Thursday, April 8, 2010
[flicker] The Man Who Fell To Earth
“I said Hello to the grief bird,
Hello grief bird, what’s happening,
Ashes, Pits of ashes.”
- The Fugs, Coming Down
If the strange room in which astronaut Dave finds himself in the beguiling denouement of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had a television, the feed would have undoubtedly resembled a Nicolas Roeg film. A Roeg film at its best unfolds like a rogue transmission from a pirate satellite, not unlike the ones the protagonists of Philip K. Dick novels of conspiracy and paranoia experience- a dream satori in which the banality of the familiar appears bizarre and alien, the clichés of a life thoroughly modern and the rigmarole of the day in- day out are suddenly suffused with the light of clarity in which the essential disconnect between men and nature, one man and another and one and one’s own self appear as a yawning chasm, the grip of an existential vertigo, heightened neurosis, the clockwork of heartbeat from beneath the floorboards, a light that came and etched darkness in its wake. It’s a subliminal assault on the senses but in times where all judgment is the reserve of spin and marketability, Roeg like Dick spins fantastic for the primal- truth, clarity and humanity. Both may seem like some kind of mad prophets but within the grey schemes of the modern, often it isn’t too hard to confuse subversion and madness.
‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ Roeg’s 1976 epic sci-fi head-trip begins with a montage of spectral vistas, of lights and fires freefalling against the sky that ends firmly in the grip of gravity as the freefall ends with a loud explosion in a lake. A hooded figure emerges and walks across the New Mexican landscape. Yet another immigrant in the land of immigrants. An alien, in the full sense of the word. That much is more-or-less clear from the onset. Along the narrative of the film which spans several decades, the alien played by rock and roll legend David Bowie runs into other souls, each alienated in his or her own way whether it’s the short-sighted, homosexual lawyer Franswroth, the alcohol-addicted small-town girl Mary-Lou or the confused, disillusioned scientist Bryce. If it all seems like a clichéd case of a few freaks against the system then you misunderstand Roeg who never misunderstands the System. There is no heart to it where the beast resides where one can strike at. The System is everyday reality and all of us, pleading either practicality or ignorance, are part of it. Roeg’s debut film as a director ‘Performance’ co-directed with the prodigal and sadly, short-lived Donald Cammell documented the end of the 60s and with it our collective innocence, so pleading innocence is not an option, not now. We’re all too old for that. Instead Roeg’s genre-bending and elliptical style of film-making, a truly bizarre concoction lining up between the frenzied cut-ups of William Burroughs to the melancholic kitchen-sink melodramas of Ken Loach mired in warped visual extravagance of Eurotrash immerses us in a strange and disconnected world. Roeg’s camera is as unmoored as the narrative as it moves through non-sequiturs in time and space as if in an existential fever dream. There is no grounding, no centrality, no heroes, no villains, no innocents. Only the ignorant and the practical. As the late, great David Foster Wallace once confessed that when he was stuck in a traffic jam all the angry thoughts that he had about the drivers sitting in their SUVs was the easiest thing he could do- crib about the environment, climate change, depleting petrol supplies. His thinking was hard-wired to do that and while all if it was not so wrong, it also expressed the limits to his imagination, a certain prejudice that tainted and clogged his thoughts. Roeg’s imagination formed in the surrealism of Jose Luis Borges and Kafka, the ‘untrained eye’ of Brakhage and the humanity of R.D. Laing goes beyond simple platitudes. ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ plays out within a complex structure suggesting an ingenious mirror maze with a shocking pitch black humor that only arch surrealists can seem to incorporate in their visions. It is not surprising then that the film plays a little bit like Bunuel for the MTV generation.
The casting of the androgynous, bisexual, chameleon-like David Bowie as the alien ‘Newton’ seems a pitch-perfect casting coup. ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ does for Bowie’s persona what ‘I’m Not There’ did to Dylan’s, which is to diagnose the times they lived in by situating their mercurial personalities in context. Roeg’s film could easily be read as a comment on Bowie’s celebrity. The self-confessed ‘plastic human’, Bowie, inspite of his enduring popularity, and while always part of the zeitgeist of the time, was never really the real thing. He was a rock and roller, a glam rocker, a disco dancer and a pop star, mostly always successful but also always performing. There is no real David Bowie. David Bowie is a shape-shifter. David Bowie is always the victim of his times. So the iconic image of him sitting amidst suburban decadence before multiple TV screens all playing with nothing more than a drone not just underlines the singer’s vague poignancy but also is a comment on the times. After all, every age got the Bowie it deserved. If his later work is unashamedly for the worse, then in some way, it speaks for our popular culture.
Roeg’s frenzied camera comes to a complete stasis only at the final image. A sort of Magritte’s The Son of Man by way of Elsa Schiaparelli. It’s a trip coming down, down, down. One recalls, the allusion made early on in the film to Bruegel The Elder’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus- Icarus drowns in the waters unnoticed as a ship sails past, the farmer continues to plough his field and the sheepherder daydreams. The continuing human tragedy seems after all, a little bit sad. As Lydia Millet anguishes in her masterpiece ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’- ‘Finally our ignorance consumes us, licking our backs with tongues of fire. And behind us the earth is left black’.
(cross-posted on www.passionforcinema.com)