The Man Who Fell to Earth

I read Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth over the summer. At the beginning of the novel, as in the film, a man walks out of the American desert into a dusty town. There, he pawns a solid gold ring for cold cash. Outside the town, he checks both a roll of cash, and a hundred more gold rings: this is his 'stake', so to speak, his means by which to operate in 20th century America. He buys food and returns to a camp outside the town. In a following scene, he seeks out a patent lawyer and asks him to act as an agent; the basic patents he shows the lawyer would net him a further $300 million - which 'isn't enough'.

Enough for what? The man who fell to Earth is Jerome Thomas Newton, a literal alien from a drought-stricken planet, who finds that not only does he have gold rings and technology to sell America, he is an excellent businessman. Soon he accrues a large fortune and control of a major corporation; so major, in fact, that it begins to attract ths attention and suspicion of the US government. Strangely, the story of both film and play is a classic American immigrant story, a Horatio Alger myth: arriving with little, he becomes a financial success story.

Nic Roeg's film, which casts David Bowie as Newton, plays on both Bowie's languid effeteness (his androgyny too) as well as his British accent to mark out his alienness. (When he sells the gold ring, Bowie brandishes a fake British passport as proof of his bona fides.) It's a film very much like Roeg's prior Walkabout, in which two very English Australian schoolchildren are abandoned in the Outback by their father, who kills himself. Their 'walkabout' is a journey across the desert accompanied by an Aboriginal lad (David Gulpilil, an actor used in Australian cinema in the 70s and 80s as a go-to presence when an Aboriginal actor was required, from The Last Wave to Crocodile Dundee, to even Rabbit Proof Fence). The sense of alienation from an unknowable Australian landscape, a classic motif of Australian cinema (Picnic at Hanging Rock, the aforementioned Crocodile Dundee, or in parody, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), is repeated in the literal alien figure of Newton, who relocates to the American South-West so the film can engage the imagery of desert, one that reflects the parched and desiccated dune-scapes of Newton's own world.

Roeg's film is itself disjunctive. Where Tevis's novel takes leaps forward in time to indicate Newton's longevity, but also the accelerated pace of expansion of his business empire, Roeg's film incorporates commercialised Country songs on the soundtrack, unexplained shifts in time and space, and curious scenes of Bowie's body, fitted inside a kind of white-grey stillsuit, being hurled acrobatically through (cinematic) space. If not joky, there's a kind of flatness or affectlessness in Roeg's film which not only inhabit's Newton's psychology, but the landscape of television that he comes to find impossible to resist. In a sense, the film is about addiction, to tv, to booze, to dreams or fantasies; the hardest of all for Netwton to give up is the dream of returning to his own world. He attempts to build a starship to take himself there and return his dying kinfolk; but his plan is interrupted by the US government.

Here, post-Watergate paranoia intrudes in the film (it was released in 1976). Where, in the novel, Newton is made prisoner and experimented on by the government, and eventually blinded by x-rays (accidentally), in the film it is the human contact lens that Newton wears to hide his own more cat-like native pupils that are bonded irretrievably to his corneas, ending, in a way, his literal alienness. His boozy numbness, also inhabited by human lover/ helper Betty Jo (Mary Lou in the film, played by Candy Clark) and the scientist Nathan Bryce (played with off-kilter intensity by Rip Torn), indicates not his alien peculiarity but a kind of 'human condition'. The final scene in book and film sees Bryce locate Newton in a bar, having discovered that Newton had made some recordings of language from his planet. In the final shot of the film, Newton succumbs to drunkenness, his head falls on to his chest, and all we see as titles roll is the wide-brimmed hat that Bowie wears. In the book, the hat falls on to the table, and Newton sobs; Bryce, in a gesture of human contact and communication largely absent elsewhere, moves around the table to put his arm round Newton's shoulders, saying that the man needs help. (Don't we all?) Roeg's evacuation of this empathic, even sentimental moment leaves us only with blankness.

This, of course, is all too true to the persona Bowie himself inhabited prior to making The Man Who Fell to Earth. Lost in America, Los Angeles a hell of cocaine, black magick and bad vibes, the covers of two successive albums make reference to Jerome Thomas Newton: Station to Station and Low. Where Station to Station was self-confessedly an album informed by Bowie's magical readings and dabblings while in LA, matched his soul/ funk stylings of Young Americans to the motorik beat of Krautrock, and has a shot of Bowie entering Netwon's spaceship (a soundproofed room), Low marks his return to Europe, and is the first of the 'Berlin trilogy'. Though recorded largely in France, it marks the beginning of his collaboration with Brian Eno and an embracing of both the energies of punk and the sonic possibilities of synthesized sound. Low, as is well-known, has a first side with short, Krautrock-inflected songs including 'Sound and Vision'; the second side is 'ambient', atmospheric, cinematic. On the cover, a profile shot of Bowie as Newton, collar turned up, against a lowering orange sky. (For more on this album and all of Bowei's work up to Tonight, so far, see the brilliant blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame.) Here, the alien is subject to a very Earthly anomie.

Newton is a man who, ultimately, finds himself trapped by the delusive energies of the America he had come to use for his own ends. Bowie, however, escaped, with a sequence of brilliant albums to come. The Man Who Fell to Earth is, as its title suggests, in some senses a tragedy, about the fall of an ethical being when confronted with the addictive corruptions of Earth. For Bowie, the film was yet another transition point, and Newton another character, another persona, to be added to the gallery.


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