The Man Who Fell To Earth is, in a way, Nicolas Roeg’s L’Enfant Sauvage (François Truffaut, 1969) or Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974). The chief protagonists in each defy easy stereotyping by mixing menacing unpredictability with natural dignity. Each is suddenly introduced into an alien civilisation recognisably like our own; and as we watch these wild creatures reduced to a form of infancy in learning how to cope with society, we witness humanity exposing the newcomer to the virtues and vices of western culture.
In the case of Newton, who has come to Earth to get water for his drought-stricken planet, the alien is trapped by both the beauty and the viciousness of the world into which he falls. However, it is a measure of the complexity of the film’s surface that it takes some while for the spectator to take hold of the plot outline in this simple form.
Further complications enhance the distancing effect. For example, the gaps in our knowledge of Newton impress themselves on our minds more firmly than the things we do know about him. Until almost the end, we have no sure knowledge of the limits of his powers, although we do know they are by human standards extraordinary. In addition, fragmentation tends to obscure change in the terrestrial characters. Why, for instance, do the two people closest to Newton, Bryce and Mary-Lou, eventually betray him? There are explanations to be found in character development, but again, much of this takes place in elided time, and is merely hinted at retrospectively. Finally, if these puzzles are soluble by deduction, others are not. Who is the watcher observing Newton’s arrival? Is he connected with the organisation for which Peters works, and what is its nature? Is it a giant corporation, the CIA, or what?
All these factors, marked in their accumulation, keep the spectator from arriving at confident judgements about the film, as the opening scenes show. For example, while the titles run, we witness the entry of a spaceship into Earth’s atmosphere. Its landing is screened in three oddly disjointed shots. In the first we see the ground swinging wildly beneath us as the ship appears to come in for touchdown on a lake—this in accelerated motion.
Then we cut hard to a static slow-motion shot of the great fountain of water caused by the impact.
And presently there follows what looks like a completely disconnected subject, a shot of a disused mine, down the slag heap of which with unsure footing lurches the figure we come to know as Newton. We immediately have to face the problem that the landing appears to have taken place in two locations. And although at this point we may guess that the ship hits water and its pilot has ejected on to dry land, later developments make us reconsider.
Newton could not look less like the stereotypical image for the mid-1970s of such a hero, incongruously dressed as he is in clumsy boots and battered duffle coat. His newness and childlike uncertainty in this environment show from the start: not having registered that roads are used by traffic, he steps into the path of a speeding truck. In learning to walk he is finding out how to be human by starting at the beginning of our history both as a species and as individuals; but this skill is as obsolete in America as the derelict locomotive which he passes on his arrival–only Mary-Lou walks, everybody else drives or flies.
Subjective shots are particularly effective in conveying his uncertainty and augmenting ours, nowhere more obviously than in his first meeting with a human being, an elderly woman storekeeper. As she opens her shop and Newton follows her in, a subjective, hand-held shot pans erratically across the gloomy interior before coming to rest on the woman, and conveys the difficulty he has in orienting himself. Sound as well as vision becomes subjective at this moment. Through the whine of a radio tuned marginally off station, Louis Armstrong’s voice emerges singing ‘Blueberry Hill’. While privately listening to this, Newton talks to the woman; but as we digest the information that he can listen to more than one channel simultaneously, we are also discovering that he can see with more than his earthling’s eyes. When the shopkeeper opens her cash drawer, he sees the revolver inside it, though it is out of his line of sight. The sequence ends with a zoom on the back of his orange hair to indicate his extraordinary powers of vision – which later events confirm.
Although the images in this scene run counter to established fictional stereotypes, we are never very far from myth. The invasion of spaceships from distant worlds is a major archetype of the twentieth century, a motif so recurrent in fiction, dreams and rumour that Jung wrote an extended thesis on the UFO as a projection of the collective unconscious. Typically the visitor is a creature of superior powers which may either be used benignly, or to threaten the annihilation of humanity. Both sides of the myth have been repeatedly used by Hollywood, which made it easy for Mayersberg and Roeg to play the optimistic and pessimistic versions against each other.
For example, after selling his ring, Newton is seen by a river where he scoops up a cup of water, sits and drinks. His profile against the sun looks for a moment dangerously reptilian. Then he takes out from his battered coat a cluster of rings identical with the one we have just seen him sell, and a fat wad of $100 bills. It is plain that we have been deceived, but by Newton or the storytellers? Only much later can we be reasonably sure that the trick lies in the telling; and we deduce this from experience of the way the narrative elides time, not from hard information. In other words a great deal of time (rather than the few minutes we first guess) has probably passed between the selling of the first ring and Newton counting his money.
Meanwhile we are left uncertain—and our doubts grow. On the one hand there are symptoms of vulnerability about this creature perched on an open river bank under the naked sun, his only nourishment a cup of water. On the other hand our uncertainty about the game he is playing, his reptilian look, and the threatening chords of Gustav Hoist’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ (which build as the riverside sequence ends) draw our fear. Yet even here ambiguity prevails as we cut to the next scene and find the music comes from the hi-fi of the company lawyer whom Newton is to employ to control his worldly interests. To which of these characters does the music attach? In fact the uncertainty which both audience and terrestrial characters feel towards Newton extends far into the film. However, guidance from obvious sources of symbolic meaning is on hand. Both the hero’s unusual name, Thomas Jerome Newton, and the implications of the film’s title produce relevant information.
By reading all his names together it is possible to map Newton’s character. Thomas means a twin, drawing attention to his resemblance to man. St Jerome was a recluse, famous both for his scholarship and his asceticism. A paradigm of the holy mystic, he suffered vivid sexual hallucinations during his penitence, and beat himself to extirpate them. Like him, our protagonist (at least after leaving Mary-Lou and retreating to the desert) tames the animal side of his nature, and is of scholarly and ascetic disposition. Newton’s last name gives direction and additional force to the other two. For in recalling the eighteenth-century scientist, it invokes not only his work on gravitational fields, but also on the behaviour and nature of light. Our space traveller must of course understand the nature of gravity, but the interests that possess his mind lie elsewhere, in the transference of energy, and this the film represents in terms of the harnessing of light. His space capsule hums with light…
… and he is capable of transmitting translucent images without equipment. Thus Newton does not exactly fit the science-fiction stereotype of the alien whose scientific knowledge is much more advanced than that of humanity: his comprehension of energy, light and the cosmos surpasses rational knowledge and engages with the mystical: ‘I’m not a scientist,’ he remarks, ‘But I know all things begin and end in eternity.’
Newton is one of a battery of heroes to have fallen to Earth, and bears a certain resemblance to both Icarus and Daedalus. The weakness of Icarus is usually called hubris, the desire to get too close to, or become too much like the gods.
In that sense Newton’s fate can be seen as a reversal of the boy’s. Whereas in the classics the gods meted out punishment to mortals who came too close, here humanity (for by the end of the film every surviving character has turned against him) punishes an alien because he rightfully has godlike powers. Such a reading pulls Newton into the same mythical frame as Christ, who in a special sense fell to Earth; and through him Adam’s fall is also called to memory.
The motif also recurs in the fall of his lieutenants Oliver Farnsworth and his lover, hurled by goons from their penthouse. Their long plunge is match cut to Peters, the man who has ordered their deaths, as he dives into his luxurious swimming pool. The builder of corporate empires, Peters is the only character who rises up again—which in the context we are developing suggests that the Machiavellian conspirator is the proper hero for post-Nixon America.
Although all these events are types of each other, the question remains how Newton’s fall should be understood in the context of the others. While in some ways it has links with that of Christ (since until his capture he also leads and teaches), it differs in that his death is incomplete, and he cannot ascend from the lower world back to the upper. In this the trajectory of Newton’s life is distinct from the classic pattern of the ancient hero as Joseph Campbell describes it: ‘A separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return. The really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power.’
The hero who does not return, however, is a significant variation of the phenomenon. The psychological equivalent is the hero who regresses to the mother, and whose libido gets stuck and fails to resurge from the unconscious. Campbell outlines what happens in terms of myth: ‘When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community. But the responsibility has been frequently refused. Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.’
Thus both as a hero based in myth, and as the projection of an archetype thrown up by the collective unconscious, one of the differences that separates Newton from the classical hero is the uncertainty that surrounds him. At the opening of the film, that uncertainty arises because the audience and characters alike do not know what to make of this brilliant and strange recluse.
But as the plot progresses we do find out more about him–and our uncertainty shifts onto other grounds. It is not simply a matter of doubts about his morality. Even if we assume he should act according to traditional mores prescribed (and widely breached) in western cultures, and if we find him wanting because for instance he takes an earthly mistress, that of itself would not deny him heroic status. Nor is there room for doubt about his efficiency: he is within an hour of blasting off on his return journey when he is stopped. Where uncertainty does prevail is in relation to his martyrdom. The sacrifice of the Dying Gods is brutal, clear and final. That of Newton is brutal, but not so obviously final.
Jung’s description of the religious figure in terms of the psyche rather than of myth is pertinent: ‘The religious figure cannot be a mere man, for it has to represent what it actually is, namely the totality of all those primordial images which express the “extraordinarily potent”, always and everywhere. What we seek in visible human form is not man, but the superman, the hero or god, that quasi-human being who symbolizes the ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mould the soul. These, so far as psychological experience is concerned, are the archetypal contents of the (collective) unconscious, the archaic heritage of humanity, the legacy left behind by all differentiation and development and bestowed upon all men like sunlight and air.’
Until his downfall Newton does indeed appear to be the cynosure Jung describes.
Thereafter he is rendered impotent by humanity–unable to transmit image messages to his wife, and reduced to hoping that radio waves will carry the music of the record he has cut to her. In this condition he does not at first sight seem like a god figure at all; but arguably matters are more sinister, and Newton presents an accurate projection of the archetypal contents as they have been reworked by modern man. A mythic reading of the circumstances surrounding the maiming of Newton reveals a measure of what he should have gained when one recalls that he came to Earth for water. This represents both the means to preserve corporeal life, and a gift bringing renewal and spiritual refreshment; it is the pure element, the boon brought back from the underworld. Seen in this perspective, Mary-Lou weaning him from water to gin implies no less danger than her seducing him. Both are temptations that threaten to draw him away from his purpose, leaving him stuck, unwilling to summon the mental energy to make his return. However, temptations are the common burden of heroes, and in fact Newton remains resolute and proceeds with preparations for his departure.
When it comes, his martyrdom differs in its time scale from the sacrifice of Christ, whose agony was swift by comparison.
At first barred from his spaceship, his homeward journey is delayed, though not necessarily aborted forever.
Then incarceration in the prison of illusions intensifies his entrapment. Here Newton is cut off from all real information, having only the trompe l’oeil decor and television to occupy his mind. Time and with it the unconscious are locked out.
Finally, the medical team consummate the martyrdom by spoiling his eyes. Their probing is not directed at discovery—they could have found out more by asking him about himself. Rather its goal appears to be the reduction of the marvellously strange to mundane dimensions. Therefore their derision, seen painfully from Newton’s point of view, has a racist quality about it as, fearful that he may be genetically and culturally their superior, they gang up to ‘prove’ the opposite.
So the alien must lose his powers and become as limited as the rest of humanity: the medics do not rob Newton of terrestrial sight, but by welding his contact lenses to his eyes, they blind him to frequencies of the energy spectrum other than those registered by the human eye. From this moment on he can neither receive nor transmit light messages, so the damage he suffers (a kind of castration) entails the destruction of his visionary and godlike powers.
In the psychological perspective this establishes a productive tautology when we consider the ambivalence of Newton’s heroic status as a projection of the collective unconscious. He is trapped in the world of consciousness, able neither to deliver the boon of his psychic knowledge to this world nor to return home with the pure element for which he has come. In this state, locked into a living death, he is a mockery of the immortal gods, and his condition reminds us of our own. The comparison of his unaging face with the mask of Dorian Gray is fitting, for however devoted to everlasting youth Western culture may become, there is no more stopping the psychological processes of growing older than the physical.
The Man Who Fell To Earth offers late twentieth century audiences a mirror, in the maimed Newton, to their own intellectual, sensual and spiritual appetites. Newton reflects at us our inadequacies to the calls of heroism—our pusillanimous evasions and betrayals of the demands of the unconscious. Not only can we not cope with the hero when he faces us, we lack even the assurance to murder him as earlier generations did, and take refuge instead in a series of slighting attacks on his power which wing and maim. The libido is as surely stuck in the unconscious as if we had wished it, a further difference being that we cannot bring ourselves to acknowledge that any such part of ourselves exists.
For these reasons The Man Who Fell To Earth is not an apocalyptic film, its refusal of that mode emphasised by its shifts in point of view. Whilst it opens with Newton dominant, Nathan Bryce and Mary-Lou are introduced later as alternative centres of attention, their importance underlined when both narrate fragments of their stories. And in the final scenes we adopt the point of view of each main character, which helps us see how the two humans interact with the alien.
One of Newton’s first human contacts is the forty-year old Dr. Nathan Bryce, though he does not actually meet him for a number of years. Newton first becomes aware of him when he breaks into his thoughts, for when sexually aroused Bryce transmits signals which Newton cannot tune out of his mind (synchronicity and the random radio again). Since the jaded professor pleasures himself with several of his students, Newton is disturbed on more than one occasion by raucous couplings. These scenes are not as hilarious to us as to the lovers because there are signs that their lickerous appetites slake latent incestuous desires. Since all his girls are child-women to him, we deduce that Bryce has an unsettled libido which, moving from one anima to another, reveals his psychological immaturity.
However, Bryce himself comes under the reciprocal influence of Newton as his interest in the activities of World Enterprises grows, and longing for creative work, he begins to lobby them for a job. He and Newton grow closer even before they meet; and coincidentally Bryce’s interest in eighteen-year-olds declines as his libido finds new goals. By this time the audience has plenty of evidence of Newton’s powers to transfer energy through an extraordinary variety of channels; and he presents himself in a translucent image to the amazed scientist one night before their first meeting, counselling Bryce not to be suspicious but to trust him. Meanwhile we begin to notice that at this period of his life Bryce himself (as the name Nathan suggests) has rudimentary prophetic powers. For instance, he guesses Newton’s true nature; but, a novice by Newton’s standards, he has to use an X-ray camera that nearly blinds the visitor to prove what intuition has told him. Bryce is, however, limited. When he deprecatingly describes himself to Newton as a type like the disillusioned scientist or the cynical writer, he achieves an insight prophetic of his future behaviour which he cannot repeat. He never attains the simple trust that endows his boss with the courage to put his future in other people’s control.
The relationship between Newton and Bryce provides one of the means by which we can compare the alien and earthly cultures. And as we shall see, the machines the two cultures use give us another. A hierarchy emerges in which Newton seems to represent evolution to an advanced stage beyond humanity in the sophisticated control of both physical and mental energy. However, he does not belong to an unrecognisably different species; rather, human activity and intelligence function more crudely than his and to a different time scale.
For example, Mary-Lou knows neither visions nor moments of intuition and has nothing about her of the mysterious. Yet in her company Newton experiences not only, as one might expect, some of the more banal phenomena of American small-town culture—the mawkish sentiment, and folksy church going—but also moments which are rendered through his point of view as transcending immediate mundane circumstance.
The mawkish is present in Mary-Lou’s wistful remark, ‘When you look out there at night, don’t you feel that somewhere there’s got to be a God? There’s gotta be!’ Her words, however, are undermined by the lush romanticism of a palm court orchestra playing ‘Fascination’ on a television set behind her.
Meanwhile Newton is looking out of the window not at God, but a passing train. ‘They’re so strange here, the trains,’ he muses. Indeed the trains (a major connecting motif through the first half of the film) serve as an indication of the crudity of Earthly culture. The American railway system is massively mechanical and in decline. By contrast the fragile hut, the spaceship in which Newton leaves his home, looks impossibly rickety; but it seems to move in response to Newton’s will. We only associate it with Earth’s trains because it appears to slide along rails as it departs, and is intercut with shots of an express. The contrast confirms Newton’s unmatched command of energy, and implies that Mary-Lou’s fuzzy ideas of a ‘God out there somewhere’ are inadequate to a creature with his knowledge of the cosmos. Rather than resort to the cozy anthropomorphism of a deity made in the image of man, Newton relies on the certainty that all things begin and end in eternity.
However, Newton perceives a number of signs that although spiritual life–or knowledge of the self–is as rudimentary on Earth as control of energy, its seeds have developed a stunted life on this planet. Hints of the magical begin to accumulate. The first jokey signpost in this direction is on the number plate of a car: ‘New Mexico–Land of Enchantment’.
When Newton takes Mary-Lou with him as he criss-crosses New Mexico looking for a good site for his headquarters, she notices for the first time the beauty of the state in which she lives. Later Newton looks out of the car suddenly seeing in a rush of light a family of nineteenth-century farmers. What makes the moment the more extraordinary is that, although they are invisible to Mary-Lou, they can see the car, and gawp at the incomprehensible violation of their world until contact across the ages is broken off. It is a glimpse of a bygone, glowing Eden which brings to mind the ancient hopes of the early settlers in America, the belief that the virgin land should be the site of an earthly Paradise made through the honest labour of a devout people.
This incident occurs at a significant moment for Newton. He has just located the slag heap down which he scrambled on landing; but nothing of the magical aura that marks his encounter with the early settlers had illuminated that discovery. But in the scene immediately following the impossible ‘meeting’ with them, the play of magical power intensifies as his limousine noses its way down to the very lake upon which Newton’s craft seemed to land. For Mary-Lou, who exclaims over it, the untouched place has a beauty that makes it another Paradise, and her idea of it as a blessed place fits with Newton’s reaction. Touched by the lake’s beauty, he finds the place perfect for his purposes and tells Mary-Lou they must build a house there; but then wonder and alarm (which the audience share, scanning the lake’s topography through his eyes) overtake him. A tremendous wave of energy whelms both the lake and his mind; but his instant decision to live there notwithstanding the trauma he suffers indicates that this is to him a nodal point through which vital energy is transmitted to him. For no sooner has he found this place than he switches all the resources of World Enterprises behind the construction of his spacecraft, and starts the preparations for his return.
Thus where Newton is present, traces of magic are likely to be found—whether he imports them…
… or as seems more likely from the incident at the lake, senses out where such energies can be found and opens himself to them. Where his point of view prevails, the material world takes on, as it were, a kind of translucency to energy. It is in this sense that the traditional emblem of Paradise overlaps Newton’s discovery of a place which funnels intense charges of energy. In such locations what modern humanity recognises only as the material world hums with a vitality that cannot be consciously tapped but which nourishes the projects of those who, like him, can open themselves to forces of which they are not conscious.
If Newton lives at his most complete when open both to new experience and untapped sources of energy, he is at his lowest ebb when fear of being trapped overcomes him. Associated with both love and entrapment, Mary-Lou elicits not only radiance but also the dark side of his character. Whereas he feels most at home in the country, her normal habitat is indoors. He seeks water and looks for knowledge, she drinks gin to escape. Newton learns alcohol dependency from her; and the deeper he drinks the more he becomes reliant on an ever growing bank of television sets. It proves to be a risky toy because he lets TV occupy all the many channels into his brain to obliterate pain. But what he watches does not inform him much, whereas by contrast the transfer of energy of which he is capable in his right mind conveys simple, telling messages. Like gin, television threatens to trap his mind.
Arguably, however, Newton ultimately breaks with Mary-Lou not for the failings she introduces him to, but because of her faithful love. If he did not resist, love of her would imprison him on earth and prevent his departure, marking him out as the type of hero who allows himself to remain stuck in the underworld. Trying to force the break with her, he finds that manufacturing domestic rows (probably modelled on disputes observed on TV) does not kill her love. So he takes the risk of showing himself to her unmasked and as he really is.
Since Tommy is for Mary-Lou a projection of her animus (the male aspect of her mind), his true form reveals to her something hitherto unknown that terrifies her at first, but to which, with courage, she begins to adapt herself, returning to talk sadly to him when he has resumed his human disguise.
Newton, however, with a finality necessary to winning his goal, does not give her the opportunity to become reconciled to the new state of affairs, and moves out to live alone. Since at much the same time Bryce through his lumbering investigation has also discovered Newton to be an alien, the three of them suddenly find themselves sharing a secret that imperils them all. Newton’s exposure is obvious; but Bryce and Mary-Lou are also at risk.
On the surface the risk for these two is that they will be suborned by interests hostile to Newton and his World Enterprises, which occurs when Peters takes control of the corporation just before the scheduled blast-off. All three fall victim to what his enterprise represents—organised and sanctioned greed. However, the greater danger for those who possess a vital secret may be a burgeoning desire to betray it. Betrayal can be attractive for a number of reasons. The first is simply reward, or the chance to escape from something one fears. The Judas motive explains why his driver kidnaps Newton for Peters’s organisation; and it accounts in part for Bryce’s willingness to deliver Newton’s mind to them. For in one aspect, the alien that Mary-Lou and Bryce discover (and their respective images of him differ remarkably) reflects the shadow in themselves. Thus the image of Newton that Bryce ‘projects’ on to the X-ray print comprises an outline around an empty centre—a fair prophecy of Bryce’s own future condition.
Plainly Mary-Lou’s betrayal has another motivation than fear. In her first appalled sight of Newton as an alien, she faces a yellow-eyed demon, quite appropriate to the impulse that eventually drives her actions.
Bryce’s former affection for his boss suggests that he may be stirred by comparable feelings too. These amount to the lover’s or friend’s jealous desire to hit back and inflict as much pain as has been suffered, a feeling the stronger the more open to the other the partner has been. If we needed further evidence that such emotions flow in Bryce and Mary-Lou, it occurs when they meet years after Newton has been jailed and open their hearts to each other. We cut between the reunion of the middle-aged pair who will soon be lovers, Newton in his prison suite, and the scene from Carol Reed’s The Third Man in which Anna Schmidt attacks Holly Martins for betraying her lover Harry Lime. As Mary-Lou’s and Bryce’s conversation develops, it echoes eerily that of the earlier film in such a way that Anna becomes a commentator on their words, uncovering their lies. So when Mary-Lou protests that she does not want to hurt Tommy any more, one wonders where her thought came from unless it had been secretly forming in her mind, for no one had suggested she should.
The urge to betray can also arise from envy of perfection and the desire to reduce someone thought to be superior to one’s own mediocrity. Like the medics, Bryce and Mary-Lou are driven by this impulse. This is where their guilt for the maiming of Newton may be greatest (in Bryce’s refusal to respond to his cries for help as the doctors probe him, and Mary-Lou’s demeaning attempts to seduce him into publicly revealing himself as an alien).
Here their betrayal has an apocalyptic quality, seen at its rawest in its consequences for Newton, who falls to the level of a crazed beast pawing at the doors of its cage.
That, however, is not the whole picture since the act of betrayal has its effects on Bryce and Mary-Lou too. Towards the end of his life Bryce goes to the trouble of tracing Newton. What moves him to make the trip, we have to decide for ourselves. It may be simple curiosity and nothing more, but from the nature of the questions he blurts out, it seems guilt is stirring in him. But before he can speak of what gnaws at him, Newton asks whether he sees anything of Mary-Lou. Unable any longer to deal openly with the man who once trusted him completely, Bryce shamefacedly denies seeing much of her, although they have by now been living together for some years. Whether Newton has consciously been testing him or not, Bryce has failed.
Now he asks the things that have been troubling him. Does Newton feel bitter about what has been done to him? In effect Bryce, unworthy as he is, wants to know whether he must carry the burden of his guilt forever. Newton gives him the absolution he seeks by telling him implausibly that they would probably have dealt the same way with a stranger on his own planet. Bryce then asks what he most wants to know. Bryce: ‘Is there no chance then?’ Newton: ‘Of course there’s a chance. You’re the scientist, Dr Bryce. You must know there’s always a chance.’ On paper this scene reads like a moment of reconciliation, but on screen it offers no reassuring closure to the audience. For the charity of Newton’s final words must be registered against the fact that he routinely quietens his pain by drinking himself to insensibility, an oblivion he attains almost as soon as these words leave his mouth.
There is a further structural device in addition to the control of subjectivity which ensures that at its end the film does not slacken its ambivalence. For the music dubbed over the last three scenes tends to keep the spectator at an ironic distance. For example, as Mary-Lou and Bryce prepare for Christmas with a few more rounds of drinks, it is apparent that, despite the extraordinary events they have lived through, they have become an elderly couple indistinguishable from many others. They speak the small platitudes of people who know each other too well, shelter their minds with liquor from thoughts of the big chill to come, and hold hands for comfort. Dubbed in over their chatter is the voice of Bing Crosby, his words conveying an obvious irony: ‘So on and on it will always be / true love, true love / for you and I have a guardian angel / on high, with nothing to do / but to give to you and to give to me / love for ever true’.
Then when Bryce searches for Newton, he finds him through the album he has cut for his wife. While Bryce listens to one of the tracks on headphones, we (who never do hear Bowie sing his own music) have to put up with the store relay, which is playing a reedy-voiced girl: ‘Love is coming back / I think romance is on the rise / and all the boys all across the world / are making eyes’. The dopiness of this is inescapable, but it conveys a youthful delight in life which works obliquely, as we shall see when we consider the effect of the three songs in the context they set up for each other.
Artie Shaw’s performance of ‘Stardust’ (which plays as the end titles roll) also functions indirectly by implying Hoagy Carmichael’s lyrics which rework an old theme, regret for lost love: ‘Ah, but that was long ago / and now my consolation is in the stardust of a song / Beside a garden wall where stars are bright / you are in my arms / The nightingale tells his fairy tale / of Paradise where roses bloom / Though I dream in vain / in my heart I know it will remain / my stardust melody, the memory of love’s refrain’. ‘Stardust’ is an elegy, a lament for a lost time. It is a clever match for Newton’s circumstances and, by introducing the lover locked out of the garden, it brings back to mind all the associations that have been building around the idea of Paradise. In other words the dramatic context makes it possible to understand the song as alluding to not only Newton’s exile, but also the destruction of his ability to tap sources of extraordinary energy. For those who know it, the ancient figure of the hortus conclusus (the enclosed garden) supplies further confirmation of Newton’s loss of self, since as a Christian emblem it traditionally signified the soul of man. Thus the nostalgic sadness of the lyrics fits the ending well; but ambivalence is found even here because Artie Shaw’s performance has a bluesy quality that lightens sorrow and hints, like Newton’s final words, at something bearable.
Since ‘True Love’ refers to Bryce’s feelings for Mary-Lou, ‘Love is coming back’ can only be drawing attention to new stirrings in his heart for the man he has betrayed.
Associated with that impulse is his need to confess, to make a new beginning; and although we see that he does not succeed in getting very far, once again behind the obvious irony of the song’s placing, we can detect a glimmer of optimism. And so too, behind Crosby’s ‘True Love’ and the blowzy affection of Bryce and Mary-Lou there lies something better than the dark pessimism that might have been expected. For despite everything, there is about the battered and boozy pair just a trace of the heroic in the end, even though that word flatters since they have fallen upon rather than risen to their fortune. Such as it is then, their meagre heroism consists in endurance and the discovery of a form of companionship akin to love which their need for each other has produced.
In the end the intricate mix of subjectivities and distantiating devices in The Man Who Fell To Earth encourages the spectator to adopt an ironic point of view, observant of but not close to the main characters, able to comment in a rational but uncommitted way on their fates. This cool attitude corresponds to that of the anonymous observer of Newton’s landing, who in this light suddenly begins to look like our representative in the film. However, there is an opposite aspect to this figure which we rediscover in remembering his first, sinister impact. A dark figure, he at first sight seemed more like a type of the shadow; and to recognise him as such immediately reverses the position we have reached at the end, undercutting our civilized irony. For to watch like a dispassionate observer as the world distresses a contemporary god-hero is to share in the contumely. Psychologically one suffers both as vilifier and victim in frustrating the libido’s quest for individuation.
̶ You must be the only tourist in the city. What are you doing here?
̶ Trying to forget a woman.
̶ I can help you.
̶ Because I love your green eyes. Where did you get them?
̶ From an Irish sailor.
̶ Your hair’s not red.
̶ From a Dutch trader.
̶ Your skin’s not white.
̶ From the man who fell to Earth.
She takes my hand and holds it.
̶̶ Look, it’s like mine. I’m Armenian.
̶ I’m not.
That evening, at her place, we improvised an Eintopf and ate it while watching The Man Who Fell to Earth.
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In December 1975, shortly after he’d signed off on Station to Station, Bowie was back at work on a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth—although ultimately it wasn’t used in the film, and remains to this day unreleased. If Station to Station laid down the artistic groundwork for Low, its actual genesis came in these soundtrack sessions. Various Low tracks are reported to have been recycled from this time—Brian Eno has said that ‘Weeping Wall’ started life there, although Bowie himself claims that the only hold-over from the proposed soundtrack that he actually used was the reverse bass part in ‘Subterraneans’.
Bowie worked with Paul Buckmaster (producer of his 1969 ‘Space Oddity’ hit), who brought in a cello to accompany Bowie’s guitar, synthesizers and drum machines. The sessions (at Bowie’s Bel Air home) produced five or six working tracks, recorded on a TEAC four-track tape recorder. According to Buckmaster, the two were very taken at the time with Kraftwerk’s recently released Radio Activity. This album caught Kraftwerk at a transitional phase of their career, channelling free-form experimentalism towards more tightly controlled, robotic rhythms that are like the sonic equivalent of a Mondrian painting. Radio Activity is a clear influence on Low, with its mix of pop hooks, unsettling sound effects, retro-modernism; its introspection and emotional flatness. The theremin-sounding synths of ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ and the electronic interludes on ‘A New Career in a New Town’ in particular have a Radio-Activity feel to them.
Apart from that early run-through of ‘Subterraneans,’ then, these sessions’ real contribution to Low was that they got Bowie thinking about (and creating) atmospheric, ‘mood’ music for the first time. In a career of over a decade, Bowie had yet to record a single instrumental piece. In this respect, the loghorrea of Station to Station—with its lumber room of loosely connected images—looks backwards rather than forwards, since more than half the tracks on Low ended up lyric-less, and the others are pretty monosyllabic. Until Low, Bowie had tended to follow some sort of narrative line, however elusive. On Low, even on the songs with lyrics, that narrative impulse largely falls away. And it was during the Man Who Fell to Earth sessions that, he later said, he first got the idea of hooking up with Brian Eno at some point.
There are conflicting accounts as to why the soundtrack project was abandoned. According to Bowie, his manager, Michael Lippman, had promised to secure him the rights to score the film and he’d started recording on that basis. When later told that his work would be competing in a three-way pitch, he withdrew from the process in a fury. That account doesn’t quite square with those of others involved. According to Harry Maslin, who co-produced Station to Station, Bowie was by this stage so burned out that he couldn’t focus on the work properly. Buckmaster seems to agree, recalling one session where Bowie had practically overdosed and had to be helped out of the studio. ‘I considered the music to be demo-ish and not final, although we were supposed to be making it final,’ Buckmaster told Bowie biographer David Buckley. ‘All we produced was something that was substandard, and Nicolas Roeg turned it down on those grounds.’
John Phillips, who ended up doing the soundtrack, tells yet a different story: ‘Roeg wanted banjos and folk music and Americana for the film, which was about an alien who drops from the sky into the southwest. ‘David really can’t do that kind of thing,’ Roeg said. This seems to me a better explanation for the rejection of the Bowie soundtrack—The Man Who Fell to Earth has a sci-fi premise but isn’t really a sci-fi film and a spacey, futuristic soundtrack would have set the wrong tone. As for the quality of Bowie’s work, those who did hear it were impressed. Phillips found it ‘haunting and beautiful, with chimes, Japanese bells, and what sounded like electronic wind and waves.’ Bowie had the soundtrack with him during the Low sessions for work on ‘Subterraneans,’ and at one stage played it to the musicians: ‘It was excellent,’ recalled guitarist Ricky Gardiner, ‘quite unlike anything else he’s done.’ Months later, Bowie sent Roeg a copy of Low, with a note that said: ‘This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack.’
The Man Who Fell to Earth was Nicolas Roeg’s fourth movie. In the prime of his career in the mid-seventies, he’d received widespread acclaim for arthouse classics such as Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. And he’d already initiated one rock star (Mick Jagger) into the world of acting, on his directorial debut Performance. But for Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be more than just his first major acting job. In many respects, Thomas Jerome Newton, the part he plays, was Roeg’s projection of Bowie, and Bowie, in turn, confessed to ‘being Newton for six months’ after the movie shoot, wearing Newton’s clothes and striking his poses. (‘I’d been offered a couple of scripts but I chose this one because it was the only one where I didn’t have to sing or look like David Bowie,’ he said at the time. ‘Now I think that David Bowie looks like Newton.’)
Roeg had first wanted Peter O’Toole for the role but became interested in Bowie after seeing a documentary that Alan Yentob had made for the BBC arts programme Omnibus. It was entitled Cracked Actor, and caught a pale, stick-thin Bowie as he toured America. It impressed Roeg greatly, to the extent that a scene in which Bowie is having some sort of psychotic episode in the back of a limo in New York was recreated for the movie, with the same chauffeur and even snatches of the dialogue reprised. Other self-referential moments make clear the link between Bowie and the role he’s playing. Like Bowie, Newton creates music, and near the end of the film, he makes an album of spectral sounds entitled The Visitor. The scene in which a character buys this album shows a record store display promoting Bowie’s Young Americans in the background. An early screenplay apparently used Bowie lyrics as well.
The movie is about an alien who travels to Earth from a drought-stricken planet, where he has left a wife and child. Using his superior knowledge, he starts up a high-tech corporation to earn the money he needs to build a spaceship, which would ship water to save his planet. Into his reclusive life comes Mary-Lou, an elevator operator, who introduces Newton to TV and alcohol. Meanwhile, his phenomenal rise to power sparks interest from government agents, who find out about his space project and determine to stop it. They imprison Newton in a penthouse and subject him to medical examinations. Eventually they lose interest in him; Mary-Lou tracks him down and he escapes. He records The Visitor, which he hopes his wife, who may already be dead, will hear. Knowing he can neither go back home nor save his dying family, Newton descends into self-pity and alcohol. In a sense, he has become human.
Bowie is not called upon to act in any conventional sense; he merely projects an otherworldliness that’s already there in the alienation that’s the result of rock star fame, drug abuse and a romantic conception of the creative life. ‘The basic premise is of a man forced to be in a position where he has to enter a society, not letting too much be known because then he’d be in continual isolation,’ explains Roeg. ‘It had to be a secret self, a secret person. Emotionally, I think a lot of these thoughts appealed to David.’ Newton is like a refugee, ‘an astronaut of inner space rather than outer space. I remember David and I talking about that theme.’
The second, ‘ambient’ side of Low is partly about exploring Newton’s vast interior landscapes, as Bowie’s note to Roeg implies. The fact that two of Bowie’s albums and numerous singles bear images from the film illustrate its importance. The role was a perfect feint for the Bowie persona, crystallizing the metaphor of the alien, which Bowie continued to both nurture and fight against. As late as 1997, the chosen title of his album Earthling resonates with an irony that goes back to The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is a film that effectively portrays control by the media and demonstrates the addictive need for the substitute reality of the spectacle. It presents an alien (David Bowie) whose knowledge and experience of our world is entirely mediated by television. Here the science fiction narrative serves as a metaphor for a less cosmic alienation: the British alien adrift in America—another world of appearances. Roeg’s cinematography and mise-en-scène continually stress angularity, reflectivity, and prismaticity; the geometry of intersecting light and images; a substantial insubstantiality.
Thomas Newton, the alien, watches television (or televisions: six, twelve, or more). ‘Strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything,’ he muses. ‘It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s the nature of television.’ Guy Debord provides an analysis of Newton’s observation: ‘The spectacle originates in the loss of the unity of the world, and the gigantic expansion of the modem spectacle expresses the totality of this loss: the abstraction of all specific labor and the general abstraction of the entirety of production are perfectly rendered in the spectacle, whose mode of being concrete is precisely abstraction’ (thesis 29). The expression of the loss of unity could only take the form of a massive displacement from sign to sign. There could be no totalzing system of reference to ground it in order to engender cohesion and produce concrete meaning.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, real life is trivialized and made banal. Newton’s quest to rescue his family is parodied by a camera commercial: togetherness through picture taking. The photograph becomes an instant substitute and a surrogate memory. As in advertising, TV at once reveals and hides the lack, providing him with parodic distortions of the family he does not have, the community he does not share, the experience from which he remains separate. Television serves simply as noise for Newton; the white noise of American culture. The wealthy Newton purchases no extraneous commodities other than the multiple television monitors; as Debord noted, the spectacle is the ultimate commodity, for it contains all the others (thesis 15 ).
Newton feels a force which emanates from television, a control which pulls him in. ‘Get out of my mind, all of you!’ he moans to his wall of screens. ‘Stay where you belong.’ Television is both pervasive and invasive, evidently serving as a drug, an electronic analogue for the pollution of Newton’s body with alcohol. The more Newton engages the world of appearances, the less real his own body, his own appearance, becomes. The spectacle holds the ‘monopoly of appearance’ (Debord, thesis 12 ), representing the cohesion that is no longer locatable in the real. ‘The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him’ (Debord, thesis 30). The struggle to resist the spectacle marks the return to alienation from the affectless one-dimensional state so accurately described by Marcuse: the return to a recognition of spectacle as spectacle. The status of the alien thus allows the privilege of alienation, a state that exists beyond (and more accurately before) the acceptance of spectacle.
Nicolas Roeg is fascinated by the cinematic possibilities of manipulating time, not so much fracturing its continuum but playing with his characters’ perceptions of it against the spectators’. To achieve this he uses the intrinsic formal textures of his medium—color, movement, shape, and sound—to build montages in which space is put at the service of time and time at the service of the mysteries of subjective perception and the coincidences of association. The science fiction genre offers the best room for such speculation.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg begins with the convention of a visitor from space and then alters it, creating a narrative from the visitor’s perspective, so that the events of the film are seen two ways at once: from the point of view of the naïf, the man who fell to earth, who can barely discriminate ‘reality’ from the television images of it and cannot separate the nostalgia for his lost home from the betrayals he suffers in his new one; and from our own point of view, in which we see what is happening, attempt to supply the continuity the visitor cannot, and end up as frustrated and lost as he. By the end of the film, when everyone has aged but the visitor, trapped in his own timelessness, the audience comes to share his perspective and even go beyond it, so alienated from a comprehension of the film’s obdurate chronology that we become aliens, wandering outside the fiction while the visitor is imprisoned within it.