Monday, February 07, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/29/07.

***Very Special Thanks to the People at Disc-Go Round for Attaining this DVD just before its demise***


When the name David Bowie is uttered in a conversation. The first thing everyone comes to mind is him as an icon in the world of pop music. Whether it's the personas of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, or the superstar of the 1980s, he's beloved by millions for his music. To fans, he is known more than just an accomplished pop icon as he's ventured into the world of art as an accomplished painter and a board of director in Modern Arts magazine. Then there's another part of Bowie that relates to his brand of performance art since he was a trained mime under the tutorship of Lindsay Kemp.

In 1975, at the time of his commercial success in the U.S. with Young Americans and the #1 smash hit Fame. Bowie was asked by British director Nicolas Roeg to star in his next film. Roeg, whose previous films were 1970's Performance with Mick Jagger and James Fox, 1971's Walkabout with Jenny Agutter, and the 1973 thriller Don't Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, was embarking on his most ambitious project to date. The film would called The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie playing the title role in his feature-film debut.

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a story about an alien who travels to Earth to get water for his drought-surrounding home planet. Upon his trip, he carries patents for inventions that would revolutionize the world as he would be rich with the help of a businessman while meeting a simple-minded small town woman and a cynical professor where his stay would lead to corruptive substances, betrayal, and alienation.

With a screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, Roeg explores the world of an alien who falls into the temptations of Earth as his desperation to save his own family in his home planet would falter by the forces that are trying to stop him. Also starring Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey, Jackson D. Kane, Rick Riccardo, and Rip Torn. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a sprawling, complex sci-fi masterpiece from one of Britain's great directors led by a superb performance from the legendary David Bowie.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) falls down to Earth as he walks down a mountain and later into a small town. Claiming to be from England and selling his wedding ring for $20, Newton later finds himself with loads of money as he is drawn by a river as he drinks its water. Newton then comes to New York City where he meets a business lawyer named Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton reveals to Farnsworth several patents that would revolutionize the world. Reluctantly, Farnsworth takes Newton's patents and immediately, the world is shocked by the new innovations that Newton and Farnsworth's new company World Enterprises has been making. One of those people amazed by a camera with film that is developed after its shot (a precursor to digital cameras) is a cynical, college professor named Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn).

Bryce is intrigued by the new technology World Enterprises is making while his own days as a college professor who sleeps with young students are almost done. After a meeting with Professor Canutti (Jackson D. Kane), Bryce leaves college as he successfully attains a job working for Farnsworth. Newton meanwhile, moves to New Mexico only to contact Farnsworth while being accompanied by his driver Arthur (Tony Mascia). Upon arriving to a hotel, Newton meets a simple-minded hotel maid named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) who carries him to his hotel room after passing out due to the speed of the hotel elevator. They become friends as Newton's newfound attraction towards television increases his clairvoyant mind as he is haunted by the images of his home planet with his family dying from a drought. His friendship with Mary-Lou also introduces Newton to alcohol, which he is now consuming to distract himself from his haunted mind.

With World Enterprises' business and stock booming, Farnsworth is wondering what Newton is planning. Newton moves to a lake house near the place he landed as he and Mary-Lou live quietly despite Newton's newfound madness as he's consumed by alcohol and television. Bryce is sent to Newton's base to work on a space project Newton has been planning. The two meet as Bryce is baffled by Newton's intentions for the project. After learning the truth on who he is, Bryce learns of his intentions. With their own relationship becoming fragile, Mary-Lou learns who Newton really is and is shocked by the outcome.

The success of World Enterprises has captured the attention of the government as Farnsworth finds himself being investigated by Mr. Peters (Bernie Casey). Farnsworth suddenly feels more and more detached by Newton's plans as he and his partner Trevor (Rick Riccardo) are wondering what's going to happen. Finally, after all the money is made and the plans for a spaceship built, Newton is finally on his way to save his dying planet. Unfortunately, betrayal and murder occurs as Newton has become a captive by the government and is forced to learn of the fragile bond he has with Bryce and Mary-Lou.

The novel by Walter Tevis is described in an allegory of Jesus Christ coming down to Earth to be the Savior. The premise of both Tevis' novel and the film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth is similar to Christ's struggle with doing what's right for the world. In the case of its protagonist Thomas Jerome Newton, here's an alien who comes to Earth hoping to bring water back to his dying planet of Anthea. Using his own patents to create new technological innovation for Earth, he hopes to give humans some new wonders. Instead, he becomes corrupted by the planet itself with all of its vices as well as the people around him despite the fact that they have a good heart.

The screenplay by Paul Mayersberg shows a man who is trying to understand Earth itself while seeing the good and bad in the planet he hopes to take some of their water to help his own. Unfortunately, he doesn't expect the bad side of the planet and its in large part by its humanity and some of the technology they had created. Newton's interaction with the likes of Farnsworth, Bryce, and Mary-Lou are all different in how he engages them. The character of Newton is one full of caution. He doesn't like to ride in fast speed, he is somewhat anti-social, he isn't the kind of person who's really into any kind of conversation. Yet, he's an alien. Not just in the physical sense but also emotionally and mentally.

The other characters like Farnsworth, Bryce, and Mary-Lou each have their own role in the plot of the story. Farnsworth is a man who starts off living privately is intrigued by Newton while having to live a secret life as a gay man. Once money and power comes in, he starts to like everything while maintaining his own personal life. Yet, when he and Newton detach themselves, he turns to his lover Trevor for comfort as he hopes to use his own share for personal means. The character of Bryce is particularly complex for the fact that here's a man who is on the way down and is forced to live a life as a college professor who sleeps with very young women. When he stumbles upon World Enterprises, his life changes as he hopes to become the man he aspires to be while befriending Newton.

While the character of Mary-Lou might seem to be this whiny, corruptive individual. She's actually a lot more than that since she's a very simple, lonely young woman who hasn’t seen a lot of the outside world and becomes an unlikely companion for Newton despite what she brings him.

The direction of Nicolas Roeg is amazing in all of its images. Shot mostly on location in New Mexico, the film doesn’t look or act like a science-fiction film but rather a contemporary drama that features sci-fi elements. While the film features some special effects that might seem dated by today’s standards, it does work in bringing the idea of space and technology. There’s no time-line or any idea of where the film takes place. It doesn't really matter since Roeg is more concerned with the story as well as the journey he gives the audience.

It's not an easy journey but it is revealed into the troubled mind of Newton. Roeg's compositions of the Anthea sequences, Newton’s captivity, as well as everything that makes the whole film feel alien really brings a distinctive tone that is rarely seen in a lot of sci-fi related films. Though what Roeg does in his resulting vision isn't easy to watch, the result after the film does leave audiences thinking about not just the idea of alienation but ourselves into the idea of interacting with alien-beings.

Cinematographer Anthony Richmond brings a unique look to some of the film's scenes by using somewhat, grainy and dream-like images for the Anthea scenes while the use of blue lights in some of the nighttime scenes at the lake-house including Oriental lanterns for the archway port at the house. Editor Graeme Clifford brings a wonderfully stylistic, elliptical-paced approach to the editing to convey the clairvoyant mind of Newton as he sees things in his own life as well as others that also includes jump-cuts in some sequences. Production designer Brian Eatwell create some unique sets for the entire film such as the boat-like ship Newton traveled from Anthea to Earth, the home he and Mary-Lou lived in that includes a wall of 12 TVs in three by-four stacks, and fake autumn-like rooms for Newton's captive mansion.

Costume designer Mary Routh creates some wonderful, 70s-like clothing for the film's entire cast, notably the dresses and clothes that Candy Clark wears to convey her transition from small-town girl to a woman living in a rich life style. Some of the suits David Bowie wears are wonderfully designed by Ola Hudson, the mother of ex-Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash. Make-up artist Linda DeVetta creates a unique-look to the alien look that Bowie wears when he reveals his true identity with Clark playing his alien wife as well as the aging Mary-Lou in the third act. Sound editor Michael Ellis helps create unique sounds to convey the film's sci-fi feel as well as to emphasize Newton’s adjustment to his new world.

The film's music and soundtrack is directed by the late John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. Phillips creates a unique score that includes moments of rag-tag country banjos, hypnotic rock-like tracks, and other styles of music to convey the sense of alienation. Japanese composer Stomu Yamashta brings some moody jazz scores that also features the synthesizer on some cuts to give that spacey-feel. The rest of the soundtrack features cuts by Roy Orbison, Bing Crosby with Grace Kelly, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Louis Armstrong, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, the Kingston Trio, and a cover of the Gene Pitney-composed, Rick Nelson classic Hello Mary-Lou performed by John Phillips and ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.

The film's cast features some notable cameos from Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell as himself, satirist/screenwriter Terry Southern as a reporter, and late Playboy model Claudia Jennings as Peters' wife. Bernie Casey is good as the shady government agent Mr. Peters while Rick Riccardo is also good as Farnsworth body-building lover Trevor. Jackson D. Kane is excellent in his role as Bryce's former superior Professor Canutti, who despises Bryce while appearing later on in the film as a scholar on corporations. The late Tony Mascia is also good as Newton's driver Arthur where in real-life, he actually is Bowie's driver/security chief in the 70s and throughout the 80s.

Buck Henry is wonderfully low-key in his performance as Oliver Farnsworth. A gay lawyer who hopes to use his newfound wealth to attain more freedom for his lifestyle. Henry is very subdued throughout the film and does an amazing job in playing a man who craves power and tries to evade the attention of the government. Rip Torn is in brilliant form as the cynical, skirt-chasing Nathan Bryce. Torn brings the kind of realism and sympathy to a man who has just been given another chance at greatness only to succumb from pressure by the government. Torn's performance is wonderful to watch as a man who goes up close to see Newton self-destruct. Candy Clark is phenomenal as Mary-Lou with her sweet, caring personality but inside is someone who is lonely and in need of help. Clark sells the despair of her character from the young woman who is seen wearing wigs and such to an old lady who realized how much that relationship has destroyed her emotionally.

Finally, there's David Bowie in his feature film debut and in a role that was supposed to be given to Peter O'Toole. It's no doubt that O'Toole is a great actor but in playing an alien that comes down to Earth and succumb to its vices. Only someone like David Bowie can play that character right from its awkwardness to his own detachment from everyone and everything around him. Bowie plays it straight from the restraint he gives as well as his physicality in being this very thin young man (and it should be noted that he had a terrible cocaine addiction during this time). Bowie brings a maturity in terms of business and economics while being naive in some ways about the Earth and humanity itself. It's a fantastic yet eerie performance from the Thin White Duke.

When the film was issued on DVD for the first time in 1998 by Fox Lorber, it was released with a poor film transfer in its widescreen format along with Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. That DVD was considered a disappointment to fans, even to those who bought the laserdisc version back in 1994. In 2003, Anchor Bay released a more superior version of the film with different audio mixes in stereo for 5.1 Dolby Digital and 6.1 DTS. The DVD also included a special feature which was a 24-minute featurette on the film along with its original screenplay as a DVD-rom feature. Then in 2005, The Man Who Fell to Earth was finally given the DVD treatment it truly deserve to both fans of the films and those who yearned to discover its brilliance.

The 2-disc Region 1 Criterion DVD of The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the best highlights from the Criterion Collection. Presented in the anamorphic, widescreen format for 16x9 TVs and in the original theatrical ratio of 2:35:1 that is personally supervised by director Nicolas Roeg. The film is vastly superior in terms of its transfer and look thanks to Roeg and the DVD team. The film itself is in the first disc of the DVD in all of its uncut glory that included 20-minutes cut from the original American release. The film is also presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo that is also supervised by Roeg himself.

The only special feature in the first disc of the film is a commentary track by director Nicolas Roeg along with David Bowie and Buck Henry that was recorded in 1992 for the laserdisc version. While three of the tracks are recorded seperately, one by Roeg and another with Bowie and the other by Henry, they're presented in one full commentary that's a delight to hear. Bowie discusses with Roeg about his interest after seeing two of his films while Roeg wanted to cast him instead of Peter O'Toole through Alan Yentob's 1975 BBC documentary Cracked Actor. Roeg and Bowie talk about the ideas of the film and the locations they were in as Bowie tried to recall about his first arrival into New Mexico and meeting real-life cowboys. While Bowie admits that his own memory of 1974-1975 is hazy due to the fact that he was under the influence of drugs at the time, he does remember stuff about the filming as well as his own social interaction with Rip Torn, whom he enjoyed.

Buck Henry discusses about getting the part and when people asked about the film he was in and who was in it and directed by who. One person replied, "That's a dinner party, not a cast". Henry also discusses his own interaction with Bowie as with the themes of the film and the glasses he wore which he couldn't see in them. Henry emphasizes on the film's brilliance while discussing some of Roeg's work. He also understands why a general American audience will have a hard time watching this.

Roeg discusses a lot of the film's sense of paranoia and alienation while he and Bowie discussed the growing advent of technology and how it could play against man. Bowie briefly discusses about creating a soundtrack for the film that would eventually become some of the music for his 1976 classic album Station to Station but also his 1977 seminal album Low. The overall commentary is one of the most profound and intelligent commentaries by three of the film's prominent figure.

The second disc of the DVD includes a plethora of material and supplements that would be a must-have for any fan of the film. Including interviews, photo galleries, and trailers, it's a collection of material that emphasizes the film's influence. The first interview is with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg who discusses the novel, Roeg, novelist Walter Tevis, and his approach to the screenplay. The 26-minute interview is very informative about the film and why it didn't do well commercially when it was released. He says that it was a film and like the book itself, that didn't pertain to any kind of traditional genre.

He also compares the film and Tevis' novel to another novel that Tevis wrote, The Hustler that was also made into a film starring Paul Newman and Piper Laurie. The comparison emphasizes on the similarities of the protagonists and their relationship with women. Mayersberg also discusses in why a film and story like The Man Who Fell to Earth wouldn't register with a large audience, notably in America, because people want to cheer for winners. Mayersberg also briefly discusses the characters and the actors while giving his own take on the film itself and its legacy.

The second big interview is a 25-minute featurette called Performance that features new interviews with actors Rip Torn and Candy Clark. Featuring some old super-8 footage shot by Torn on location, the two actors discuss their own characters and memories of the film. Torn recalled about having a great time making the film and enjoyed Roeg’s approach to the film despite a lack of improvisation. Clark recalls on her own idea of the lack of improvisation and was due to the fact that the schedule went back and forth into shooting scenes in a non-continuous way. She also discussed about playing Bowie's character at one point because he was ill.

The two actors also discussed the film's American theatrical cut where 20 minutes of scenes from the film were cut by the studio losing some of the film's important plot points. Both actors seem very fond of the film though Clark admits that she and Bowie were not comfortable in their nude scenes and she could barely watch them today. Torn meanwhile, is amazed how much the film remains relevant since its release.

A third interview appears in an audio format with the film's novelist Walter Tevis in 1984. Conducted by Don Swaim for CBS radio, the 24-minute interview is separated into four different tracks. The first track reveals Tevis discussing his background living in Kentucky and his own reaction the success of his first novel The Hustler back in 1959 and the film itself while briefly mentioning the sequel, that would become Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. The second track reveals Tevis' approach to science-fiction while discussing a novel he was completing at the time which also a sci-fi novel. He revealed his approach as more character driven as opposed to the sci-fi ideas of Star Wars.

The third track of the interview is where Tevis talks about becoming a full-time writing. He was a professor at the University of Ohio back in the early 60s and writing part-time. Yet, it made for a bad lifestyle that led him to alcoholism before finally sobering up in 1975. He also revealed that it was in 1961, he began to write the novel for The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth and final track reveals the themes that Tevis writes about, which is alienation, and how he wanted to stray from that in the future.

The fourth featurette of interviews is with the married collaborators of production designer Brian Eatwell and costume designer May Routh. Each individual has an interview where Eatwell's 24-minute interview discusses the locations and design of some of the sets. Eatwell in an audio interview that features stills and super 8 footage of the making of the film. Eatwell reveals stories behind the production such as the lake house that Newton and Mary-Lou lived that is filled with Japanese artifacts to create a sense of authenticity. The spaceship that Newton built that was also shown on the album cover of Bowie's Station to Station was actually filled with coffee cups stapled and the sprayed in black. The home were Newton was held captive was made with different sets to convey the emotion of Newton. The film was cheaper to make in some ways due to the fact that Eatwell and his team were all English and despite being on a limited budget were treated very well with the people of New Mexico.

Costume designer May Routh gives a 19-minute interview discussing the costumes she created for the film. Featuring photos and sketches by Routh, the designer reveals in the first half of the interview the collaboration she had with Bowie on the clothes. Bowie was up for anything as long as it related to the character where she created a lot of sketches. The most difficult that she created was the alien suit he and Candy Clark wore with the tubes, largely because of the material they had to use. With Clark's own clothing, it was mostly found in places like JC Penny's and other places as Routh wanted the clothes to convey her own development from this poor girl to a rich, unhappy woman. With Buck Henry, most of his clothes were bought at a wonderful men's suits store in Albuquerque while his jump-suit was the only thing designed. With Rip Torn and other characters, it was mostly straight-forward in what the character wanted.

Routh's interview is also followed by a gallery of her sketches of the costumes she's designed. There are four more photo galleries in the DVD. The first is from still photographer David James that is preceded by a seven-minute audio intro where James discusses taking the still photography job after a hiatus from trying to produce a German film project. James reveals his love for Bowie and the whole experience of being involved with the film. Most of the photos he reveal are in wonderful black-and-white and are some of the best still photography shown.

A posters film gallery unveils several international film posters of Roeg's work from Performance to 1980's Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession. Roeg contributes his own photos of his own shooting script filled with Polaroids and notes on the book. The final photo gallery comes from executive producer Si Litvinoff that features behind the scenes snapshots of cast and crew on location for the film that also includes Bowie's ex-wife Angela and his longtime assistant Coco Schwab.

Seven trailers appear in the DVD that features various U.S. and international trailers and teasers for The Man Who Fell to Earth that included one U.S. trailer with a voice-over by William Shatner. The two U.S. trailers and teaser definitely promoted the film as a typical sci-fi film that isn't like anything else at the time hyping it as something new. Two international teasers and a trailer definitely use Bowie's name to hype the film considering that he's a bigger star in the U.K. and Europe rather in the U.S. The footage also shows deleted footage featuring Candy Clark that never made it to the final cut. The 30-second TV spot also brings some ambiguity by also hyping the film with Bowie’s name.

Accompanying the entire DVD sets are two essays in a 28-page booklet. The first essay is by film critic Graham Fuller on the film itself. Entitled Loving The Alien after the famed David Bowie single from 1984's Tonight. The essay unveils the film's release back in 1976 where in England and parts of Europe, it was a success. In America however, 20 minutes of the film was cut by the studio that received mixed reviews by critics while not faring very well in the box office. The essay goes into detail about the film and its plot while revealing the 20-minutes that were cut that included an entire sequence to the song Hello, Mary-Lou, Nathan Bryce in a Santa Claus suit and cavorting with his students, a shot of Mary-Lou in shock over Newton in his alien form. The essay also explores the film's comparison with its actual novel and its allegory to Jesus Christ.

The second essay by University of Ohio English professor Jack Matthews entitled The Novels and Confessions of Walter Tevis is an appreciation on the late novelist. Matthews briefly discusses the life of Walter Tevis and the two famous novels that marked his prestige in literature, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Matthews compares both books while also comparing The Man Who Fell to Earth to Mark Twain's famed novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that also featured similar ideas of new technology threatening the present world the protagonists are in.

Matthews also reveals his own friendship with Tevis as he sees him through good times and bad that included his alcoholism, which was often very private. The final accompaniment to the DVD is the novel itself by Walter Tevis. A book that is hard to find nowadays finally appears to those who've seen the film and have never read the book will finally see the source. The book is indeed a treasure for anyone who loved the film.

Since its release in 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth has carried a legacy that is unparalleled with most films. In 1985, former Clash singer/guitarist Mick Jones and punk pioneer Don Letts created the group Big Audio Dynamite whose video for their single E=MC^2 featured footage from the film along with other films by Nicolas Roeg. In 1998, Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland's single for Barbarella featured a video that had a similar premise to the film itself. Then in 2001, David Bowie did a spoof on the film's title by falling onto a building from space and to Earth exclaiming "I'll never get used to that" in a commercial for satellite radio.

With The Man Who Fell to Earth now considered one of the touchstones of 1970s cinema, the film's cult following and legacy has spurned upon the legacy of two of its individual. Nicolas Roeg remains a icon of sorts among film directors, including Ridley Scott and Francois Ozon as Roeg continued to make films before taking a hiatus following 1990's The Witches. While he worked on TV films for a brief period, Roeg returned to the cinema with 2006's Puffball starring Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, and Donald Sutherland.

David Bowie meanwhile, continues to balance his highly-acclaimed music career with a string of diverse films. Ranging from cult movies like Tony Scott's The Hunger, Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, Jim Henson's Labyrinth, and Ben Stiller's Zoolander as himself. While appearing in interesting, auteur-based films like Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Martin Scorsese's controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ as Pontius Pilate, David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Julian Schnabel's Basquiat as Andy Warhol, and most recently, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige as Nikola Tesla. Bowie's acting career, unlike most pop stars has been filled with acclaim and admiration among not just actors and director but also his fellow artist and musicians.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a must-see film from director Nicolas Roeg and his team along with a great cast led by the brilliant David Bowie. Fans of Bowie and Roeg will no doubt consider the film and the Criterion DVD as a must-have. Those new to the work of Nicolas Roeg will see this as a nice starting point. While for general audiences, it's a film that won't be easy to watch yet repeated viewing will make the film more understandable and appreciative. In the end, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a brilliant, provocative, sci-fi drama masterpiece from director Nicolas Roeg and its star, David Bowie.

Nicolas Roeg Films: (Performance) - Walkabout - (Glastonbury Fayre) - (Don't Look Now) - (Bad Timing) - (Eureka) - (Insignificance) - (Castaway) - (Aria-Un ballo in maschera) - (Track 29) - (The Witches) - (Heart of Darkness) - (Two Deaths) - (Full Body Massage) - (Samson and Delilah) - (Puffball)

(C) thevoid99 2011

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