"The first what? Visitor? There's always been visitors."
Welcome to this week's Sci-Fi Squad movie club discussion. I hope you took the time to seek out and watch The Man Who Fell to Earth over the weekend. Or I hope you've seen it before. Or you can keep reading if you haven't seen it, but I'm not going to shy away from spoilers. Let's dive right on in!
Style Over Substance or Stylized Substance?
"The strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything. It shows you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it's in the nature of television. Just waves in space."
The Man Who Fell to Earth is the story of Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), an alien who travels to Earth to save his people by bringing water back to their dry and dying planet. This movie is 139 minutes long. We are not told the details of this plan until minute 94.
Some may call this film slow, but I'd argue it's deliberately paced. Some may say say it's all flashy camera and editing tricks, but I'd argue that these techniques serve a deep purpose. Some may say it's a little dated and campy, but I'd...well, okay. You got me there.
Between the cheesy zoom lenses, the fashions and the "advanced" technology Newton brings to Earth, the film occasionally borders on out-and-out camp. Combined with Nicolas Roeg's over-the-top style and some very strange musical cues, it feels very much like a product of its time. This film was made in 1976, it looks like it was made in 1976 and it's never going to fool anybody into thinking otherwise.
The film works because it operates on its own strange wavelength, marches to the beat of its own drummer and other obvious metaphors that I can't think of right now and don't want to Google. Roeg keeps the audience in the dark for the bulk of the film, throwing psychedelic imagery in our faces, incorporating the widest and narrowest of lenses and incorporating musical cues that often feel too on-the-nose and often completely out of place. The movie jumps years ahead in a single cut, enters flashbacks and dreams without telling us and pretty much does everything in its power to keep us from having an easy time with the film. Roeg makes us fight for every answer and at the 94 minute mark, when Newton just lays all of his cards out on the table for Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), it's a genuine relief (more on the moment in a little bit!).
This does a helluva lot more than look cool (although I'd say the film's Cult Classic status has a lot to with its peculiar style). The film's style and the way it feels puts us in the head of our protagonist. We're not watching this story as human beings, we are watching it as aliens, as observers. We see the world as Newton sees it.
Perception: The Viewer as Protagonist
"You must hate me."
"No. I don't hate anyone. I can't."
Most movies about an alien visiting Earth take a character the audience can relate to and tell the story through his or her eyes. A precocious child, the local sheriff and so forth. From the opening moments of The Man Who Fell to Earth, we are with Newton. We rarely leave him and when we do, it's brief. We are his companions on his long and agonizing journey.
Newton is entirely unused to our planet. He's rarely seen outdoors without sunglasses. When we first meet him, he's stumbling down a steep hill, walking like he's just learned how. He gets sick in a car that's only going forty five miles per hour. A short trip in an elevator nearly kills him. He's sensitive to sight and sound and tries desperately to find seclusion, running his affairs from afar.
He even appears psychically sensitive, seeing and hearing people and things from long ago, sensing things that others cannot. In one particularly strange scene, Newton sits down to watch nine televisions at once (his only apparent hobby) and every image he sees turns into something violent or sexual, driving him into a terrified fit.
Newton is sensitive and naive. He makes millions selling alien technology and sits back and waits until his has enough to build a spaceship and return home with enough resources to save his people. He dreams of his wife and children and these flashbacks are accompanied with him freezing up in the "real world," suggesting that his alien mind is capable of some sort of psychic travel, to he can be with them in memory.
Months, years and maybe even decades pass between cuts. Characters who begin the film young are elderly at the end. Newton never ages. He remains young and fit over what must be 30-40 years. He'll have a conversation with a character in one scene and then, five minutes later, he'll meet the same character and he'll have gone gray and grown a mustache. There are no helpful "Ten Years Later" titles. It all happens in a blink of an eye. When you're an alien being with a lengthy lifespan, years melt away like days to us.
Of course, Roeg tells us NONE of this, but it is easily inferred if you watch carefully. The stylization of the film and way it jumps through time and weaves in and out of reality is disorienting but it places us firmly in Newton's shoes. To Newton, a lake and a forest are the most beautiful things he has ever seen, so Roeg shoots it like it's the most beautiful thing we'll ever see. In fact, our world often seems grand and miraculous to him and his failure to notice danger right under this facade leads to his ultimate downfall. Newton's downfall comes because he trusts people, he trusts that the human race must be wonderful because their planet, so full of water and natural beauty, is wonderful.
Of course Newton gets betrayed and corrupted. We may have seen it coming, but we're human beings. We expect it. By showing us this journey through alien eyes, Roeg allows us to see why and how Newton let is happen.
Rip Torn looks strange without a beard.
"You don't really want to go back...You don't have any money. You don't have any water. You don't have any grass. You don't have any booze. What do you want to go back to a desert for? We've got deserts here."
Early in The Man Who Fell to Earth, we see Newton, newly arrived on Earth, sit at the edge of a river and drink the water like there is nothing better or more satisfying in the universe. He's sweet and innocent, polite not because he was brought up that way, but because he never seems to have heard of indecency. He has a goal: he will save his people and return to his family.
By the end of the film, he's a sexually debauched alcoholic, the victim of ruthless experimentation, all of his friends gone and his longtime lover refusing his final offer of love.
What changes Newton? Does the world change him? Does he allow the world to change him? His priorities shift over the years and shift back. What's important? His family? His planet? Sex? Booze? Television? Newton goes from naive traveler, to polite and secluded hermit, to spoiled and drunken child, to sober and depressed and longing, to borderline insanity and then, finally, he ends the film a broken and defeated man, having failed in his mission, forever trapped on Earth and his family long dead. And it looks like he has a long time yet to live.
This brings me to one of the most important characters in the film, Mary Lou (Candy Clarke, woefully miscast). After a chance meeting in a small town motel, Mary Lou and Newton strike up a relationship. She knows he's "married," but there's an attraction. We see their relationship in glimpses...within a few minutes of meeting each other, several years have passed and they've already moved in together.
Mary Lou is undeniably the catalyst for much of the change in Tommy. She introduces him to alcohol, to sex (at least human sex) and to the idea of having fun his wealth. Although it can be argued that Newton unintentionally brings on a negative change on her as well. When we first meet her, she's a sweet small town girl who insists on dragging Newton to church with her (where, in one of the film's few comedic scenes. Newton struggles to grasp the concept of music). By the end, she's an alcoholic, a selfish witch who only cares about the next drink she takes. When a broken Newton offers her his love, she flatly turns him down. He's of no use to her anymore.
There's an interesting, subtle moment at the end of the film. Mary Lou, easily in her 60s, goes to a mirror and carefully removes a fake eyelash. A small, un-needed moment...but it parallels an earlier sequence where Newton goes to a mirror and plays with his human lenses, tests his human disguise. Both wear disguises to hide what they truly are, but for different reasons. Mary Lou is getting old and she's doing her best to conceal that. Newton is from another world.
I think this is the point where I suggest that the title The Man Who Fell to Earth can be taken quite literally. Newton falls. He falls hard.
Newton's spaceship interior is the cover to David Bowie's Station to Station.
And it's pretty much the best album ever, so go listen to it.
Sex: Everyone Does It!
"You know Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks. And that's why I like you."
I'll censor myself here for whatever families or children may be reading this analysis of an obscure 1970s arthouse science fiction film, but I hope you'll forgive my crudeness because I think it's the most succinct way to make my point.
There seem to be two types of sexual intercourse: making love and f---ing. This is an important distinction and it's important to understanding The Man Who Fell to Earth.
There is a lot of sex in this film. In fact, journey to IMDB or talk to someone who's seen it and the first thing you'll here is "This thing was like porn!" This is unfair, but yeah, you get a lot of naked women and men. You see a great many genitalia. There are multiple sex scenes, culminating in a lengthy sequence of debauchery that seems to go on forever and becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch.
Early in the film, we view the hypersensitive Newton watching a Kabuki act in a Japanese restaurant. The implied violence of the act unsettles him, forcing him to leave quickly. This is intercut with Rip Torn's Bryce having graphic, almost violent sex with one of his students. It feels like an odd editing choice until a flashback/dream/memory of Newton gives us a glimpse of he and his wife having intercourse.
Alien sex, we observe, is not a lot of thrusting and groping and grappling, but a ballet, a dance, a beautiful, bizarre and entirely, well, alien, way of lovemaking. It's weird and perhaps even a little gross (there's a lot of spraying fluid...LOTS of spraying fluid), but it looks like something choreographed, something artistic.
The sex in the rest of the film is shot realistically. It's dirty and it's physical and it spares no detail. The contrast is there. Humans are animals and love is savage. Newton's race, however, sees love as something more pure and elegant. The final sex scene, the lengthy debauchery mentioned above, is the culmination of Newton's transformation from alien to human being. A step down.
At one point in the movie, Newton watches The Third Man.
The Third Man is one of my favorite films of all time. I thought hard for a connection, but ultimately decided that Roeg must really like it, too.
"I'm not a scientist, but I know all things begin and end in eternity."
This is a challenging film by a challenging director trying to bring challenging things to the table. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what we can talk about here. That's why you exist to leave comments. How right am I? How wrong am I? Have any ideas of your own? Join the discussion below!
"I think Mr. Newton has had enough."