Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH              A                    
Great Britain  (139 mi)  1976  ‘Scope  d:  Nicolas Roeg

Adapted from a sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis, who just a few years earlier enjoyed success with his 1959 book The Hustler, which featured the iconic movie performances of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, which at its core embraces ultra realism, identifying with the alienation of a character who feels continually out of place, as if his life has been one wrong turn after another, while this 1964 novel exhibits a similar theme of perpetual alienation yet with a substantially different style, one that may refer to but does not accentuate the imaginings of space ships or life in outer space or other typical science fiction devices, choosing instead to examine the world as it existed at the time the story was written, but visualized more clearly through the eyes of a space visitor.  This is one of Nicolas Roeg’s most ambitious and more notable films as it perhaps best represents his working style and imagination, free from commercial interference, as there were fewer economic restrictions and more artistic freedom exhibited in films during the 70’s than exist today, especially sexual freedom, most likely due to the influx of foreign films of the late 60’s that featured nudity on American movie screens.  Perhaps most unusual is the highly complex sound design, a distinguished feature of WALKABOUT (1971), which becomes beautifully connected to the alien’s inner thoughts, where the carefully chosen music or use of film clips are brilliantly interwoven into the themes of the film.  The film is not overtly political, yet raises pertinent questions about the trappings of capitalism, which allows one nation to hoard the world’s resources while indulging in unabated and excessive consumption.  The depiction of government is excessively bleak, as it is portrayed as a secret underground operation, an unseen force that does its dirty work outside the parameters of public viewing, obsessed with protecting itself, even at the expense of public interest, as it can’t take the chance that things might turn out differently than what has been planned for and anticipated.  There’s an interesting parallel to the mafia, suggesting they are not like the mafia, as they are depicted as ordinary human beings who strive to raise their children like everyone else, supposedly a universal ideal, yet they carry out their enforcement business in much the same way, as they don’t allow for competing or alternative views, and take whatever action is necessary to guarantee their way prevails.

 The androgynous David Bowie plays the space visitor Thomas Newton who mysteriously lands on earth during the opening credits, carrying with him a collection of gold rings which he uses for start up money before contacting Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a patent lawyer, offering him highly advanced scientific ideas that don’t exist on earth yet, such as self developing film, eventually building a corporate empire together that makes him one of the richest men on earth.  His initial contact with the human race is a befuddling experience, as he haggles with a woman who could easily be one of the oldest humans on earth, where throughout the film his impressions of the world around him and the people in it keep changing, initially brimming with optimism and hope, beaming with youthful idealizations, eventually becoming more cynical and cryptic, as the world is not what it seems.  From a distance, earth is viewed as the water planet, as Newton’s own planet has nearly depleted its water supply, so Newton has left his wife and two children in search of bringing water back to his planet.   This isn’t known initially and is seen in an extremely eloquent dreamlike sequence to the haunting music from The Fantastiks, “Try to Remember.”  The incomparable Candy Clark, Toad’s (Charles Martin Smith’s) girlfriend in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), who at the time was the director’s girlfriend, plays earthling Mary Lou (also Newton’s wife in his recurring planet reveries), the first to befriend Newton, using a motherly approach as he seems weak and fragile after his ordeal, keeping an eye on him, nursing him back to health, offering herself, her rambling conversation and her love of gin as his evening’s amusement, but he’s more obsessed with drinking water.  When she realizes he has corporate idealizations, she’s literally swept off her feet, as she’s a small town girl from New Mexico who’s seen the good side of life pass her by, so she latches onto him, continually keeping him company, even as she discovers he already has a family living elsewhere.  His continual longing for this faraway family adds a streak of pathos and sadness, where drinking alcohol seems to accentuate these visions of home, but Mary Lou is always seen at his side, building a home on the side of a lake which has a sense of peace and tranquility.

Newton also hires none other than Rip Torn as scientist Nathan Bryce, initially seen as the exact opposite kind of man as Newton, a wild, animalistic and lustful man with a taste for young teenage students when he was a professor at college.  When he hires Bryce to secretly begin work building a space ship, Bryce grows suspicious and wonders what lurks behind the mask of his strange new employer.  Bryce’s suspicions alert Newton to the kinds of human scrutiny he will eventually be subjected to, yet the full force of it is beyond even his highly evolved imagination.  The actual moment that Newton plans to exit the planet in his newly built space ship is seen in newsreel television style, filled with all the pandemonium an event like that would attract, with the entire world watching, where his identity has been kept as secret as possible, but begins to unravel at the moment of truth when after being betrayed by his own friends the government prevents him from taking off, literally kidnapping him, whisking him away in secret seclusion and plying him with plenty of alcohol to wile his troubles away, where at this point time seems to stop.  Everyone else ages and seems to forget Newton and his brazen ambitions, which have all been forgotten as if it was some kind of hoax perpetuated on the public, like some kind of stunt.  Newton however looks the same, never aging, but becomes consumed in alcoholism and despair, keeping his millions, yet having nowhere on earth, or outer space, where he can go, literally imprisoned for what appears to be decades.  In a nod to Kubrick’s deplorable corrective, criminal deprogramming therapy from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), or the malicious totalitarian control exhibited in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) where individualism or free will is literally lobotomized in the interest of the State, scientists, in the name of advancing the public good, stick him and prod him like some kind of guinea pig, supposedly trying to get at the origin or source of just who and what he is, while actually performing some of the more dastardly and dehumanizing tests imaginable, showing little regard for the patient’s well being, continually probing him, all in the name of science.  In the book, they accidentally cause him to go blind, though the movie version is not quite as bleak, as instead it is his spirit and his will to live that is broken, where he is eventually released silently without a word, no longer of interest to the State, the public welfare, or even himself, just another broken heap tossed aside and left on the side of the road where he will no longer constitute a threat to society, a humbled man forever exiled from his world.     

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