‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Man Who Fell to Earth (dir, Nick Roeg, 1976)

[This is a review of the Special Edition DVD (2-Discs, OPTD0732) release of Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth that I wrote some years ago for an academic journal. I thought it might be an idea to blog it. And so, here we are.]

Roeg’s reputation as a major director rests chiefly on three of his 1970s films: Walkabout (1971), in which an ordinary young girl encounters the radical strangeness of the Australian outback; Don’t Look Now (1973), another strange, but strangely affecting, movie that combines psychological portraiture, erotic drama and ghost story to striking effect; and the science fictional The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). This last is perhaps the strangest of the three, a work in which humanity as a whole is defamiliarised by being seen through the eyes of David Bowie’s visiting humanoid alien. In all three films Roeg develops a visual grammar to express the encounter with weirdness that is at the core of his directorial praxis. Indeed, one way of assessing the DVD release of this title is to try and gauge the extent to which this visual grammar is still capable of creatively estranging its viewer.

It’s a question raised by DVD re-releases in general, actually, since the commercial habit the format has engendered of re-releasing classic movies with a large amount of extra material will inevitably tend towards the ironing-out of any mysteries or uncertainties pertaining to the films themselves. Interviews with film-makers, directors commentaries and the like strive to explain everything about a given film; and owning a film in such a convenient form enables multiple repeat viewings in a way largely alien to the 1970s film viewer, who tended to see a film once, or (at most) a couple of times in the cinema. Certainly, such complete explanation would be detrimental to the effectiveness of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which depends for its hefty emotional and imaginative punch on a dreamlike unclarity, a lucid impression of deeper mysteries that would surely disintegrate on too rigorous an analysis.

To this end, this DVD re-release of Roeg’s film does its job.  Despite running to two discs the release contains no commentary from its director, or anybody else, on the main feature. The extras, such as they are, are confined to the second disc, and they are scanty.  There’s a short making-of documentary largely based upon interviews with Roeg, producer Michael Deeley, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and actor Candy Clark (evidently neither Bowie himself nor Rip Torn could be persuaded into the studio to face questions) as well as some of the technical staff—costume designer, cinematographer, editor.  There are in addition two separate interviews, with Roeg and Mayersberg, in which much of the material from the making-of is reiterated . And then there are trailers, TV-spots and other advertising material.  Compared with many DVD re-releases this is thin fare.

Moreover Roeg, in particular, is endearingly unforthcoming about the deeper meanings of his own project.  In interview he tends, in his patrician mumble, towards either vatic incomprehensibilities (‘it’s … like a butterfly being friendly with a dormouse’) or else he gives voice to various rather disconnected trains of thought.  ‘It had,’ he says of the script, ‘a human ethos to it—it was not just sci-fi … mere sci-fi … not sci-fi … I mean, I like sci-fi … but it … um … the character of Mr Newton interested me.’

The Mr Newton whose character so intrigued Roeg is the alien whose fall is alluded to in the movie’s title.  The film begins with his spaceship literally falling out of the sky into a New Mexico lake; and the plot marks out the title character’s metaphorical rise and fall.  To begin with we see Newton marketing advanced alien photographic technology to earthlings in order to accrue a fortune.  He also begins a relationship with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a sweetly innocent girl working in a small New Mexico hotel.  Newton’s plan, it seems, is to make enough money to build a spaceship and return to his dying planet—scenes are intercut of Newton’s alien wife and two children that show a desiccated desert world.  He leaves his business affairs in the hands of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and retreats to New Mexico to live, more or less, as a Howard Hughes-style recluse, employing university lecturer Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) to help him build the space ship. In a striking sequence Newton reveals his alienness to Mary-Lou by removing his humanising wig and contact lenses—to her initial and urinous fright, although she subsequently accepts and even continues having sex with the alien. Bryce also has his suspicions that Newton is an extraterrestrial, and eventually betrays him to the authorities—government agents, presumably from the CIA, lurk in the margins of many scenes. Newton’s attempt to return to his home world is thwarted, and he is imprisoned in a bizarre luxury apartment built inside a warehouse, where ‘they’ (we assume, government agents) experiment upon him.

By the end of the film Mary-Lou and Bryce, visibly older, have become a couple. Newton on the other hand looks as young as ever, despite years of alcohol abuse—one Earthly vice to which he has succumbed. Newton has given up hope of returning to his home, and instead has recorded an album of pop music in the hope that, being played on the radio, its message will eventually reach his wife. Both Mary-Lou and Bryce meet Newton again, separately, and the film ends abruptly, during the second of these meetings. Newton’s minder interrupts Bryce’s conversation: ‘don’t you think Mr Newton has had enough now?’ ‘Yes,’ says Bryce, ‘I think he probably has’. Newton makes a sort of high-pitched ‘mm’ noise and lowers his head so that the wide brim of his hat obscures his face.

The strangeness of the film has to do with a deliberate reticence, a disinclination to tie-up the plot neatly, and is partly a function of Roeg’s characteristically oblique and fractured editing and intercutting. We never learn exactly what the government agents are up to, or even who they are. We don’t even learn, exactly, what Newton was doing on earth—his own world is parched, and he initially shows great reverence for Earthly water, but there’s no indication that he makes any plans to (for instance) ship water from planet to planet. The early scenes imply that Newton’s new technology is revolutionary, but in later scenes it seems to have had no impact on the world.

In place of exposition, Roeg gives us a particular sort of visual layer-cake; fairly rapidly, occasionally disjointed montages alternate with a number of lengthy set-piece sequences that appear, on the surface, to have only glancing relevant to the main storyline. So for instance, by way of the latter, we get a lot of sexually explicit detail of the midlife crisis Bryce undergoes before he meets Newton. There is a lengthy scene in which Mary-Lou inadvertently debilitates Newton by taking him up in a lift to his hotel room; and later in the film there is a drawn-out sex scene between the old Mary-Lou and the unaged Newton in which they shoot one another with blanks from a pistol.

Those interested in the question of what this is all about will find few insights in the DVD extras of this most recent re-release. All the participants accede to the rather obvious point that the film is in some sense about alienness. But what manner of alienness? Deeley describes the film as saturated with Englishness, as if Englishness and alienness are somehow cognate (‘the English in America,’ he says, ‘are very alien-like’). Roeg himself was English, of course; as was Bowie; and in the film the character Newton passes himself off as British. Moreover we learn that New Mexico was chosen as the movie’s primary location (Walter Trevis’s novel, upon which the film is based, is mostly set in Kentucky) because that state had recently passed labour laws that allowed the filmmakers to import an English crew wholesale from the UK. On the other hand, in the making-of documentary, Roeg opines that ‘nobody wants to be an outsider … it’s rather annoying’, and it’s difficult to pin-down any particularly English quality to The Man Who Fell to Earth itself—on the contrary, the way the film captures a specifically American set of landscapes and cultural mannerisms is one of its strengths. Elsewhere Roeg talks about actors as aliens, on the not very eloquently expressed grounds that ‘actors play alien people from themselves’, a point rather undercut by the decision—about which Roeg and Deeley talk at some length—to cast the rock-star celebrity Bowie in the title role rather than a trained actor. There’s no question but that Bowie is well-cast, but the strange quality he possesses has less to do with his Englishness, or with the rather mannered and untutored ‘acting’ he undertakes in this role, but simply reflects the uniquely spaced-out and peculiar status of Bowie himself qua star.

Does this film still have the capacity to startle and estrange? This question does not admit of a straightforward answer. Certainly, there are some respects in which the film’s attempt to estrange has lost force. This might be a function of the fact that western culture has moved on from the world into which the film was originally released. The representations of sexual activity, which were counted as very explicit in 1976, now seem, if anything, rather tame. The Oliver Farnsworth character is presented as gay, and in a stable relationship with a younger man; and one of the CIA agents, a black man, is shown having sex with his white wife. But these things do not startle us today as they perhaps did audiences in the 1970s, a decade when homophobia and horror at miscegenation were more conspicuous blots upon Western society than they are, generally speaking, now. Then there is Roeg’s deliberately defamiliarising directorial style, which certainly hasn’t aged badly. If his choppy, nonlinear approach to editing doesn’t seem so strange today it is in part because it has become largely absorbed into the mainstream, a testament to his success as a visual stylist. But at the heart of the film is Bowie’s performance, and Bowie himself; and there’s something in those two things that still possess this quality, or ability, to estrange.

Watching The Man Who Fell to Earth again, I found it hard to avoid the sense that its apprehension of strangeness works most powerfully as a commentary upon the strange cultural explosion of pop music and the status of pop stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is to say that, in fact, the film is most powerfully about Bowie himself—or more particularly about the celebrity persona, or perception, of Bowie. The sequences of wealthy reclusive eccentricity at the heart of the movie, although premised in terms of plot on the life of a businessman, actually play visually and semiotically on our expectations of pop star indulgence. Sex, drugs (in this case alcohol) and music (Newton’s final venture into recording) constellate the whole movie, and watching Newton rolling around on a bed with Mary-Lou in an expensively cluttered flat reminded me of similar sequences from Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), or Michael Apted’s Stardust (1974).

 I'm not arguing that the movie is about ‘pop stardom’ in a modern sense, since such stardom nowadays is merely an emptied out and business-driven matter of wealth and media exposure. By the same token, the sort of ‘pop stardom’ I’m talking about wasn’t something that really existed before the mid-1960s. So, in that sense The Man Who Fell to Earth is very strongly about its decade: a period when the really big music stars, like Bowie, still possessed a strange and totemic aura, were still the locus not only of weirdness and excess but of a strange sexualised innocence. It’s a notion of pop stardom that still has, I think, genuine cultural currency; and few films have found as powerful and evocative a visual correlative for expressing it than this one.

This may seem like a roundabout way of saying that The Man Who Fell to Earth is Bowie’s best film; but that would be to say very little—the competition, after all (Hemmings’s 1979 Just a Gigolo? Damski’s 1983 Yellowbeard?) is not strong. The point is that this film not only stars Bowie, it construes Bowie, or a version of Bowie that remains potent and recognisable—recognisably estranging, if that doesn’t sound too paradoxical. It is that imagistic and iconic articulation that is the core of the film’s enduring power. That’s why it is a film that spilled out of the purely cinematic idiom to determine Bowie’s next two music releases—Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977), two of his best. That’s why I can see that it made sense for Optimum Releasing (the company who have put this DVD special edition together) to use as a cover image not the original film poster, but rather a black-and-white head-shot of Bowie, hair-brushed back, looking straight at the camera; and looking, too, quite astonishingly beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. a period when the really big music stars, like Bowie, still possessed a strange and totemic aura, still the locus not only of weirdness and excess but of a strange sexualised innocence. ... few films have found as powerful and evocative a visual correlative for expressing it than this one

    Now do Performance!