I gazed a gazely stare


The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.



Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”



But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?



Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.



Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.



What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.


12 Responses to “I gazed a gazely stare”

  1. One e most significant movies he watches is Billy Wilder’sLove in the Afternoon. Audrey Hepburn leaving her cello in the Ritz Hotel corridor just outside Gary Cooper’s door is most interesting to Roeg.

    Candy Clark may puff up from drinking and Bowie doesn’t — though he’s every bit the alcoholic at the close. But he “doesn’t look well” as the saying goes.

    The major subtext of TMWFTE is Howard Hughes. Bowie’s Newton his Hughes as a space alien. I’ve no doubt Warren Beatty knows it. His thirty-years-in-the-making Hughes film should be out by Christmas.

    Beatty became interested in Hughes when he had a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and saw sundry Hughes minions coming going from his bungalow. Very TMWFTE, no?

  2. Tevis also wrote The Hustler and wrote another fine SF novel, Mockingbird, and short stories. He acknowledged himself that TMWFTE was partly “about” his own alcoholism and a writer’s block.
    I remember an interview with Roeg where he referred to “my current wife”. The fact that the lady in question disliked the term did not stop him using it.

  3. I love the story of Roeg pitching the film to Bowie in his kitchen. Bowie had heard the story and didn’t want to do it. He thought it was a “bit corny” (which it is if you boil it down to its very basics)
    According to Bowie after he told Roeg this “his face just fucking fell off!” and Roeg proceeded to talk in his animated Rowley Birkin QC fashion for hours about what the film was about. And Bowie was won over.

    The film was a favorite of Uri Geller, he wanted Roeg and Bowie to reunite for his self-produced biopic Mindbender. When they both demurred, Geller went for his other favorite film Tommy, and hired “unemployable” Ken Russell. Not his best work, but some great Russellian images. I’d say KR was incapable of being dull but I’ve seen Dogboys

    You know I’ve seen Man Who Fell to Earth at least 3 times and I never noticed any other alien species in the film (although I only noticed Newton can see other times on my 3rd viewing, lovely extraneous idea) Which scenes have other aliens?

  4. They talk about other visitors from other worlds: he tells Torn that other races have certainly come here. And it seem at times that the sady interests conspiring against Newton MAY be extraterrestrial. Bernie Casey MAY be an alien, as in The Martian Chronicles! But you don’t necessarily see any. But then, who is the man spying on Bowie when he first lands, and how could he possibly KNOW

    The movie also inspired a fictional film in Philip K Dick’s late-career masterpiece VALIS.

  5. Oo. Go on……
    Valis is one of those books whose ideas had all been used up by the time I finally got round to reading it.

  6. The detail of the multiple televisions… I wonder if that was an inspiration for Moore & Gibbons’ depiction of Ozymandias in WATCHMEN, describing the media climate based on his viewing of every channel at once. Although Moore also was supposedly drawing on OSTERMAN WEEKEND’s obsession with television surveillance as well?

  7. It has to be, hasn’t it? And of course the film made Ozymandias even Bowie-er.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    The LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON quote, with its talk of being “between trains,” is superb. I also love Bowie’s head going down on the table at the end — a gesture not unlike Mae West bowing her head at the end of GOIN’ TO TOWN. If only real-life dissolute behavior could be this glamorous!

  9. The bowed head FEELS like an old-movie gesture. Would’ve been nice if we’d glimpsed Mae in one of the TV screens earlier.

    Alan Moore is a skilled magpie, so I have no doubt he nicked the TVs.

    PKD, in interviews, said the movie in VALIS was “quite a bit like TMWFTE, wasn’t it?” The rock star they meet, whose son perishes in a fall — that detail is rather cruelly ripped from the headlines about Eric Clapton, whose infant son died in just that manner.

  10. VALIS was published in 1981, 10 years before Clapton’s son fell to his death. I’d say maybe creepy, not cruel.

  11. Wow, that’s just bizarre…

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