Friday, December 5, 2014

The Man Who Fell to Earth

In continuation of my project of watching seventies sci-fi movies, my wife and I recently rented The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie. And...whoa. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a movie with more sex and full-frontal nudity. As to special effects, there are next to none. The movie mostly consists of David Bowie wandering around, obviously stoned, saying and doing incomprehensible things. Its weirdness factor approaches that of Eraserhead. Mmm, maybe not quite that, but it's very weird. I guess it says something about how warped I am that I kind of liked it.

What did I like about it? It's disjointed, granted, and there are too many gaps in the logic to count; it comes out to less than the sum of its parts. It does tell a definite story, the story of an alien who comes to earth to get water for his dying planet, creates a billion-dollar electronics corporation to attain his goals, gets lonely and addicted to alcohol and TV, loses everything, and ends up a bum musician, estranged from the haplessly boozy girl who'd been his one solace, stuck forever on earth while his wife and children die on his planet. It sounds pretty crazy when you reduce it to that. And it is crazy. But really it's a movie about loneliness, alienation.

Here is a scene that stands out. The alien, Mr. Newton, knowing that his secret has been discovered by a scientist, goes into the bathroom, removes his prosthetic disguise, and emerges to confront his girlfriend. She is so terrified that, horribly, she wets herself. She attempts to love him as he is – love-making on the alien planet appears to consist of becoming covered in goo and engaging in intimate contact (like frogs spawning, perhaps?) – but it is simply too much for her, and they split up, despite the real love she has for him. It's bizarre, disgusting, sad, and beautiful all at once, which pretty much describes the entire movie.

It's one of those elliptical seventies cult favorites, rich in suggestion but poor (one suspects) in actual meaning, that attract any number of idiosyncratic secret-message interpretations. There are all kinds of unexplained little details, like the glittery golden helmets the assassins wear when they hurl the owlish patent attorney and his lover through an apartment window, or the fact that Mr. Newton is imprisoned by shadowy government forces in a palatial suite with a bed suspended from chains behind a secret door in a rec room. There's a rising sense of paranoia, lurking conspiracy, and societal decay. Obscure characters from the beginning of the movie give television interviews toward the end. Events have a nightmarish significance and connection with one another. There are strange side plots that appear not to go anywhere, characters that enter the stage, say cryptic things, and vanish without explanation.

David Bowie, stoned or not, is terrific as Mr. Newton. This is the third role I've seen him in, the others being Andy Warhol in Basquiat and the Goblin King in Labyrinth. He has a strange but compelling magnetism. Candy Clark plays the lonely, boozy hotel maid Mary Lou, who becomes Mr. Newton's lover and introduces him to alcohol and church. She's also quite good in her role. She's very pretty in a wholesome, comforting way, and has a nice, rounded Texoma accent. We meet the character when she carries the frail Mr. Newton, who's suffering from a nosebleed and some sort of gravitational malady brought on by an elevator ride at a seedy border-town hotel, into his room and tends to him with touching concern. She's pretty much the opposite of Mr. Newton, and they seem not to be very good for one another, but their ultimate alienation brings real sadness.

What made me want to watch the movie was knowing its connection with Philip K. Dick's VALIS, a book that fascinates me for some reason. The book features a stand-in for David Bowie and a much-modified version of the film, which is portrayed as having a secret message. The idea of a movie having secret messages about government conspiracies or direct connections with your dreams is something that would strike only a paranoid schizophrenic as reasonable. But, to be fair, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a movie that encourages that kind of thinking. It seems always to be saying less than it's really saying under the surface, with a true meaning grasped only by the initiated.

Well, it's not a movie I can really recommend, unless you don't mind lots and lots of sex and awkward fondling and full-frontal nudity. That said, the "love" scenes are so odd as to rob them of any prurient interest, and actually fit rather well with the movie as a whole in an artistic sense.
 All in all I rather liked it, and, though it's not one I'll be rushing to watch again anytime soon, I imagine that the impression it made will remain for a good while.

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