Some years ago I bought my first DVD from Movies Unlimited in Northeast Philadelphia. Last summer I had the good fortune to see that same film on the big screen at the Ritz Bourse. The film I am speaking of is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) starring David Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn. The narrative comes from the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis about an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, only to become the prisoner of corporate America and a paranoid government.
This film succeeds at manipulating the audiences’ awareness of the passage of time within the narrative with a subtlety rarely seen in the cinema. Roeg does not employ fancy fade effects or title cards; the main stays of the device in mainstream movie making. Rather, Roeg allows his scenes to pass fluidly, one to the other, without pause or the disruption of the films narrative sequence. What Roeg does to convey the thirty years covered in the film’s narrative is to apply make-up onto the actors. This forces the passage of time directly into the visual components of the film, so that it becomes the audience’s responsibility to observe the effects.
In Roeg’s film David Bowie plays the alien Thomas Newton, Candy Clark his mistress Mary-Lou, Rip Torn the speculative scientist. All three performers have very different and contrasting styles. Bowie’s training was in Mime, Rip Torn’s the stage, and Clark had been in the movies since adolescence. The contrast is used by Roeg to heighten the tensions between his diverse characters, but also to re-enforce the other worldliness of Newton. Roeg perfected this device in his first two features Performance and Walkabout. Both films cast non-actors opposite professional actors to dramatize cultural and psychological differences. The necessity of such a contrast was never more prevalent in Roeg’s filmography as in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
In the Roeg cannon, The Man Who Fell To Earth is also the most visually fantastic of his films. The genre of science fiction permits the acceptance of fantastical images by the audience more than any other genre (consider Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky’s Solaris). Slow motion, double exposure, super imposition, etc, are all tools Roeg skillfully implements, often sparingly, to construct an alternate vision of America from the perspective of Newton. More striking than these effects is Roeg’s use of light and color. Roeg places scenes of darkness opposite those with bold, flat color back to back. This provides the audience with cues pertaining to the sterile nature of Newton’s technological environment, and the oppression experienced by Newton in these impersonal and colorful settings. Where as the shadowy sequences, where Newton has a natural cover for his alien form, are the most liberating for the character sociologically and sexually.
It’s a shame that The Man Who Fell To Earth is relegated to the genre of seventies cult classics in terms of its marketing. Though I suppose that the majority of film goers know the film simply as a weird Bowie picture whose stills are featured on his album covers for Station To Station and Low. It is a highly stylized and uniquely nuanced piece of filmmaking. I am speaking as both an avid David Bowie fan and a great admirer of Nicolas Roeg. Check this one out again if you haven’t already.