Stardust – ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary film is, amongst other things, a scathing satire and a science-fiction tragedy. Even the title is multi-layered. The hero is an extraterrestrial visitant who literally falls out of the sky; “falling to earth” implies a painful coming to senses; and “the man who fell” recalls “the Fall of Man,” which the plot allegorically depicts. There is also a lot of literal falling: the hero, his wife and his spacecraft tumble through various areas of space, vast and small; a central character is murdered by defenestration; crucial scenes involve descent by elevator, high-diving into a swimming pool, collapsing onto beds. The hero’s name on Earth is Thomas Jerome Newton—Thomas after the doubter, Jerome after the saint who compared men to insects, and Newton after the scientist who evolved the law of gravity after being conked by a falling apple (a symbolic enough item—the event took place in a garden, too!).

Newton was celebrated in Alexander Pope’s couplet, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / Till God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light.” Thomas Jerome Newton seems to hold similar promise, but things don’t work out. Newton emerges from his fall to Earth carrying a British passport—a tall, spare, quiet ascetic, youthful as Dorian Gray and with a similar faintly androgynous handsomeness. He has a gift for making money. This is the purpose of his arrival on Earth, for his own unnamed planet is dying—much as the eco-warriors say ours is—and to save it, Newton has to ferry reserves of energy back to it from Earth. His technological wizardry has done nothing to save this planet, but it causes amazement here on Earth. In no time at all Newton, aided by a New York patents lawyer, has revolutionized every single one of the various communications industries, becoming a billionaire. But the effect is not to make all things light. Newton’s plan to finance a private space program fails and he is stranded on another dying planet, our own, having become one with the Earthlings. By film’s end he has become a human being and, by a terrible irony, he has lost his humanity.

Perception and loss: the twin themes of Nicolas Roeg. The hoodlum Chas in Performance gains understanding and tendresse immediately before being taken off to death. John Baxter in Don’t Look Now solves the mystery that has bedeviled him in the instant of his own murder. Both these films are directly recalled in the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton (Newton’s red hair is patently as false as Chas’s in his hideout period; like Baxter, he has brief ESP-style hallucinations), but the end is more like that of Walkabout, whose unnamed heroine, like Newton, does not die, but is crushed into a passive zombie-like state tinged by regret only in moments of furtive memory. Like her, Newton is at his most free and his most naked in the desert: it’s amidst the sands of New Mexico that he confesses the truth about himself to Dr. Nathan Bryce, the inquisitive scientist. Ironically, he has fled his own planet because it is turning into a desert. But it proves less desolate than the neon wasteland of New York, which literally becomes a prison for him. Captured by a mysterious organization—which might be the Mafia, might be the CIA, might be Big Business, what’s the difference?—Newton is endlessly subjected to a sort of benign torture in a succession of rooms arranged like the interlocking pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Size varies bafflingly, as does style of decoration. In one room, empty save for a Ping-Pong table, nature itself has been subverted, turned into mere decor, the wallpaper being photographs of a California redwood forest. Truth is overwhelmed by lies: Newton’s smiling, patient torturers conduct their enormities behind a mask of kind concern, claiming to be medical men out to help him.

The big lies of society, in short, are what do Newton down. Like the rest of us, he’s stuck. When we last see him he is a dazed, tired alcoholic, spilling his gin over the bar floor, hiding under the huge brim of his hat, fighting back the pain of awareness. “There’s always plenty of money,” he tells Bryce, and of course, there is. Money and booze: by film’s end Newton has recognized their true status, as the anesthetics of society, the instruments of delusion. At the outset, Newton is under the impression that money can buy anything, which is why he wants to make a lot of it fast. To get the cash, he presents the patents lawyer, Farnsworth, with nine revolutionary patents which, Farnsworth tells him, can earn him $300,000,000 in three years (“It’s not enough!” he mutters distractedly); but his new inventions bring him primarily old truths. When we first see Newton, he has no money at all, only an enormous number of wedding rings he can pawn or sell; we watch him sell one for $20, and by the next scene this tiny sum has swollen into several hundred. As Newton checks his cash, the music that echoes on the soundtrack is Holst’s “Mars—The Bringer of War.” Another Roegian paradox, for if money is the bringer of war, Newton himself has distinctly Messianic overtones. His inventions serve to improve communication; his hi-fi equipment makes you hear as never before, his cameras and televisions show their visions of the world with an unsurpassed clarity, and his company, World Enterprises, is given suggestions of a benign universality, not so much by its all-encompassing name as by the abbreviation that decorates its products: WE. But the world denies Thomas Jerome Newton his communication and replaces genuine contact with its bastardized counterfeit—what passes for communication in a debased and covertly totalitarian society. When Bryce secretly X-rays Newton with a WE camera, his picture shows nothing—the outline of a human body-structure with nothing at all inside. Paradoxically, it is only at the end, when he has acquired a human metabolism, that Newton is truly empty. Hence, his instruments of communication tell only lies. Farnsworth has been murdered by the mysterious Mr. Peters (of the CIA-or-whoever, Newton’s kidnappers) and World Enterprises has been taken over, becoming a lie: WE has become THEM.

The biggest lie of all comes with the prostitution of human relationships. Newton finds himself in a world where pornography has replaced love. Alone and haunted by memories of his abandoned family, he encounters only one person who will respond to him as a fellow creature rather than a cash-turning phenomenon. This is Mary Lou, the dim, plain, fantasising hotel girl who comes to his aid in drab Artesia, the New Mexico town where he stops en route to the lake where he crashed originally. Mary Lou is the opposite of anyone’s romantic dream, but her pathos and solitude appeal to Newton, and so does her most obvious “human imperfection,” her taste for the bottle. Hitherto, Newton has partaken only of water, but Mary Lou turns him on to gin—”Mother’s Ruin.” Gradually, very gradually, their relationship becomes a sexual one, and gradually, like Nathan Bryce, she comes to learn the truth about him. The corruption of Earth turns knowledge into betrayal. When Newton employs him, Bryce temporarily contrives to “save his soul.” As an academic, Bryce has stagnated, interested only in “chemical engineering and fucking,” his attraction to his teenaged students clearly linked unhealthily to his devotion to the daughter of his broken marriage. After meeting Newton, he tells us, “I lost my interest in 18-year-olds”—but the abandonment of the Newtonian dream leads to a reversion to type. So it is with Mary Lou, except that, in growing up, she has acquired a hard, vicious edge, though no greater intelligence. When last seen, a blowsily middle-aged, corpulent, boozed-up Mary Lou is shacked up with the grizzled, graying Bryce—a union whose corruptness is suggested in an earlier scene between them, wherein they both tacitly give up Newton, who is by now languishing in his hospital-prison. Nearby, a WE television set plays an equivalent sequence from The Third Man.

The decline of Mary Lou is harrowing indeed; like Andrea in Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, she seems to expand and sag before our very eyes. It is hard to recognise Candy Clark of American Graffiti, the petite, charming, small-breasted girl of the first love scene with Newton, in this fat, dumpy, aging tart, drunkenly flaunting her gigantic thorax. When she turns up in the hospital-prison, it is to tempt Newton away from his goal. When her limited powers of verbal persuasion fail, she seduces him in a ghastly parody of their earlier love scene, whose genuine human tenderness is horridly degraded into grotesque porno-movie absurdity. Like a Russ Meyer heroine, Mary Lou waves a Warholian banana and performs mimed fellatio on the barrel of a Magnum pistol. This sequence, played at excruciating length, recalls, not so much the earlier scene between Newton and Mary Lou but our glimpses of Bryce and his 18-year-olds, one of whom we have seen neatly summarising the aim of pornography (to take the humanity out of basic human activity) by seizing Bryce’s penis and talking into it as if it were a microphone. Yet even this debasement of proper feeling is denied the protagonists at the film’s end—Newton’s woozy celibacy is seemingly echoed by the grog-addicted duo of Mary Lou and Bryce, their relationship teasingly underscored by the use of Cole Porter’s “True Love” on the soundtrack. Sex has gone, there’s only booze and cash to numb the pain: our impression that Bryce and Mary Lou have fallen on hard times (indicated by their tawdry appearance and surroundings and by Bryce’s unexplained apparition in a Santa Claus outfit) is proven wrong, for Bryce still has enough resources at his command to track down the long-vanished Newton. The implication is, of course, that money does no good.

Roeg’s concern with doomed romanticism goes hand in hand with his swingeing satire, a link made clear when Newton watches a clip from Love in the Afternoon on TV. Wilder’s elegant pan from the embracing Cooper and Hepburn to the hired musicians deftly providing mood music to order is both a send-up of Hollywood schmaltziness and (given the gusto with which the violinist crescendos and the charm of his smile) a genuine romantic affirmation. Roeg presents both this and the extract from The Third Man at some length, and he punctuates his narrative elsewhere with clips from other films: The betrayal of Newton is heralded by the climax of Billy Budd, where another angelic innocent perishes in an unjust world. Just as the music of the film is endlessly evocative (songs include such appropriate titles as “Make the World Go Away,” “Try to Remember” and—playing out Newton and the film—”Stardust”), so Roeg alludes to various movies, including his own. Science-fiction devotees may recognise, in the opening montage depicting Newton’s arrival from outer space, a piece of film out of Planet of the Apes (where the monkey planet was, of course, Earth). His obsession with what Hitchcock has called “the annihilation of time and space” (“the purpose of film”), reaches new heights, for time and space are also turned inside-out and twisted around. Leading characters—except Newton—age incredibly, altering from scene to scene, sometimes startlingly (especially Farnsworth), sometimes seeming older and then slightly younger again (Bryce in his last two sequences). Baffling visual correspondances may be discerned: Mary Lou’s first scene reveals her as wearing false pink-lacquered fingernails, which later turn up on the hands of the silent, very different wife of Mr. Peters, to whom a peculiar emphasis is briefly given (an extra detail is that she is white and he is black). If Mary Lou is somehow like Mrs. Peters, are we to assume that Peters is somehow like Newton? The latter’s cryptic remark during his confession-of-identity to Bryce (“There have always been visitors”) comes to mind—is the CIA, or the Mafia, or America itself, run by “men from Mars”? More especially, who is the person who observes Newton’s original “fall to Earth,” a person whose existence Newton does not suspect until his imprisonment? The regulation smart-suit-and-crewcut appearance suggests a definitive organization man—a “visitor”? Were “they” onto Newton from the start?

Correspondances are evoked by the casting, too. David Bowie’s indisputably stellar presence may put us in mind of his first hit record, Space Oddity, where he played another space-traveler named Tom. The aloofly respectable Peterses, members of the American haute-bourgeoisie, are played by Bernie Casey and Claudia Jennings, best known for exploitation movies. Farnsworth is played by Buck Henry, the scriptwriter of The Graduate and the amiable leading man of Taking Off. A comedy player, Henry is required first to be disturbing (blinking behind enormous pebble-lenses, he seems more unearthly than Newton) and then touching (his homosexual relationship with his huge aide seems more stable than the various “normal” ones, except for the miscegenated Peterses—another disorientating correspondance), but our perception of him is forever affected by the bewildering changes in his physical appearance, so that there is perpetually something “off” about him. Rip Torn may evoke memories of his casting as Judas Iscariot in King of Kings, or as Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, in his playing of Bryce, but it seems highly likely that Roeg has also seen his appearance as himself, scrapping angrily, in Mailer’s Maidstone; we constantly await a similar disruption here. But the disrupting is Roeg’s own; for if the characters become grotesquely older, the period in which they live seems to stay the same. The automobile that nearly mows down Newton at the outset looks to be of the Seventies; but so are the LPs in the record racks of the ending, where Bryce finds Newton making a comeback as a singer. Indeed, given that the Bob Dylan LP most visibly in evidence is a few years old now and that the music accompanying the latter phases of the film is from the Forties or Fifties, is there some hint that we are moving backwards in time?

Roeg obfuscates much more than he clarifies. Critics, even Roeg fans, have reacted with mystification. Buck Henry, interviewed in Sight and Sound, has pronounced himself baffled and then added to the mystery by throwing out an idea of his own—that the whole film is an allegory on the sufferings of the misunderstood artist, perpetually alone in a philistine society—which is not invalid, but isn’t too helpful either. Yet the main thrust of the film is straightforward. Roeg’s world is poised at all times on a knife-edge between fantasy and reality. The antique shop where Newton sells his first ring is a good deal odder than he is himself. Newton’s scores of television sets, all tuned to different channels, bring both fantasy and reality into “real” life and do not distinguish between the two. The cinema itself is a medium of unreality through which an artist can state truth. When Newton screams “Get out of my mind!” at the array of TV screens, he is noting his own failure to separate what is real from what isn’t, just as his ESP flashes whilst travelling in New Mexico (which disturb him greatly) refer to the area’s frontier past rather than its future or his own. When Newton is finally forced to take solace in drink, becoming utterly befuddled, his ability to distinguish truth from lies breaks down totally, so that he joins the majority. He reveals that they knew about the Earth on his planet because they saw pictures of it on their own television. But a television picture is only a surface image, as Newton learns to his cost, and probing the surface for the reality underneath is dangerous. If there have always been visitors, has the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton been enacted before (which might account for the time-scale confusion)? Is everyone a visitor? Certainly everyone in Roeg’s world is a stranger to everyone else, and the actual stranger seems less strange than the “normal” Earthlings. The “Stardust” music that plays Newton out at the end seems to refer less to his otherworldly charisma than to the dirt of human life that’s choking him.

Direction: Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay: Paul Mayersberg, after the novel by Walter Tevis. Cinematography: Anthony Richmond. Editing: Graeme Clifford. Music: Stomu Yamash’ta, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, John Phillips, Gustav Holst, et al.; music supervision by John Phillips. Production Design: Brian Eatwell. Production: Michael Deeley, Barry Spikings.
The players: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey, Claudia Jennings (uncredited), Jackson D. Kane, Rick Riccardo, Cmdr. James Lovell.

© 1976 Pierre Greenfield.

2011 Afterword: This was the first thing I ever wrote for Movietone News, and was based on just one viewing of The Man Who Fell To Earth. I didn’t know then that the film had been cut by about twenty minutes for the US, so that various scenes I had referred to were missing for American viewers. I can’t begin to imagine what re-cutting by others did to a film so filled with bravura, innovative editing. What I wrote in 1976 offers, all too clearly, a rather scattershot approach to this extremely complex film, by which many European critics had been baffled; but that didn’t and still doesn’t seem too unsuited to Roeg’s densely allusive and suggestive techniques. I saw the film a couple more times over the next seven or eight years, and then didn’t see it at all for over two decades. In the 21st century, however, certain things became clear. One was that we had all grown up with the film’s techniques – that Roeg had been massively influential on narrative style. What had once seemed to many incomprehensible now seemed, not simple (anything but simple), but to be a lot more easy to assimilate. It was flamboyant still, ambiguous and enigmatic still, but it was no longer baffling. The other thing that most immediately struck me was how far Nicolas Roeg and his collaborators had got the future right. The world which Thomas Jerome Newton helps to create with his revolutionary inventions looks mostly like the one we live in now. And is that terrifying, or what?

A pdf of the original issue can be found here

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