September 12, 2011
Though it was David Bowie‘s first starring role in a feature film, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1976 movie the Man Who Fell to Earth is far from a star vehicle, and much more a movie firmly in place with the ambiguity of narrative immersed in the striking visuals of the Roeg canon. Of course, Bowie’s performance as an extraterrestrial on film inspired no-brainer comparisons to his alien rocker character on stage: Ziggy Stardust, a musical persona he had only just retired in 1973. Also, Bowie’s fey manner, inhumanely skinny frame, pale skin and shock of orange hair suited the movie so well the man himself seemed a special effect. Even now, on its 35th anniversary, as the film finally makes the rounds in its original director’s cut at US art houses with a newly restored 35mm print or HD theatrical projection via Rialto Pictures, Bowie stands out among the other iconic seventies-era players in the film (Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Candy Clark). It’s fitting his character, unlike the others, never ages in the film. It suits the film that the iconic Bowie has grown more immortal with age, continuing to influence generations of musicians. For Bowie fans, it is easy to watch the movie just to watch the man in action at the peak of his creativity. On the commentary track of the now out-of-print Criterion disc, Bowie noted that he began recording bits of his influential experimental pop albums Station to Station and Low while acting in this movie, assuming Roeg wanted him to score the film, too. Instead, John Phillips offers a widely varied score from atmospheric to funky, but still always dated and firmly stuck in the age of the mid-seventies.
But the movie stands the test of time as something other than a platform for Bowie-ogling*. This movie is also a distinctly Roegian work. Bowie himself decided to work on this movie based on the Roeg films Walkabout and Performance (which featured a rocker Bowie admired: Mick Jagger [again, see commentary track]). Bowie even admitted to never having read the script before agreeing to act in the movie (ibid).
Often compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), the original 1963 Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, the Man Who Fell to Earth offers a moral tale about power and corruption. In the movie, Bowie plays an alien who lands on Earth in search of a means to restore water on his dying planet. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of patents that should make him the money necessary to fund a private space program that will somehow save his planet. However, he does not figure in the eccentricities of Earthlings— with their liquor and sex— and things get tough for Tommy fast. It’s a straight up enough story that almost comes across as a simple fable. But Roeg takes it to a whole other level, seeming to deconstruct the source material, converting the story into a purely cinematic experience.
Gone are key dramatic sequences that connects the downward spiral of the alien. When Thomas meets Mary Lou (Clark), the hotel maid that becomes his companion on Earth, she rescues him from the odd gravitational effects of an elevator. Distraught, Mary Lou carries the incapacitated Thomas to his room. After he vomits up some clear ectoplasmic goo and she wipes his bloody nose, she seems relieved to have not killed a hotel guest. Who would figure these two would end up together? Well, the following scene, both are hanging out in the room. She is dressed for a night out, drunk and pushing liquor on Thomas, who refuses, happy with only water and Aspirin. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him “that white wine you like.” Up to that point, the film went out of its way to point out Thomas did not drink, but then, all of a sudden he is drinking.
The movie is filled with convoluted narrative compromises like that. As Thomas establishes his corporation World Enterprises, at the start of the film, Roeg also parallels the story of Dr. Bryce (Torn), a university chemistry professor in the habit of sleeping with freshman female students who also seems to be a consumer of World Enterprises’ products (including a camera with self-developing film). Just as his superior at the university seems ready to fire him, he quits. Next thing you know, Bryce is working on a fuel project for World Enterprises, snooping out Thomas as something else than human. Again, as explained here, it all seems simple enough, but Roeg seems to obscure the flow with quick cuts, camera sweeps and zooms, punctuated by sudden bursts of blaring music. It’s as if he is purposely trying to distract the audience away from the story, and insisting they simply watch the movie.
There are many instances of odd visuals and sonics that serve as transitions. An early one occurs when Thomas seals the deal with patent lawyer Oliver Fransworth (Henry) to start a company. Thomas looks out into the night sky where a crooked line of dots expand and burst into fireworks but all one can hear is what sounds like the quiet swell of soft music that sounds like the calls of humpback whales. Later, as things begin looking grim for the drunken, corrupted Thomas, there is an image of him in alien form tumbling in space in what looks to have been formed from sputtering time-lapse imagery to the grim sound of Gustav Holst ‘s famous orchestra of “the Planets.” If you blink, you might miss the moment, as it lasts but a few seconds. Complicating matters is that it appears in the movie just as Thomas and Bryce sit in the desert outside some dilapidated house where Thomas seems have taken residence (why or how long he has been there is never explicated), in what seems a quiet moment. The orchestra swells, and thoughts seem to turn to Thomas’ dying family. Then comes the tumble and fade into an frantic scene of reporters crowding Thomas in a head-to-toe body suit, as he walks to the space ship that should carry him home. Over the din, is the chatter of news reports, talking about Thomas, World Enterprises, Farnsworth. Roeg cross cuts to Fransworth seeming to pay-off an hysterical Mary Lou to let go of the man. “I don’t want your money, I want Tommy!” she screams. It’s one intense, penetration after another into the narrative. You barely notice that Thomas is actually being kidnapped.
When World Enterprises ultimately collapses, reasons are never explained, but terrible things follow, and Thomas ultimately becomes a science experiment and finds himself stuck on Earth. But understanding how things happen in the movie seem of little importance to Roeg. He still manages to squeeze emotion from these proceedings with stirring abstract imagery. There is one death scene that offers pure cinematic poetry of music, editing, lighting and sound. The routine and wordless reflection to the loved ones Thomas has left on his dying planet appear in the film for only a few moments at a time, like some alternate reality squeezing into the cracks of Thomas’ life on Earth. Roeg is creating a film flowing of memories, exploiting the power of the medium to maximal effect while subverting expectations of narrative, bringing to mind the style of Jean-Luc Godard, if maybe he had taken speed.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is indeed so striking visually, it (and other Roeg films) inspired one of Big Audio Dynamite’s early hits. As Mick Jones, BAD’s frontman, and former Clash singer/guitarist, sings on the 1985 single “E=MC2: “Space guy fell from the sky/Scartched my head and wondered why.” The video even featured many clips of Roeg’s movies:
Back in that era of cinema history, science-fiction offered an invitation to filmmakers to not only explore other worlds and make technology, it also meant you could do what you want with the basic tools of cinema. Released the year before Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Roeg’s film came at the end of the sci-fi film as intellectual genre/abstract cinema pieces, a revolution famously pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With Spielberg’s human and relatable touch, Close Encounters brought sci-fi down-to-earth while Lucas made no secret of the Flash Gordon serial influence on his movie, which opened the floodgates for the return of simplified popcorn sci-fi, including such dreck as Roger Corman’s Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars.
It’s wonderful to see the return of films like this one and World on a Wire (which I reviewed here: Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release) to cinema houses. For the Man Who Fell to Earth‘s 35th anniversary, a restored 35mm print has been struck of the 139-minute director’s cut. I had an opportunity to preview the digital transfer of that print ahead of its release at the Miami Beach Cinematheque over the weekend. It’s not too far removed from the Criterion blu-ray in quality, but the cinematic presentation cannot be beat. In the projection of the film, my litmus test was to see how badly the orange of the opening titles bled into the image, but the picture was clean and crisp.
You can even easily overlook the grain contrast of the archival images of a rocket separating in space versus the shots filmed of it “crashing” to earth. There is nothing to gripe about with this film, technically, and is dynamism image-wise is never compromised by this new image. Even the shadows are painstakingly clean. The datedness of the film is wiped away to allow the image to breath in full effect on the screen. For a movie that indeed exploits the cinematic medium as brilliantly as this, one has to see it in the theater, and the pay off is immense. I’ll leave you with Rialto’s new trailer for the film:
And for fun, here’s how the movie was first sold to American audiences in a trailer suitably featuring no dialogue from the film (As the voice-over [by William Shatner no less!] puts it at this trailer’s opening, “This is one of the most unusual films you will ever see”):
The Man Who Fell to Earth will premiere in South Florida in newly restored high-definition digital projection, Friday night (Sept. 16), at 8:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play through Wednesday night (Sept. 21), at 8:50 p.m. each night. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check The Man Who Fell to Earth’s website for its screening schedule.
*Some Bowie fans will be happy to know that, yes, this the famous, original cut that features Bowie frolicking in bed with Clark in all his natural glory, a scene which the original US distributor decided to cut from the first version when it debuted in the US.
After nearly a year’s worth of anticipation, the reissue of David Bowie’s vital 1976 album, Station to Station, has been scheduled for release (Sept. 20). David Bowie’s official website revealed the details yesterday of the two versions of this reissue, which include a 3-CD special edition and a 5-CD/DVD/3-LP deluxe edition, which will probably cost more than $150.
Will it be worth dropping the money on a fancy version of what was a mere 6-track album when Station to Station first dropped in January of 1976? There are many reasons it will.
First, consider the historical context of album. Bowie, seen pictured above in a mug shot of that area due to his trouble with drugs at the time, was on the cusp of revolutionizing pop rock, setting the ground work for countless of new romantic/post-punk/new wave artists to come. The influences of Kraut Rock artists like Kraftwerk and Neu! had begun informing his music, which was mutating from his prior fascination with blue-eyed soul into something much more interesting.
This was also the height of Bowie’s cocaine-fueled days of oddball behavior. Taking on the persona of the Thin White Duke– as eluded to by the title track of this album– he would wear his hair slicked back and dress in minimal black and white suits while on tour for the album. He also made the unfortunate decision to exploit the fascist imagery and sometimes mentality, of Germany’s Nazi past, including the Hitler salute. But that was the punk rock thing to do at the time (let us not forget Sid Vicious would wear T-shirts with the swastika painted on them and Joy Division and later New Order took their names from the Nazi lexicon).
But Station to Station transcended all that. What has really endured is the strength of the music, even as experimental as it was at the time. It was the literal precursor to his much more popularly influential, if not stranger 1977 Bowie album Low. Musically, Station to Station does not contain the rambling instrumental ambient pieces that made Low’s B-side so famous nor does it have the shorter, quirkier pop/anti-pop songs of Low‘s A-side. Station to Station does however feature Bowie shedding the plastic soul of 1975’s Young Americans and exploring more progressive elements, like the long epic majesty of the title track and the layers of melody and din in “TVC-15,” a song that explores virtual sex through technology that long pre-dated its actualization. There are also truly soulful bits that still connect Bowie to Young Americans, like “Golden Years,” a single he performed on “Soul Train.”
As for the quality of extras tacked on to this reissue, this by far seems to outshine any previous Bowie reissue in the history of his catalog, including his more famous the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, a mere 2-CD set reissued in 2002, marking its 30th anniversary. Though this reissue of Station to Station does not feature any studio outtakes, demos or B-sides (there were none for this album), there are two major aural aspects of this reissue to herald: the use of the original analog master tapes for the album (which will probably sound awesome on the vinyl version) and the first official release of Bowie’s much bootlegged Nassau Coliseum show from March 23, 1976.
There are a ton of paper extra goodies, too, as seen in the image on Bowie’s site, and which I have borrowed to illustrate here:
Again a shout-out to Bowie’s official website, where you can read the full details of these extras. What’s most important beyond these extras is the significance of the masters that will supposedly be used on this reissue.
Bowie’s catalog has suffered many so-called remasters since the early 90s, which, for the most part, were the albums with louder volume and this high treble quality that sometimes irritated the ears of the close listener. Only the original and short-lived RCA CD editions of 1985 came from the original stereo analogue master source and remain quite collectible for audiophiles to this day. I once owned the RCA CD of Station to Station but succumbed to the high collector’s prices it was garnering at the time, content to stick with my vinyl version. Here is that original CD, scanned for auction on eBay (I think it sold for about $60 or more):
As seen in the image for the Deluxe box, EMI has restored the original black and white cover art longtime Bowie fans have grown up with. Later reissues by Rykodisc and EMI had changed the cover to full color art, which, if I recall correctly, had been the original intended presentation for the cover art. But the original actual first release, in 1976 was the stark black and white image, a still of Bowie as the alien in the 1975 Nicholas Roeg film, the Man Who Fell to Earth. Maybe I am biased, but to me, its stark quality best suited the music inside. Here is the revised full color cover art:
But back to the music, the deluxe edition will feature the album on heavyweight vinyl (most likely 180 gram) and presented from the same analog masters, which will probably sound even better than the CD, as vinyl, many audiophiles will argue, is the only way to fully appreciate the warmth and depth of analog recordings. Unlike EMI’s earlier mistake to reissue Space Oddity on its 40th anniversary earlier this year on vinyl from the same digital masters Ryko used for its vinyl 1990 reissue, EMI has taken the proper steps to present the Station to Station vinyl as it should sound. Still, it remains to be heard by these ears, as the official release remains a couple of months away, but that’s for another post…
Yes, there is also a DVD audio version of the album, which should be neat to hear in its various forms. It includes a total of four different mixes: a new 5.1 surround mix and stereo mix by Harry Maslin, and the original analogue mix in LPCM stereo and 96kHz/24bit LPCM stereo. But I still see myself going to the vinyl over these mixes, personally.
The other audio aspect worth highlighting is the inclusion of the Nassau Coliseum show, which will also be featured in the more affordable, though not as comprehensive, 3-CD set, as pictured here (again, image from Bowienet):
The only thing that seems exclusive in the special edition are the three period photocards. There will also be an exclusive digital download of the special edition featuring the full length version of “Panic in Detroit” from the live show. Anyone who has heard the many bootlegs of this show will know that means the extended drum solo in the middle is left fully intact only on this digital version, where as the CDs will have it edited back.
The show has been widely regarded by Bowie bootleg collectors as one of Bowie’s greatest live shows, but the quality of these illegal pressings never did the audio justice. The only hint we had of the potential audio quality of this show appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of the 1990s, which featured the two live bonus tracks of “Word on a Wing” and “Stay” from that show. Now, finally, after those two quality live tracks were revealed in 1991, collectors can have the full concert in officially-sanctioned, high quality audio and, as can be seen in the image of the deluxe edition, on vinyl to boot.
Beyond the inclusion of the Nassau Coliseum show and the analogue masters as source material for the album, everything else is icing (oh, the final CD included as an extra in the deluxe edition is an EP of single mixes of five Station to Station tracks, which should prove an interesting curiosity).