Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #67 The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
Alternately, you could follow in the footsteps of two kind, incredibly appreciated patrons and have me watch and then write about a filmmaker or actor’s entire filmography.
That’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight months or so with Sam Peckinpah, and, I am pleased to announce, another kindly patron has signed on for me to do another project with the motion pictures of David Bowie, beginning with his iconic 1976 debut The Man Who Fell To Earth.
I have not seen Nicolas Roeg’s moody science fiction masterpiece since I read Backstage Passes, Angela Bowie’s transcendently trashy, gossip-filled, unapologetically sordid account of her life with David Bowie.
The Man Who Fell To Earth occupies a central place in Bowie’s memoir about creating the androgynous man-God we know and revere as David Bowie. In her beyond lurid and juicy backstage memoir Angela depicts the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth as the nadir of her husband’s epic, world-class 1970s debauchery.
For Angela, David wasn’t just a cocaine-fueled fuck monster with a rapacious, bottomless appetite for sex and drugs; his lifestyle had gotten so dark and so depraved that his energy had become demonic, even Satanic.
At some point David stopped partying like the Rolling Stones and began partying like Anton LaVey. Even a party animal as jaded as Angela got scared. She thought her husband was fucking with the devil, that his life in New Mexico on location for the film that represents his greatest contribution to cinema was such a whirlwind of fucking and drugs and darkness that somewhere Satan slid into the mix and got a hold of her husband’s soul and refused to let go.
Bowie writes that Roeg, his director, and Candy Clark, his leading lady, came to her easily-corruptible husband early in the production and said, “Welcome to the set! How bout we do sex stuff!?! We’ve got drugs!” and their first-time leading man was all, “You had me at sex and drugs! Let’s do this! And by “this” I mean the sex and drugs and also filmmaking!”
They fucked around and made a simultaneously extremely 1970s and timeless masterpiece that captured its legendary star at the height of his astonishing beauty, magnetism and charisma. It’s no exaggeration to say that Bowie in Earth is the most handsome, charismatic, cool figure in the history of film, that he’s effortlessly riveting, a rock God in his sexy, radiant prime.
Casting David Bowie as an alcoholic alien in 1976 is the best as well as the most obvious casting conceivable, followed closely by casting Bowie as a vampire in 1983’s The Hunger.
My God, I could watch David Bowie watch television while pickled silly on the sauce for hours at a time. Bowie stoned into oblivion watching television and breaking down to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is my idea of heaven. It’s fucking hypnotic. What a beautiful, magnificent, endlessly fascinating human being Bowie was! What star-power, what presence!
When Bowie died we mourned, and mourned deeply, an icon rightly regarded one of the greatest and most inspirational and influential geniuses of our time. His standing has only risen in death.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those blessed miracles where a pop artist makes the best possible vehicle, when the stars align and all-time great rockers make movies that reflect their essence in the purest possible form.
I’m talking Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back. Mick Jagger in The Man Who Fell To Earth director Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. The Ramones in Rock and Roll High School. Prince in Purple Rain. Eminem in 8 Mile. Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Vehicles these perfect don’t come along very often because giants of this caliber do not come along very often.
The Man Who Fell To Earth was not written for Bowie. The Walter Tevis novel that inspired it was published in 1963, when Bowie was still an unknown teenager. But you could be forgiven for assuming that it was written by someone inspired by the mythology of Ziggy Stardust, “Space Oddity” and “Starman” to create a character only a coked-out-of-his-gourd, spiritually lost, spinning into oblivion Bowie could play.
As Angela Bowie’s book melodramatically suggests, David Bowie seemingly approached a spiritual abyss making The Man Who Fell To Earth. In his ex-wife’s account, he’s literally dancing with the devil. That may be a tad bit hyperbolic but Bowie was undoubtedly bottoming out with drugs and sex and decadence when he made the movie and that lends an element of bracing realism to Earth’s portrait of an existential nowhere man who sees an increasingly sad and impossible world through a boozy, bleary filter of alcoholic self-destruction.
The Man Who Fell To Earth resonated with me in a big way partially because it is a movie about watching television. Watching television isn’t just a favorite pastime for our conflicted anti-hero; it’s a defining characteristic.
Watching up to eight or so televisions at a time in a drunken haze isn’t just something Bowie’s alien Thomas Jerome Newton does; it’s who he is. It’s how he sees the world, how he simultaneously engages with it from a safe distance and hides from the world and the terrifying specter of his emotions.
In that respect he’s like other cultural figures defined by their insatiable, deeply sad, compulsive television viewing, like Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner, The Aviator’s (and reality’s) post-mental break Howard Hughes, Donald Trump, my twelve-year-old self and various figures in the songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Like few films before or since, Earth captures the unbearable sadness of the television addict, that poignant universal desire to escape this ugly, sad, degraded and corrupt world by immersing ourselves in its ugly, sad, degraded, bottom-feeding entertainment.
In 1976 an alien had to get sloshed and stock up on televisions in order to find enough banal stimuli to distract him from the ever-present, sometimes overlapping dangers of emotions and human interaction. If they were to adapt the novel today he could just stare passively at his iPhone for twelve hours a day and nobody would notice anything was at all askance, let alone that he was an alien.
In The Man Who Fell To Earth Thomas Jerome Newton leaves his wife and two children behind on his technologically advanced and his drought-ridden planet. The plan is for him to come to Earth and make enough money to create spaceships to facilitate space travel between his home planet and Earth.
To that end, he uses his space knowledge to become stinking filthy rich off the patents for technology from his home planet but money does not buy happiness.
The elegant extra-terrestrial with the enviable wardrobe (although Bowie could wear a giant paper sack and a neon fanny pack at this point in his life and still seem like the coolest motherfucker on the planet) becomes a Howard Hughes-like recluse working furtively behind the scenes while owlish Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry) serves as the bookish, decidedly non-mysterious face of his hugely successful and powerful international business.
Henry has lovely, tender chemistry with Bowie; he’s a quiet man who seizes the opportunity to become a titan of industry thanks to the curious intervention of a boss who is quite literally out of this world, not unlike the main character in the 1980s science-fiction sitcom Out of This World.
Oliver T. Farnsworth is also notable for being one of the most dignified portrayals of homosexuality to be found in 1970s film. Oliver is a gay man in a long term relationship with a much younger man that the movie does not judge. It’s simply part of who he is as a human being.
Bowie’s devastatingly handsome intergalactic visitor falls into a heartbreaking sexual and romantic relationship of his own with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel worker who could not be more different from her eccentric, detached new lover. Where he is an eternal enigma who holds everything in, only revealing as much as he absolutely has to she’s an emotional exhibitionist, all squirmy vulnerability and tragicomic humanity.
The late Rip Torn, meanwhile, dashingly plays a womanizing professor whose vigorous sex life with various gorgeous, barely legal coeds the movie takes a deeply prurient interest in. Roeg never lets us forget that this is his follow-up to Don’t Look Back, which contained one of the most rightfully acclaimed, and also fucking hot, sex scenes in film history.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is full of gratuitous sex scenes of tremendous quality and quantity. Watching the “Rip Torn sexually satisfies his students” montage that seemed to last a good half hour on top of the four on one interracial sex scene in 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid served as a reminder that in the 1970s, auteurs like Roeg and Peckinpah frequently filmed lengthy, graphic sex scenes for the sake of filming lengthy, graphic sex scenes, not because they’re narratively necessary.
The Man Who Fell To Earth has a plot about its beatific title character becoming corrupted by the easy vices and numbing distractions of our world. Somewhere along the line serious mission drift sets in and a survivor’s noble, heroic quest to save his family and his world from death and decay devolves into a drunken, dispirited orgy of television, fucking and unbearable loneliness.
Roeg brings a cinematographer’s eye for composition and a foreigner’s take on the United States as a truly alien realm at once breathtakingly gorgeous and sad in ways that are difficult to put into words, in ways that can only be conveyed cinematically.
The Man Who Fell To Earth isn’t just a singularly lonely film; it is a powerful and poetic meditation on loneliness, on depression, on the way power and money and alcohol and compulsion can alienate us from ourselves as well as the world around us.
In the powerfully quiet cult classic to be human and American is to drink to excess, to fuck under the delusion that fucking will solve your problems and soul-sickness, not just make them worse, to watch television as if it is your sacred duty and to fail and disappoint the people you love most.
That just about sums it up. That’s the essence of existence in haunting allegorical form. Despite its title, The Man Who Fell To Earth is ultimately more concerned with inner space than outer space. It’s about a sense of loneliness and sadness as vast as the universe yet all too relatable and human.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is the perfect starting point for our exploration of the films of David Bowie. Unfortunately, with the exception of D.A Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars concert film, which was filmed before The Man Who Fell To Earth but released much later it leaves us with nowhere to go but down.
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