Jan. 10, 2016 was surely a sad day for music fans across the world. The loss of the incomparable David Bowie will be felt for a long time to come. So I wanted to take this opportunity to dedicate my review this month to the Thin White Duke himself by reviewing his debut film The Man Who Fell to Earth, one of my personal all-time favorites.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a hallucinatory science fiction film that chronicles the mission of an alien (Bowie) sent to Earth in search of water for his dying home planet and his subsequent pursuit by shadowy government agents. At least technically that’s what it is “about.” Based on Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth tells a much more human story of love, isolation, loss and betrayal. It is an indictment of modern materialistic America, corrupted by television, sex, drugs, religion and government.
Directed by Nic Roeg, the film’s story unfolds in a mysterious, fragmented and often incoherent narrative. Roeg’s infamous unconventional stream-of-consciousness editing style leaves it to the viewer to decipher meaning and chronology. It is a kaleidescope of visions and symbols to be puzzled over through multiple viewings.
David Bowie plays our earthbound alien as only he could, embodying the androgynous being who bears a significant resemblance to his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Tall, gaunt, pale, almost translucent skin and orange hair, Bowie brings to life the character of Thomas Jerome Newton. Newton arrives on Earth armed with enough original scientific patents to make him one of the wealthiest men on the planet. He uses these patents to build a massive technological corporation, World Enterprises. Buck Henry is Oliver Farnsworth, Newton’s corporate godhead and lawyer. The always amazing Rip Torn is Dr. Bryce, a disillusioned chemistry professor with a penchant for female student bodies who becomes obsessed with World Enterprises and their mysterious new technologies. Candy Clark plays a gin-swilling hotel clerk who becomes Newton’s consort and lover.
Nic Roeg is one of my most favorite film directors. His brilliant film Walkabout (also on Criterion) affected me more than any other movie I have ever seen. It is what prompted me to seek out more of his work which led me to The Man Who Fell to Earth long before it made its way into the Criterion collection. Like Walkabout, it had an immediate and lasting impression on me. I’ve found myself over the years recommending these two films more than any others to young, blossoming film students and aficionados.
Since this is a dedication to Mr. Bowie, I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of his other film roles throughout the years. Judging only by what I’ve seen, he always seemed to choose roles meant specifically for him, roles that I just couldn’t imagine anyone else ever playing. Of course I have to first bring up Labyrinth. Jareth the Goblin King, my earliest introduction to David Bowie (and David Bowie’s package in those tight, tight pants) as a young child. Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Definitely an unconventional casting choice, but so is the entire rest of the cast. Also on Criterion. Andy Warhol in the biopic Basquiat, one of my favorite roles of his. He plays the spacey pop icon absolutely hysterically. Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Again, he plays the mysterious mad scientist perfectly, a wonderful casting choice. Though I haven’t seen it yet I have to mention Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, another Criterion release starring Mr. Bowie. Also, although he doesn’t physically star in it, I have to bring up another Criterion film, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, which prominently features many of his songs (some even in Portuguese). I credit it for getting me hooked on Bowie. It was “Life on Mars” that did it for me and then cemented with “Queen Bitch”.
Whether he was making music or making movies, David Bowie always played by his own rules, constantly reinventing himself despite opinions of others. He will be missed but his work will live on.
Now, dance, magic dance!