Director Nicholas Roeg’s (1928-2018 natural causes) film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring music legend David Bowie (1947-2016 liver cancer) is essentially a science fiction film about alcoholism.
Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water for his parched planet. He has left his family behind in the pursuit of this mission.
The crux of the movie is the alien versus human element of the movie… and how it can drive you to drink. This “strange” movie is also some kind of masterpiece in Roeg’s interesting filmography and is part of his musician as actors trio of films which includes rocker Mick Jagger (1943-) in Performance (1970) and pop star Art Garfunkel (1941-) in Bad Timing (1980).
It was originally intended as a vehicle for thirsty thespian Peter O’Toole, which is something unimaginable, despite those eyes. Roeg also wanted to cast author Michael Crichton (1942-2008 lymphoma) which was another impossibility.
I can see no-one else but the enigmatic Bowie as a possible Martian although it is not really confirmed this is the planet he comes from.
Based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis (1928-84 lung cancer), who battled alcoholism himself, it was described by one critic as being a Christian parable about the corruption of an innocent being. That Bowie’s character wants to save his family and his planet makes him some sort of Christ-like saviour figure… but nobody’s perfect!
Of all the films Bowie appeared and starred in, this is probably the only film that he really believed in, as it is the only film he actively promoted. He knew something special had been created here and that his performance matched the material. It is probably not surprising that the creation of the movie came after Bowie’s success with the song Space Oddity and long after the establishment of his glam image and creation of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars also featuring the song Starman.
Bowie said about his cocaine-induced performance in the film: “I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.” And yet it is not a drug movie, it’s an alcohol movie! Despite this, he got along well with Roeg and said he was in fact eager to please and that each scene he filmed he acted how he felt at the time. He turned up on time and knew his lines…
That’s enough trivia about this shoot where cameras jammed for no reason and some parts of the film are said to have been “bad karma” according to Bowie. One more trivia item and that is the film was shot in mid-1975 and spent nine months in the editing suite with Roeg.
What is it about The Man Who Fell to Earth?
Bowie falls to Earth in a spaceship in a small lake and is soon seen trudging through the desert dressed in a hoodie. Blink it and you’ll miss: he is being watched by a man in a black suit, prefiguring the Men in Black, which you probably know was about government men who track aliens. Who is this character? We never know. Perhaps like the Men in Black “they” are aware of an alien landing in their midst. Perhaps already there are other aliens. Perhaps there is a time travel element involved with this character with man already able to travel through time due to plans sent from the future or delivered by other aliens.
Bowie comes to a river and is almost hit by a passing car. The first person he sees is a homeless and hopeless alcoholic with a beer in his hand beckoning. It is almost a prediction of things to come as Bowie immediately lies on a street bench and passes out in the small town he has come across.
There at what the owner insists is not a pawn shop, just as I insist despite this movie’s reputation is not a soft-core porn movie – it’s an “art” film – he sells one of a large number of wedding bands to collect cash.
It is obvious time has passed as he has a large wad of cash by this stage. That is something strange about the film is the time which passes and Bowie’s character, as the film progresses, doesn’t age. When one scene passes to the next it could be that ten years has passed or more… On the wedding ring are the initials T.J.N or Thomas Jerome Newton, named after Sir Isaac Newton who “discovered” gravity and wrote a book on optics. Fell to Earth – Gravity – get it! It already existed like alcoholism did as a part of the universe, already hinted in the movie.
Bowie carries with him an English passport. We really don’t know where he got all the rings and the hoodie and the passport but we know on Bowie’s planet, they have been watching Earth through television waves which have travelled through space.
Having gathered enough money, he gets a chauffeur, another shady character, or one who sells out in the end, and meets with a patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth, played by Buck Henry (1930-2020). Bowie arrives dressed in black and wearing a Fedora, which makes him stand out as someone ostentatious and slightly odd. He presents Farnsworth with ingenious and futuristic electronic patents and uses his wad of cash for Farnsworth to secure them… Has this happened already? Have some patents not yet released been delivered by aliens? And are they waiting to be released in a flood of new technology? Or is the only flood to be from global warming?
Told his “nine basic patents” could be worth $300 million, Bowie wants more and engages Farnsworth as the nominal head of the new firm.
We are then introduced to another character, a university lecturer played by Rip Torn. He is apparently a loner, like Bowie’s alien character who is a loner but not by choice. Torn does all right in bed with teenage students, ripping their clothes off before molesting them much to their delight. Bowie is meanwhile shown in a Japanese restaurant eating rice and being repelled by a violent Kabuki performance. This is one of the first montages of Roeg’s editing technique contrasting the two characters. Bowie is passive while Torn is more pro-active.
Overnight, the gay Farnsworth’s life is changed into one of big business as Bowie’s patents include ones related to film including the possible capture of images to digital rather than celluloid.
Torn leaves academia saying he’s younger than most of the kids he teaches as most of them are middle aged as that’s what they are taught. It is hardly a bold idea but it is certainly one which keeps this planet stuck in the quagmire it is currently in as aged conservatives and aged liberals with middle aged ideas tend to still rule the planet. No wonder Bowie doesn’t engage with the world and Torn leaves… to work for Bowie’s company as he has some fresh ideas in terms of fuel. Again time is passing… Bowie checks into a hotel and gets in a lift which goes up too fast causing Bowie to collapse into an almost drunken heap. We know he is not drunk as he continually drinks water throughout the beginning of the movie.
Operating the lift is a character played by Candy Clark (1947-) who carries Bowie to his room and is about to call a doctor as he is bleeding from the face.
In a shot which begins with a mirror and Bowie on a bed, we cut to Torn and his latest conquest, who holds his knob in her hand and says: “You’re not a bit like my father.” The contrast of life of the straight male – whether practising or not – are shown. Torn’s screams of ecstasy can be heard psychically by Bowie. He can occasionally pick up voices. And Clark gives Bowie a glass of water because that’s all he wants. They get together later as Bowie continues to drink water and Clark gin.
“You’re already hooked on water, aren’t you? One of these days you ought to try one of these.”
Whether alcohol exists on Bowie’s planet is never discussed. It may be too primitive and it may be banned altogether leaving temptation out of harm’s way. However, the power of suggestion can reverberate in a person’s life, whether its voices in a person’s head, or from another person… Sex and alcohol we mix together. Alcohol helps lower the inhibitions for those who aren’t easily persuaded to initially break the ice. But human sex and alcohol are both alien to Bowie at this point of the film. Torn doesn’t need it as he gets a job in Bowie’s fuel division for another possible invention. He gradually loses his interest in teenage flesh as his mind’s libido grows exponentially instead.
“What I didn’t know then… someone else had faith in me as well,” says Torn about his future at the company as he meets Farnsworth who fast tracks his ambitions in terms of salary and position.
Time passes… Bowie is watching multiple televisions like some sort of corporate magnate who learns and does good business as a result. It is also like he can deal with more than one voice in his head at the same time – or to help drown out all the psychic voices in his head. All I know is the two of them are gradually merging.
He stares out the window as Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon is playing on the television. The couple are drinking in that movie. And by now we are aware that Bowie and Clark are a couple and she likes gin while he has taken to white wine.
“They’re so strange here, the trains,” muses Bowie. At the beginning of the film there is a derelict steam engine, while later in a flashback on Bowie’s planet there is some sort of sail driven train. While the Earth trains are obviously phallic the Martian ones are not.
Clark takes Bowie to church where he is totally alien to the environment and for a singer shows he cannot hold a tune as the hymns are performed. Was Christ more than just a man? Was he an innocent alien not yet corrupted? Is it too late for Bowie, this saviour of his own planet as he stands in the congregation of sinners? Has Christ already returned only to become an alcoholic?
The song Try to Remember from the musical The Fantasticks plays and there is a brief moment when Bowie remembers his family. They are humanoid but not quite human and Bowie is obviously wearing some disguise on Earth. As they drive through the countryside Clark relates how she no longer has a fascination with trains, possibly having grown up and preferring the real phallic variety.
It is during this drive that we see pioneers from the 19th Century as they spot a UFO in the form of a car speeding by and Bowie sees the pioneers. There is that psychic time travel element melded together. Both disappear in the flash of green light. Ever seen a green light in the sky?
He is a man or alien linked to the planet in a way that most men aren’t. He is the future in terms of technology and the good natured-ness of man on the planet. And yet he doesn’t belong here as he stares at the lake where he first appeared and sees the UFO depart leaving what appears to be his alien form spinning in space before falling not quite to Earth. Clark shakes him out of the trance. Trapped on Earth, is the money from his massive corporation to be used to create some kind of spaceship? Time passes and the characters age…
“He’s a freak,” says one of his executives upon the announcement of his company’s space agenda, as Torn is brought in because of his knowledge of fuels. He is to finally meet Bowie.
We watch as Bowie has sex with Clark and the couple stargaze. We watch the corona of the sun through a telescope as it spews solar flares during an eclipse. Solar flares are known to interfere with radio communications and are part of the danger to human space flight because of the radiation they create. But meanwhile Bowie is addicted to alcohol.
“You’ve had enough,” says Clark later, taking the alcohol away. It is interfering in their personal and sexual relationship.
“I don’t want to talk to anyone…,” says Bowie. “What is happening to me?”
The television screens, once full of information just show static as he breaks off from her… but he tunes into the stations again… further neglecting Clark for the screens. Something which makes him happy. There is a kind of omnipotence and yet physical impotence when it comes to alcohol. Therein is the trap… along with television. It isolates Bowie’s alien adding to his alienation.
Is this the only option for the modern alcoholic, especially an alien alcoholic, instead of relationships? It has been a positive obsession for Bowie until with too much alcohol for two long he reaches an anti-epiphany and cries out to the voices in his head almost in passive psychosis: “Get out of my mind… all of you! Leave my mind alone!… Get where you belong… back where you came from!”
Are these other aliens on Earth scanning his mind, invading it? The Men in Black! Or is he simply drunk and vulnerable? Does he listen to the television as an escape, so he doesn’t have to think of his family on his barren planet? Or is it to escape the psychic voices in his head? Perhaps that was how they communicated on his planet and it is corrupted or unbearable here on Earth!
He has finally fallen from grace to earth…
Hang in there and read PART TWO.