This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Most scientists agree that aliens probably look something like David Bowie, with his cultivated strangeness and differentially-pigmented eyes (the result, apparently, of being punched in a schoolyard brawl).
Actually, “most” might be an exaggeration: there has been no extensive polling. But what is even less concrete is Bowie’s idea of himself. Whether as Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, the English singer’s most interesting years saw him shifting otherworldly shapes like nobody’s business. And the quantities of drugs he is known to have consumed in the 1970s make it feasible that he thought himself arrived from outer space.
Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth casts pop’s original chameleon as a humanoid alien who drops from the sky in a rocket. His objective, sketchily outlined, has something to do with developing the technology to reverse the drought now killing his own planet, and to that end he brings with him high-tech patents that make him a billionaire overnight.
Unfortunately he does not count on human greed or decadence, and, sadly, things do not go well. Mary-Lou, a first-rate mentalist who falls in love with him, introduces him to booze and he becomes addicted to it, and to watching television.
But enough of the spoilers, other than to state that 1970s paranoia – about impending planetary ruin, the brain-sapping properties of TV, political corruption and big business being dreadful – is writ large. Ideas that now seem tired abound. And yet, the movie’s visual boldness, ambition and insistent focus on character over plot put it on a superior plane to most current genre film-making.
Roeg was on a rich vein of form (a run that includes Don’t Look Now – named best British film ever in an industry poll last year – Bad Timing and Walkabout) and by this time Bowie had conquered America. But when the brass at Paramount saw the final cut of The Man Who Fell to Earth, they refused to fund its release and the film struggled to break even.
It’s likely the studio felt it was too, well, alienating. Roeg cuts incessantly between scenes without explanation, only to then linger on things which interest him visually, not least the desert landscapes of New Mexico, where Newton (Bowie) opts to reside. The result is that the film-maker himself seems to approach America – whether New Mexico or New York – from an alien’s point of view. He confronts its strangeness, asks questions of its culture, puzzles at capitalism’s outward manifestations.
Naturally, Bowie is an alien with a British passport. Feeble, androgynous, melancholy, he is the ultimate outsider. And the ultimate tragedy is that like Icarus falling, almost unnoticed, into the sea – as referenced in the film by way of W.H. Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s painting of the scene – humans very soon lose interest in that which they don’t understand.