Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Recommendation: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Coming out of the Space Race era of the 1960's, Science Fiction seemed to arrive into a golden age in the 1970's. The Star Trek franchise had already begun in earnest (along with Lost In Space, The Twilight Zone and other campy TV shows), and David Bowie had reached superstardom through the creation of his Ziggy Stardust persona. By decades end Sci-Fi had become family entertainment through the massive success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a trend that would gain considerable steam in the 1980's era of the blockbuster - E.T., The Terminator series, etc.

Yet there was another, more philosophical branch of science fiction that produced two of the finest examples of the genre, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris in 1972 and Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth from 1976. Both films are fine examples of what is important about the Sci-Fi genre - the ability to work in metaphor to explore diverse themes through unique vantage points. These two films are the gold standard for quality, ideological exposition, a bar that few other films - Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey - also reach.

Director Nicolas Roeg approached Bowie concerning a role in his new film just as Bowie was in the midst of an extremely tumultuous period - having "killed" his Ziggy Stardust persona, he then took on the role of a demon for the visceral Alladin Sane album. Quickly tiring of Alladin Sane, Bowie then took brief excursions into minor characters - Halloween Jack (who came out of his scraped attempt to stage a Nineteen Eighty-Four-themed album and tour, the leftovers then became the Diamond Dogs album - he can be seen in the Rebel Rebel video here), and the Jean Genie (an Elvis-y, rockabilly alien who only existed for the video essentially).

At this point Bowie turned another 180 degrees for the "fake plastic soul" of the Young Americans album, which proved exceptionally successful in terms of financial rewards but did little for Bowie in terms of artistic satisfaction, a situation exacerbated infinitely by his absurdly over-the-top cocaine addiction. For a few years Bowie went through a mental and spiritual breakdown fueled by the rapid succession of living as different personas, essentially acting in roles that continued beyond the stage and into real life. This blurring of personalities caused Bowie to begin to act psychotically, existing solely on milk, peppers, and cocaine while becoming deeply involved in the occult.

The Man Who Fell To Earth would provide Bowie with yet another role to inhabit, but would also allow him to work within film, a new artistic medium for the first time that carried the promise of that which Bowie craved most - artistic evolution. This was the lure that brought Bowie into the film.

What is The Man Who Fell To Earth all about? From Criterion:

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a daring exploration of science fiction as an art form. The story of an alien on an elaborate rescue mission provides the launching pad for Nicolas Roeg’s visual tour de force, a formally adventurous examination of alienation in contemporary life. Rock legend David Bowie, in his acting debut, completely embodies the title role, while Candy Clark, Buck Henry, and Rip Torn turn in pitch-perfect supporting performances. The film’s hallucinatory vision was obscured in the American theatrical release, which deleted nearly twenty minutes of crucial scenes and details.

The film is a brilliant, and subtle exploration of the state of modern man, of the inevitable existential loneliness of the human species. Bowie is simply magnificent as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien to earth who finds himself no less susceptible to the failings of man. All of the chaos around his personal life found its way into every frame, as Bowie projected alienation, disillusion, and loss - mostly silently without lines. Superb.

Another aspect that I like best about the film is that Roeg does not shy away from pushing the viewer into uncomfortable spaces - and this film certainly does that. Not for the faint of heart - though had you seen the film prior to the last couple of years (when Criterion gloriously restored the film) you would have viewed a badly truncated version that left out all of the pathos of the characters due to cuts by the censor board.

I really don't want to say much more and spoil anything for you. Check it out this summer, it is an off the beaten path cult classic that has much to offer the viewer should you choose to spend the time with it that it deserves.

As a final aside, I would like to also point out that the thought-provoking portion of the Sci-Fi universe lived on last year in the brilliant Moon, written and directed by Duncan Jones, the son of - you guessed it - David Bowie. So enjoy that too when you can.