The Man Who Fell To Earth
1976 UK Directed by Nicholas Roeg
I recently won a competition run by Simon and Laraine Gosden of Fantasticliterature.com (does what it says on the tin... a great site, you should check it out) with the prize being a film of my choice in the recent Science Fiction season at the National Film Theatre (courtesy of the BFI, with thanks to Victoria Humphrys). For my prize I picked The Man Who Fell To Earth as a good movie from my past to revisit.
It’s been a few years since I last watched this (and around about 20 years since I last saw it at the NFT) but this is just one of those movies which never seems to date much. I’ve always admired Roeg as a director and enjoy his fast shock-cut techniques to make metaphors and cross-cut through past and future to build up a slow picture of what is going on in a less linear and, perhaps, more naturalistic fashion. I’ve always compared his movies to one of those polaroid self-developing photos which were predominant in the 70s and 80s... slowly, as the time passes, you see the whole picture fading in to view at once... that’s pretty much what happens in a Roeg movie. All the different fragments that make up the whole of the picture develop at roughly the same rate and give you a whole vision slowly forming in your head... a brilliant way of delivering your vision. I think the last thing I saw directed by Roeg was an episode of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and I remember him getting away with great stuff like that even in this “prime-time” TV kinda venue... still recall the quick flashes into Mata Hari’s ultimate fate even though you knew the episode would not go that far forward into the character’s future lives.
Actually, that’s one of the things which surprised me and which I’d misremembered when I went to this screening last weekend... there are no “flash-forwards” in The Man Who Fell To Earth that I could see... just various flashback sequences to Bowie’s character’s past... so in many ways this is possibly one of the most linear of Roeg’s movies that I’ve seen... or at least one of the most accessible maybe.
Another thing Roeg does in this movie is to play with extreme levels of sound... using it in much the same way as Kurosawa might have used it (look at Kurosawa’s snow-demon sequence in Dreams and you’ll see what I mean). Sequences of multi-screen, ear splitting, headache inducing chaos are jarred against scenes of quiet and the contemplation of solitude. This is a film which never gets boring and never seems as much as its 139 minute running time. This is something which, handled by a lesser artist than Roeg, might well start to drag after a short while but keeping the attention of the audience has never been a problem for Roeg.
Bowie’s acting is surefooted, assured, very casual in its impact and it’s very hard to believe that this was one of his first roles. And it fits right in with the, almost lazy, pacing of the movie. It’s a rambling movie, even in it’s jarring and chaotic sequences, of which there are a few. I really like movies like this which get to an ending eventually but which seem in no hurry to connect any dots or employ “cause and effect” editing of narrative sequences which is something which perhaps a lot of modern American movies seem to want to do. The Man Who Fell To Earth has a much more European feel to it... well it is British I guess.
Criterion do a really wonderful Region 1 DVD of this but it’s just gone out of print... at the time of writing though it’s still in stock at places like Amazon.com so it’s worth tracking down if you’ve never seen this absolutely stunning, vision of a movie before.