Monday, 9 May 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth: Performance (slight return), Rip Torn’s winkle.

You may recall my blog entry on Performance detailing my trip with my excellent friend JCC to see it as part of a Nicolas Roeg retrospective at the BFI in London. JCC had also very kindly secured me a ticket to see The Man Who Fell To Earth, so I found myself going to the BFI twice in three days. Last month found me going there still again, for the fourth time over a six-week period, to a screening of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, this time in the splendid company of Mrs M and my friends M and Cat. Considering I dislike cinema-going, never going to a multiplex more than twice a year, and was a complete BFI virgin before I went to see La Vallée in mid-February, I’m positively rocking out here.

My problem with the average cinemaplex, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked me that question. I hate the modern ‘movie villages’ with their tasteless popcorn, overpriced hotdogs, supersize tubs of Pepsi Max that might be disgusting if it wasn’t quite so watered down and the annoying, undisciplined people who insist on buying the aforementioned products as if they might starve over the next two hours. Mine is not a phobia, simply an extreme, snobbish distaste. A friend recently reported a rat sighting in her local — and literal — fleapit. Yes, in 2011. Still, don't mind me. You may have read about my affable, selective misanthropy in an earlier blog posting.

I am pleased to report that the BFI does not present too many of these problems. It isn’t a dog ‘n’ popcorn kind of venue, with only civilised sit-down eateries on site, for a start. The majority of people who go there are either members of the BFI itself or are going to see a specific film that they have made a careful, forethought appointment to view, more-or-less ensuring that you will find yourself in an auditorium full of people — whisper it quietly — who have come to sit in silence and watch the film. Best of all, you can bring your drink in with you, so you don’t feel compelled to neck it in the bar beforehand and find yourself ducking out midway through the flick to visit the restroom. Since the only beverages to be bought are the measures from the BFI bar, you will not be laden down with a waxed paper tub of slurried-ice gank the size of your head that you’ll never finish — and the chances of anyone getting seriously plastered on whatever remaining booze they bring in with them is unlikely. Nor is food allowed inside, obviating the spillage of crumbs, popcorn, rats, hotdog sauces and paper packaging waste as to be found at any multiplex theatre. Damn right, too. Seriously, you aren’t going to expire without these tasteless provisions. Show some self-control.

Now, I do recall distinctly that I’d report back about The Man Who Fell To Earth and I am not about to lie to my blog-reading faithful. At least not so you can tell. Like Performance though, I shan’t go into too much detail: unlike Performance, it was a film already known to me, and — spoiler alert! — not the most exciting of movies at that, so the thrill of reporting my findings on The Man Who Fell To Earth is minimal and I cannot find the will to discuss it for any great length. My apologies. How’s that for honesty?

And so on to our main feature. Many of the tricks Nicolas Roeg employed in Performance make a (slight) return in The Man Who Fell To Earth — and seeing the former only 48 hours earlier made setting the one against the other an easy association. The latter film suffers by direct comparison for certain. Starting with the widest of generalities, what we have here are a pair of Roeg movies with a central selling point: a performance by a major rock star not widely associated with the acting profession at that time. Roeg would continue this trend with 1981’s Bad Timing, starring Art Garfunkel, by the way. Add seasoning — in every sense of the word — with a decent, experienced actor in a role of equal screentime: Performance has James Fox, The Man Who Fell To Earth has Rip Torn. Throw in some shady background players of variable acting ability, portraying gangsters (Performance) or lawyers (The Man Who Fell To Earth) and some rather flimsily essayed female sex interest figures and there you have it: one film that’s, er, still not as good as the other. One of the main problems is pacing — it doesn’t half go on so. The other problem is that the script doesn’t convince and there’s a palpable sense that the actors know this. So a certain lack of commitment to the story is in evidence, which does the film and its stars few favours, with everyone showing a slight touch of wood — to say nothing of Rip Torn’s flaccid penis.

Moving swiftly on, moving schwiftly on, my love for David Bowie’s music is considerable and far-reaching. Let’s just say that he was the first musician whose oeuvre I actively got into, rather than having a mere, passive liking for the odd single or album. Considering this was in the mid-Eighties, when his credibility was treading water in the creative doldrums (forgive me), it’s a testimony to the man that his reputation divided opinion quite forcefully among my fellow 14-year-old schoolchums: he was ‘weird’, possibly a ‘queer’ and best of all, ‘not as weird as he used to be’ — and that’s just from the ones who quite liked him. Fourteen-year-old boys: my mate Sid called that time at school ‘the Heavy Metal Gay Years’, neatly summing up the preoccupations, expectations and fears of a generation. I would so very much like to skew this article into a passionate appraisal of Bowie, his musical career and my affection for the man himself, but that, like so many other things, is a blog entry all its own for another time. I do know how to dangle ‘em before your eyes, though, eh?

In any case, the major sales point of The Man Who Fell To Earth is David Bowie in the titular part of Thomas Jerome Newton — the first lead role in a cinematic career that has always been entertaining, if not for all the right reasons. Newton has crash-landed on Earth from a distant planet where water has become scarce and his family are dying. Through flashbacks we see Newton in true, bald, hairless, lizard-eyed guise, desperately trekking with his nuclear family across deserted wastelands. Once on Earth, and suitably disguised as a human — at least as well as the David Bowie of 1975 could muster — he makes enormous sums of money, through mostly unseen deals, by trading his advanced technological know-how to large businesses. Newton hopes to amass a large enough fortune to finance the repair of his craft, effect a journey home with some of the Earth water his people covet and maybe broker a trading opportunity between the two species.

Bowie has said on several occasions that he barely recalls any of the filming: it’s well documented that he was enduring some paranoid and psychotic episodes due mostly to the vast amounts of cocaine he was on at the time. For a start, he was living in Los Angeles; hardly a spot conducive to cleanliness and sobriety for any young, famous and celebrated chap in the music industry in the mid-Seventies. Alan Yentob’s 1975 Bowie profile, Cracked Actor, documents this period with more detail than Bowie may possibly (want to) recall, but still only scratches the surface of what was going through Bromley Dave’s mind then. I suspect that Bowie’s memory regarding his LA period is neither narcotically suppressed nor press-dodging disingenuousness, but a genuine desire to forget a grim period in his life. By all other accounts, eldritch tales abound of spirits seen in the swimming pool, excrement stored up in containers as part of Magickal rituals safeguarding against demonic possession, scary monsters half-glimpsed in photographs and the all-too-real super creeps — the hangers-on and dealers that inevitably comprise any fragile rock star’s entourage. Add in a suspected heart attack (which later formed the basis of Bowie’s 1977 song ‘Blackout’), Bowie’s inability to provide a coherent soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth (he was found slumped across the studio mixing desk, randomly flicking faders at one point) and the disintegration of his marriage — and the California sunshine never seemed so dark.

Earl Slick, playing guitar on StationToStation, the album Bowie was working on concurrently, remarked, “It occurred to me that I was working with someone, who under any other circumstances, should be under lock and key.” It’s a testimony to Bowie’s songwriting genius, which was paradoxically at its height, that the resulting album is truly magnificent.

Anyway, back to his part as Newton. Bowie, always possessing something of the ‘alien who walks among us’ vibe in his persona as a rule, does well here, being nervy and naturalistic — if that can be said for a portrayal of an extraterrestrial — and trades wisely on his physical characteristics: his spare, lean frame topped off by a double shock of ginger hair and luminescent skin, his softly spoken voice and a curious, childlike, vulnerable air. There’s no question that he’s the reason to watch the film. In this respect, The Man Who Fell To Earth differs from Performance, which holds your attention more than capably long before Jagger sways delicately into frame.

Rip Torn would of course go on to greater prominence working with other aliens as the gruffly avuncular Z in the Men In Black films — and as his rambunctiously boozy behaviour offscreen in recent years has testified, it’s not a million miles away from ‘the method’. Here in 1976 he brings an already weary, disillusioned worldview to the part of Dr Nathan Bryce, college lecturer turned cynical employee who tires of bedding one lissom graduate after another and finds himself employed by Newton to help make his space vehicle viable again. Torn has a good way with a hang-dog manner and the occasional flash of sardonic humour. Sample line: “for a whole year I concentrated equally on two things: fucking and World Enterprises. It was neck and neck.” Sadly, I don’t think old Rip maintains the momentum of his early scenes and the character becomes directionless and unconvincing after a while. I’ll concede in Torn’s defence, as I said earlier, that much of this is down to the script and decelerating pace of the later scenes in the film, and this torpidity affects everyone sooner or later. Poor Rip.

Newton finds even small amounts of alcohol dangerously intoxicating and fittingly, drinks water constantly. He’s also not a brave traveller, whom we learn has a terrible time in vehicles that move too quickly. While on a visit to a hotel, Newton has an ‘episode’ in a fast-moving elevator and has to be carried from it, semi-conscious, by Mary-Lou — a chambermaid played by Candy Clark. After settling him in a room, and clearly finding him fascinating, Mary-Lou begins to visit this edgy, angular stranger over several days and a relationship — of sorts — ensues.

Candy Clark showed previous promising form as a teen in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and indeed auditioned later for the part of Princess Leia in Star Wars. Clark plays Mary-Lou as a feckless country hayseed, almost instantly out of her depth with her otherworldly, would-be beau and desperate to be liked by him. Skinny, awkward, but a little toothy-cute in a chambermaid outfit, her earliest scenes with Bowie are possibly her most outstanding, attentive and sweet, as she tentatively questions him and tremulously requests, first-date-style, if she can come and see him another time. Later, her reaction on first seeing Newton sans human disguise is, shall-we-say, one of the better and more authentic responses to this phenomenon seen in modern movies: she pees herself. Unfortunately, Clark, like Rip Torn, also feels the drag of the later scenes, especially when Mary-Lou is seen as a middle-aged woman, and her character loses drive, ultimately possessing neither the sass nor the smarts that would make her truly likeable or sympathetic. Bowie recalled that Clark’s voice had a quality that could strip wallpaper. Given that he’s been quoted having virtually no recall of making the film at all, it’s remarkable he remembers this — slightly unfair — detail. Poor Candy.

As a child, I first saw the film when shown on BBC2 as part of a sci-fi/monster movie season. When set against the likes of King Kong, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and so on, The Man Who Fell To Earth is a markedly different, grittier, unglamorous proposition. It’s certainly not a kid’s film anyway, containing plenty of gratuitous nudity and rather inconsequential, unappealing, sex scenes, which at least gave the film some credibility and cachet among me and my schoolchums at a time when any exposed nipple on TV was worth discussing. I also wonder if Roeg enjoyed the truckload of Beefeater Gin that I’m guessing he received in payment for all the visible placement of this product in several places throughout the film. While containing some incoherent imagery, The Man Who Fell To Earth also has its fair share of striking, expertly surreal, visual moments. The scene where the pocket-sized Candy Clark manhandles Bowie’s inert frame and carries him, step by dragging step, down the hotel corridor while blood flows freely from his nose, is disturbing in itself, but resonates doubly so with anyone knowing Bowie’s propensity for ODing at the time. One of the few moments of bleak humour comes when a pair of bodybuilding characters are killed and while one is seen to be thrown from the heights of a skyscraper, the death of the other is only implied by the marvellously incongruous sight of his barbells drifting serenely through the sky. The scenes set on Newton’s home planet are mostly well-realised, inasmuch as they convey the desolation and the need for water. Bowie and his alien family actors are resplendent in lizard-pupil lenses and still-suits conveying liquid visibly through clear plastic tubes, in a similar fashion to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Their gait and bearing is intriguingly affected and stylised, anticipating the kind of moves Anthony Daniels would use successfully to animate C-3PO in Star Wars a year later. Only an alien land transport — a flimsy, hair-covered monorail car — fails to convince, eliciting an audible snigger from the BFI audience as it trundled forlornly off screen, somewhat derailing the moment as it went.

Fans of Bowie’s albums StationToStation (1976) and Low (1977) will no doubt spot the moments in the film that were adapted and used as the covers for those records: Newton entering the interior of his spacecraft with Dr Bryce in tow graced the former album and the famous ‘Low profile’ shot of Bowie comes from a scene later in the film where Newton, in hoodie, gazes forever across a lake from the seclusion of his Japanese-style hut. There is something deliciously vivid and strange about seeing an iconic image, so long held in single frame on a million record sleeves, shifting inexorably into and then out of position as a moving picture. Bowie evidently liked the way Roeg made him look and the fact that most Bowie publicity and merchandise used stills from The Man Who Fell To Earth extensively for the next two years or so says a lot for the overall visual style of the film, as sure here as it was in Performance.

At the climax of the film — and I assure you, this is no spoiler either — Newton hangs his head towards camera, the brim of his hat eclipsing his features. The credits roll over this woebegone image, pose held with no freeze frame, for over a minute. The wind bothers some plants behind. A table cloth is in danger of blowing away. Louis Armstrong plays lugubriously. It’s a suitably rueful, downbeat ending. Poor Newton. In light of how Bowie failed to deliver music for the film, it’s also a rather sad image to accompany the credits for Stomu Yamashta, John Phillips and many, many others who do comprise the soundtrack, but not David. Poor David.

I don’t urge you to go and see The Man Who Fell To Earth, but if you’ve read this far, you were probably already interested enough. I’m not in any great hurry to see it again, but it was good to see it on the big screen at any rate. Thank goodness Carrie Fisher won the part in Star Wars, though.


Currently listening to:
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (Peter Hammill, 1974)
Present (Van der Graaf Generator, 2005)
Trisector (Van der Graaf Generator, 2007)
A Grounding In Numbers (Van der Graaf Generator, 2011)

Currently reading:
Nothing this week.

Currently watching:
Doctor Who: Terror Of The Autons (BBC, 1971)
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Mindless fun with Bruce Willis.
Die Hard II: Die Harder (Renny Harlin, 1990) More mindless fun with Bruce Willis. Only not as good.
Die Hard With A Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995) Yet more mindless fun with Bruce Willis. Better than the previous one.


  1. I was about to search for the story about the evil thing half glimpsed in a photograph. Then it occurred to me that I actually know you and could just ask.

    But I concur, it is a strange experience. Ever seen Liquid Sky? Always reminds me of that...

  2. I've not seen Liquid Sky, but reading the synopsis on Wikipedia certainly chimes with all this mid-seventies LA madness indeed! I daresay Liquid Sky was inspired by similar charlie-driven experiences at the same time given the film's vintage. A direct reaction in fact! Even the font used on the movie poster is like the "Bowie" font on Diamond Dogs!