Bowie-Roeg-Man-who-fell-to-earth-review

Introduction to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University) Dukes Cinema 5th Jan, 2015.

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of this film as part of the current season of SF films distributed by the BFI, ‘Days of Fear and Wonder’).

The Man Who Fell to Earth is the fifth feature film directed by the British film-maker, Nicolas Roeg who produced a series of remarkable films from the late 1960s onwards that extend from the horror film Don’t Look Now (1973) starring Julie Christie, a made-for-TV movie of Samson and Delilah (1996) starring Dennis Hopper, a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1993), through to the children’s film The Witches (1990), his very dark adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel that starred Angelica Huston. Roeg is 86 now, but is still working – his autobiography was published in 2013 (taking its title from a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth) and his last feature film, Puffball, an adaptation of a Fay Weldon novel, was released in 2007. It’s a fascinating film, a strange supernatural fantasy about the Irish countryside, birth and women’s experience that starred Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham and Donald Sutherland. The Observer film reviewer Philip French described it accurately as ‘A curious mixture of Cold Comfort Farm, Straw Dogs and Rosemary’s Baby’, and it explores a number of themes that are present throughout his films – sexuality, subjective experience, the irrational – and has an immediately recognisable visual style, but sadly, it was never properly released in Britain and disappeared almost without trace (French 2008).

Although his films are marked by an interest in experimentation, Roeg’s route into film-making was quite conventional. At 17, after the war, he joined the army as a paratrooper and then left after two years to take up an apprenticeship in Marylebone Studios, a small production company in London where he made the tea and ran errands. Over the next few years he moved from one studio to another, working his way up from the bottom, learning about editing, producing, screenwriting, sound design, and the industrial process of commercial film-making. As he’s observed, at the time there were no film schools or books on how to make films, so the only way to learn was from the inside, picking up trade secrets and techniques from others in the business. He graduated to working with a camera crew at MGM first of all as focus puller, then camera operator and eventually rising to the position of director of photography (or Lighting Cameraman) – the woman or man whose job is to work with the director and production designer in devising the overall look of a film. He was Director of Photography on a number of striking films in the 1960s including Roger Corman’s lurid treatment of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s SF film, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Richard Lester’s experimental melodrama, Petulia (1968), also working on David Lean’s epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Having worked his way up through the industry, Roeg was keen to move to directing, which he did in 1968 with the extraordinary film, Performance (1970). Roeg was approached by the film’s screenwriter and director Donald Cammell to work as Director of Photography, but negotiated a co-directing role, and since Cammell was a novice, he was happy with this arrangement. The film stars Mick Jagger as a wealthy, dissolute rock star, and was commissioned by Warner Brothers to exploit a new youth audience, but they were so unhappy with the resulting film, which is a queer, sexually explicit hybrid of British gangster film, European art-house film and psychedelic pop musical, that it was shelved for nearly two years and finally released with almost no publicity. Warner’s apparently threatened to sue Roeg and Cammell for failing to deliver the film they’d promised and a film reviewer in Life magazine described it as, ‘the most completely worthless film I have ever seen since I began reviewing’ (Preston 2013). However, their collaboration on the film seems to have been extremely important for both directors, who went on to make a series of distinctive, compelling films. Cammell was far less prolific, completing just another three films in an unhappy career in which he struggled for financing and control over his work, before shooting himself in 1996, but there are lots of parallels between their films. In formal terms, both directors’ films are often marked by a quite radically fragmented, non-linear narrative structure, vivid colour, and hallucinatory images that undermine the realistic elements of their films. Thematically their films are difficult to place within genres and are marked by a frank, unsensational depiction of sex, and a refusal to explain fully what is taking place.

Roeg’s films have always hovered around the mainstream but they are characterised by a tendency towards ambiguity, which can make them perplexing and challenging experiences, but the intention is not to confuse or frustrate the viewer but to draw her or him in. He suggests in his autobiography that the problem with much film and TV is the tendency toward redundancy or over-explanation to ensure that viewers are engaged with the action. On the contrary, he argues, ‘the more you explain something, the less interested the audience. The less said, the better’ (Roeg 2013:44-45). One of the particular attractions of the medium of cinema for Roeg is its economy, its minimalism, the way that a complexity of meaning can be crystallised in a single image.

Also, in some ways cinema is the medium best suited to representing the experience of thought. Roeg has said, ‘My mind is drifting the whole time; various things are popping into my head’, and the films often reproduce this sense of ideas and associations cropping up unexpectedly by inserting shots into scenes without explanation (Roeg 2013:150). For Roeg, this is not a matter of gratuitous experimentation, or self-consciously avant-garde pretention, but rather it is an attempt to convey the way that in our heads we are continually jumping backwards and forwards rather than living purely in the present: ‘that’s how I always imagined how people feel about time, how they review their lives: moving between memory, the present moment and their hopes or fears of what’s to come’ (Roeg 2013:152).

So, although Roeg is a highly competent technician who understands a great deal about the craft and logistical challenges of commercial film-making with major studios, he is nevertheless fascinated by unconventional ways of assembling a film. As he explains, ‘There’s not a right way of doing something and a wrong way. There’s a right way – and another way. So let’s take a chance on the other way’ (Roeg 2013: 17). This comment may be the key to understanding his approach to film-making, that these films are exercises in doing things ‘another way’, in seeing things ‘in another way’, and also in examining characters who experience the world in another way.

The Man who Fell to Earth is adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, which were adapted into Paul Newman films. The novel tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth from a dying planet, in search of a refuge his people can escape to. Although he struggles with the heat and the stronger gravity of earth, like an anthropologist he has studied earth’s culture from a distance by watching television and so is able to pass himself off more or less successfully as human. The film is a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation, and follows the narrative of the novel closely, foregrounding some of the book’s allusions to the second coming, to Greek myth, and to colonialism. It is a science fiction film, but like many of his films, it has quite a loose relationship to the established conventions of the genre. However, Nicolas Roeg’s style is perfectly suited to telling the story of a stranger in a strange land. The film is marked by startling, ambiguous images, including a number of mirror shots – an image of intimate exposure that Roeg says is ‘the very essence of cinema’ – an interest in bodies, desire and sexuality – something that is left implicit in the novel – sometimes disjointed editing, and a striking use of music and sound in conjunction with the images (Roeg 2013: 175). The experience of alienation and disconnection from one’s environment and from other people that is a constant preoccupation of his films is realised most directly in this film which attempts to depict another way of being in the world.

This is expressed perfectly through the casting of a rock star in the central role. As with Performance, and Bad Timing, which featured Art Garfunkel playing an obnoxious, narcissistic psychoanalyst, and which was described by the disgusted head of Rank, the distributors, as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’ (Preston 2013), this is no doubt partly dictated by commercial considerations; casting one of the most famous musicians on the planet as the lead was a financially smart move, but Roeg claims he chose Bowie because he thought he would suit the role. He had wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton after meeting him at a dinner party since Crichton, like the alien in the novel is extremely tall, and apparently Peter O’Toole was also considered, but after seeing a BBC documentary about Bowie, Roeg decided he’d be ideal for the role. Like those of Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel, Bowie’s performance has an awkwardness and self-consciousness, which can come across as technical incompetence when placed alongside the confident, naturalistic performance style of a professional screen actor, but this difference is precisely what drew Roeg to working with him:

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

Similarly, what Bowie produces in this film is a very unusual performance but one that perfectly suits the character since, as Roeg pointed out to executives at Warner Brothers who were sceptical about the casting, this is a film about an alien pretending to be human. Thus, like many science fiction narratives about aliens and monsters, this film about what it is to be an alien, is in fact a film about the strangeness and implausibility of being human.

References:

Philip French (2008). ‘Puffball’. The Observer. 20 July 2008 (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/jul/20/drama2)

John Preston (2013). ‘Nicolas Roeg Interview: the director who fell to earth’. The Telegraph. 19 July 2013. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10185575/Nicolas-Roeg-interview-the-director-who-fell-to-Earth.html)

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber