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The Man Who Sold The World,
This review is from: The Man Who Fell To Earth [DVD] (DVD)
The Man Who Fell To Earth usually gets bracketed as rock movie, a sort of feature-length video in the vein of Prince's Purple Rain or David Byrne's True Stories. And to be fair, if Bowie had tried to fashion a cinematic accompaniment to his late-seventies oeuvre, it probably wouldn't have been that dissimilar to this movie: mysterious stranger, Thomas Newton, arrives on Earth and finds himself overwhelmed, disillusioned and alienated by late-twentieth century Western society. The lines get even more blurred when you realise that one of Bowie's supposedly more autobiographical albums, Station To Station, was in fact inspired by, and written as a potential soundtrack for, the movie. And as any fan knows, the images of Bowie on both the covers of that album and its successor, Low, are actually taken from the film. So who are we looking at/listening to? Bowie or his cinematic alter-ego?
The Man Who Fell To Earth gets a lot of mileage from this duality but the auteur of this work is Nic Roeg, and the film sees him continuing an ongoing examination of identity and perception that began when the thin white duke was still a one-hit-wonder milking his 15 minutes of fame by doing Stylophone ads. As with Performance, Walkabout and Don't Look Now, a trauma forces Roeg's protagonist to undergo a transformation - though the twist is that they're not aware of it. In Performance a reclusive rock star and a gangster on the run exchange roles; in Walkabout a schoolgirl reverts to nature and enters womanhood after her father's suicide; in Don't Look Now a grieving father finds his world becoming increasingly surreal, unaware that he has developed psychic powers as a result of his loss. And in The Man Who Fell To Earth an alien sets himself as up as a businessman, patents various revolutionary electronic devices and amasses a personal fortune so he can build a rocket and bring water back to his dying homeworld. Only he stays too long and unwittingly goes native, his plans thwarted by both our hostility and, crucially, his acquisition of our weaknesses and vices (booze, sex, paranoia, TV, fast food and plain old loneliness).
Naturally it's a movie of two parts: the first as we watch Newton's rise and try to work out who he is and what he's up to; the second when we get the twist that he's an alien and watch his subsequent decline. As such the title The Man Who Fell To Earth is probably the worst spoiler since James Cameron decided to call his shipboard romance Titanic. But of course, it's not that kind of fall. Bowie is a higher being, a fallen angel. His tragedy is that he becomes human, that's all. No big deal to us - we're born that way - but by his standards something of a come down. This is an adult version of ET if you like, though scratch deeper and you'll find a re-telling of the story of Christ. Both are visionaries, both try to improve the quality of our earthly lot (albeit Newton through his electronic inventions), both incur the jealousy of the authorities, and both are betrayed and publicly destroyed. But while Christ died and rose again, Newton arguably suffers a worse fate - condemned to remain earthbound, lose his otherworldly qualities, become human and be haunted by what he sees as his own failure. Ironically, at his nadir he becomes the very thing 99% of the population of this planet aspire to be: a pop star.
Hence the shrewd casting of Bowie. Contrary to myth, Bowie isn't a bad actor. He has screen craft, intonation and the requisite degree of naturalism. But what he doesn't really do is project. Like Jagger and Madonna, he's great on a broad canvass (i.e. rock videos, concerts) but when he tries to underplay he comes across as surprisingly slight and hesitant. This isn't a great quality to have if you're playing a vampire (The Hunger) or Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation Of Christ), but it is spot on if you're playing a fully grown adult taking his first steps on planet Earth (it helps that Bowie was thin as paper and pale as milk - so fragile that slender Candy Clark is able to carry him in her arms). In fact, for a lot of the film Bowie actually seems scared of his environment, and Roeg uses this well. This is, after all, an examination of perception as well as identity; Bowie is the visitor but Earth, seen through his eyes, is the alien world and we are the real aliens, both in appearance (his lawyer (Buck Henry) wears the most outlandish bottle-lensed spectacles - Roeg's way of suggesting that to an alien this strange glass and metal contraption over his eyes would be quite distracting) and beliefs (the screams of livestock penned up in a passing truck seem as disturbing to him as human screams are to us - an indication that from his point of view four-legged creatures are no higher or lower on the totem pole than us hairless bipeds). It's a device Roeg used in Don't Look Now, making that most over-exposed of cinematic locations, Venice, seem unfamiliar and bizarre, and again Roeg applies his abstract approach to montage, here to suggest Newton's non-linear perception of time as well as counter pointing his experiences with those of a jaded college professor (Rip Torn) whose life he inadvertently revitalises. Indeed, the power of both films lies not in the story per sé but Roeg's unique interpretation of it. This is visual cinema, not visual cinema in the sense of Lucas or Disney, stripping plot and character down to easily grasped images, but visual in the sense of a director using the camera to impose his own narrative voice over and above that of the actors or the script. Not an approach for the faint of talent. And back in 1976, critics saw this as Roeg's hubris. In hindsight it was his genius.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Oct 2008 12:00:15 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Oct 2008 12:02:47 BDT
P. J. Boddey says:
It's probably truer that "Low", not "StationToStation" was the 'lost' MWFTE soundtrack; also, if you look closely you'll see Candy Clarke is on her knees carrying Bowie/Newton down the motel corridor...obviously a preferential load-bearing option!...that apart, a wonderfully astute & eloquent review that does justice to a sorely underrated,overlooked movie.
Posted on 26 Apr 2011 08:37:48 BDT
Indeed, this movie sums up how I, and perhaps most of us, feel in this modern overdriven world. Of course, if I remember the film correctly, there's no resolution to the isolation that our alien experiences, so what do we conclude?
Posted on 2 Oct 2011 19:14:28 BDT
Zawiah Saki says:
This is an outstanding review. Without giving away too much of the plot you make some very astute observations and if I hadn't already seen it, my curiosity would be piqued.
Posted on 30 Nov 2013 17:33:35 GMT
Richard Wainwright says:
Wow! Not only does A. McGill offer up some of the best-written reviews I have ever read, but the folks who comment on his reviews seem to be cut from the same cloth! I just wanted to let all of you know that your efforts have not gone unappreciated. Thank you SO much for (partially) restoring my faith in humanity and for showing me that the level of discourse on the internet does NOT have to stoop to such a low level. Bravo, my (new found) friends, bravo!!
Posted on 22 Apr 2014 18:33:13 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 Apr 2014 18:33:55 BDT
Ken Raus says:
That is an excellent revue,very,very good and actually worthy of the read and quite fair to Bowie and informative and insightful about Roeg...I agree with another revuer that Low might be likelier mooted soundtrack.
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