none of its ability to startle all these years later, and for that alone it deserves respect.