The Man Who Fell to Earth

Having just seen a fully restored version of this film which I previously had last seen on the big screen at a midnight showing on its release in ’76, I was superficially struck by the prescience of the idea of space travel underwritten by private enterprise. Though Walter and Peter in their forthcoming book, Space Capitalism, take issue with Elon Musk’s accepting of governmental money, the broad principle remains valid. Now I haven’t read the Walter Tevis’ novel but it’s easy to see why the philosophically minded Roeg and Bowie would be to drawn to it. As James Sallis wrote: “The Man Who Fell to Earth, on its surface, is the tale of an alien who comes to earth to save his own civilization and, through adversity, through inaction, through loss of faith (“I want to . . . But not enough”), fails. Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written”. What is striking about the film is a malevolent not-to-bright streak of the CIA and FBI laid bare in no uncertain terms. It’s interesting to note that the novel was rejected by Harper’s, no doubt a decision taken by a Gottlieb-like editor. Though Bowie is perfectly cast within the narrow confines of the protagonist Thomas Jerome Newton, the acting accolades must surely go to Candy Clark, a performance of a lifetime without a hint of Streep-like imperious luvvieness. According to Sallis’ piece: “Tevis had become a confirmed drinker (“It’s about my becoming an alcoholic. I sobered up to write it,” he said of Man) — which is inversely mirrored in Bowie’s cocaine addled state during the earlier recording of Station to Station though, according to Candy, he was clean and according to Roeg, Bowie had promised he’d lay off for the duration of the shoot. Bowie has since claimed otherwise, his then skeletal frame which Candy carried, giving some credence to this. (The gin-soaked story of TMWFTE has echoes of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano). But it was the dark eroticism that I found most compelling, from a time when thoughtfully transgressive (i.e. not “edgy” or controversial for its own sake) movies could be made without some intersectional harpy or “soy boy” busybody squawking for attention. The eroticism is as dark as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter so therefore quite possibly some of the darkest sexuality committed to serious film, which was of course Roeg’s forte — see Candy’s recollections here). I had the good fortune on a road trip to skirt the gorgeously mysterious New Mexico locations but never made it into Artesia or to White Sands — hopefully next time. Next week: Roeg (and Donald Cammell’s) masterpiece of erotic psychedelia and personal identity — Performance.

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