by David Gritten / Telegraph
15th June 2012
In case you feel our patriotic instincts need an extra boost in this lull between the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, there’s currently a Made in Britain season in cinemas across the country each Tuesday. This brief season aims to showcase five classic British films, starting with Passport to Pimlico and finishing with Quatermass and the Pit.
Of these the most interesting must be Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie as a humanoid alien confronting the weirdness and excesses of American society. It divides critics, many of whom find the film visually dazzling but its narrative muddled and confusing.
In his feature film debut, Bowie is gaunt and androgynous, with alabaster skin and bright orange hair. (Check the cover of his album Low for reference; Bowie wrote part of the album as a possible soundtrack for the film, but it was rejected.) He was using cocaine heavily – 10g a day by his own admission – and was in a fragile state. On the plus side, the drugs gave him a blank, alienated look and emaciated features. The story goes that when he developed a craving for ice cream during the shooting of the film and started putting on weight, he had to be dissuaded from eating it.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, whose spacecraft has landed in a New Mexico lake and has come to Earth because of a drought on his own planet; he wants to use his advanced technological gifts to ship water back home.
Newton quickly enjoys remarkable success. He can process huge amounts of information about Earth (watching 12 TV screens at once), starts a company to sell patents for his futuristic inventions, becomes fabulously wealthy and at one point looks likely to eclipse America’s largest corporations.
But he also meets Mary-Lou, an affectionate, simple-minded chambermaid (Candy Clark) who introduces him to the joys of sex and alcohol. She marks the start of Newton’s downfall. With his English accent, he’s doubly an alien in a strange land – a country portrayed as gross, corrupt and riddled with over-powerful corporations.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Nicolas Roeg having directed The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tellingly, he was one of Britain’s most distinguished cinematographers for a decade before he turned to directing in 1970, enjoying a brilliant run with Performance (jointly with Donald Cammell), Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. For Roeg, the look of a film is at least as important as its narrative.
His long career has been a varied, bumpy one and his best directing work came early on. But Don’t Look Now was named the best ever British movie in a poll of critics and industry figures last year. And Roeg received a lifetime achievement award in January from members of the London Film Critics’ Circle.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, then, is a tricky proposition: a curate’s egg of a film from a brilliant director. Its interiors were shot in Britain at Shepperton Studios, while New Mexico was the setting for its exterior scenes – including Newton’s planet, where we see him – briefly but more than once – beside his spacecraft with his wife and two children.
Some of its scenes, including those otherworldly desert landscapes, are truly striking. Images of a body falling pervade the film; not just falling to Earth, of course, but falling from grace.
Roeg also makes intriguing, imaginative connections: Newton’s break-up with Mary-Lou is acted out between scenes from The Third Man, playing on the TV in their room. Rip Torn, as a college professor given to seducing teenage students, is a heavy-handed signifier of corruption – yet explicit scenes showing him receiving sexual favours from these young women are puzzlingly intercut with excerpts from a Kabuki theatre production, with swordsmen posturing and grunting.
The film’s source material was a 1963 science-fiction novel by Walter Tevis. Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg excised much of Tevis’s work, including a dogfight between Democrats and Republicans over Newton’s presence on Earth. They decided to stress Newton’s yearning to reunite with his family on his own planet.
Over time, The Man Who Fell to Earth has gained cult status, and has been at least indirectly influential: Steven Spielberg certainly saw it, and six years later made E.T., a far gentler, less bleak movie about an alien wanting to return home. In Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders revealed himself, like Roeg, as a European film-maker entranced by wide-open American landscapes.
And one has to say this for The Man Who Fell to Earth: such a bold, imaginative work would never get made in today’s fettered, cautious film industry, either here or in America. Roeg’s work may have its faults – but its ambition is beyond reproach.
The Man Who Fell to Earth will be screened in cinemas across the country as part of the ‘Made in Britain’ season. Details: www.facebook.com/madeinbritainfilm