Liner notes for the 1992 Criterion Collection laserdisc
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Released the year before Close Encounters of the Third Kind
and Star Wars, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth is a
science-fiction film without science, a terrestrial space opera minus matte
shots, models or pyrotechnics that leaves us not wondering at the stars but
grieving for our selves. Maddeningly structured, defiantly ambiguous (some say
incoherent), yet powerfully moving, it was described by its director at the time
of its release simply as "a mysterious American love story."
The Man Who Fell to
Earth is a serious film that runs to garishness, a cerebral film flooded
with emotion, in which plot counts less than picture and event less than
essence, silence carries as much weight as speech and much remains intentionally
unexplained. "If questions are answered patly," Roeg has said, "the audience is
distanced." That attitude has created a career's worth of troublesome, even
anti-logical movies -- from Performance, Walkabout and Don't
Look Now in the '70s to Insignificance and Track 29 in the
'80s -- that trust the viewer to gather, sort and tie together (or not) the
loose ends. Although unsympathetic critics deem it a failing, it's the very
quality that makes Roeg a revival-house perennial.
In The Man Who Fell
to Earth, adapted from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The
Hustler), the director is at his most flamboyantly fractured. Screenwriter
Paul Mayersberg has described its parade of scenes as "circus acts following one
another -- the funny, the violent, the frightening, the sad, the horrific, the
spectacular." Roeg delights here in "taking away the crutch of time" ("It has
puzzled people whether 25 minutes or 25 years have passed in the film"),
eliminating transitions, cross-cutting, flashing forward and back, piling
dissolve upon dissolve, letting the camera jerk and twirl and zoom -- finding
new ways to see familiar things, while speculating on what the world might look
like to someone from Out There. Pauline Kael called Roeg "perhaps the most
visually seductive of directors," and this is a film of symbols and visions: a
white horse running in twilight, a sequence of stars turning to fireworks
turning to city lights, water exploding backwards into a lake.
hallucinatory mix can be distilled the tale of a space traveler who comes to
Earth seeking relief for his drought-stricken planet. Images of water, from
cloud to ice cube, play against those of burning sun and sand, cool hues war
with warm. Earthly diversions distract him from his mission, earthly agents
imprison and discard him. Fatally innocent, he ends drunk and lonely, lost among
humans and trapped in human skin. There are scattered echoes of the mythic
(Icarus the fallen, Chris the descended and martyred), along with indictments of
contemporary wastelands: government, academia, television (used here as a kind
of Greek chorus). In fact, The Man Who Fell to Earth is fundamentally
about wastelands -- ecological, cultural, and most of all, personal.
the alien, sporting a British passport and the fitting name of Newton (Sir
Isaac's second law -- the one about entropy -- suggests a key theme), Roeg cast
David Bowie. As Roeg's second rock star lead -- Mick Jagger first turned actor
in Performance -- Bowie is remarkably effective and unaffected. In a way,
Bowie had already cast himself in the role, having made his mark in the guise of
Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous, eyebrowless pop star from space, clad in the
Flash Gordon garb that helped spawn glitter rock. Like Newton, he was a man in a
mask and, at the time, in a compatible state of real-life nervous exhaustion.
Antiheroic to a fault in the mid-'70s mode, he fit uncannily Tevis' original
description of Newton, with his "almost transparent skin ... graceful woman's
hand ... strong, unmanlike, unsexual nature."
Other casting choices were
just as inspired: Screenwriter/actor Buck Henry (The Graduate) underplays
Bowie's corporate right hand; cult leading man Rip Torn (Payday) is a
"disillusioned scientist" who befriends and betrays the alien; and football star
Bernie Casey incarnates the amoral moralism of a government intelligence don.
Best of all is the remarkable Candy Clark -- fresh from an Oscar nomination for
American Graffiti -- as Mary Lou, the hotel clerk who becomes Newton's
consort. She finds courage and anguish in a character a lesser actress might
have played as dumb and selfish. Her scenes with Bowie, including some highly
charged, absolutely natural sex scenes (a Roeg trademark) form the film's
This is, after all, "a love story." But it's Roeg's
constant theme that love has its limits. "We can't explain much to each other,"
he has said. "The eternal lover's question is "What are you thinking about?" His
films are full of characters who, like Newton and Mary Lou, connect only
fitfully and never quite understand one another, yet are required by the fate
that binds them, to try. The question of stalled intimacy, of short-circuited
communication, is closest to Roeg's heart. Commenting on a later film, Bad
Timing: A Sensual Obsession, Roeg observed, "We're trapped in our shells.
Skin can be beautiful one moment and frightening the next." The Man Who Fell
to Earth is a precise, even literal, expression of that idea.
Copyright © 1992 and 2006 by Mr. Robert
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