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The Man Who Fell To Earth (DVD)

Among the flood of images in Nicolas Roeg's hallucinatory 1976 science-fiction parable The Man Who Fell To Earth, one sums up the whole project. Thumbing through a coffee-table art book, failing high-school physics teacher Rip Torn settles on a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel's Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus. The painting depicts the mythical flyboy's plunge into the sea, but following Ovid, it does so from a distance; its foreground is consumed by the mundane workings of everyday life and those who barely notice the descent, if they notice it at all. In The Man Who Fell To Earth, an adaptation of The Hustler author Walter Tevis' novel, David Bowie plays Icarus' spiritual heir, an alien who comes to Earth looking for water and finds a way to drown. Years pass during the course of the film: Bowie introduces inventions that change the course of technology, finding fame and love and betrayal, and yet, at the end, his world still seems stuck in an eternal 1970s loop as he fades into anonymity, an abandoned god. The apotheosis of the elliptical style Roeg began exploring (alongside co-director Donald Cammell) with 1970's Performance, Man cross-cuts between parallel actions one moment, then allows its story to take tremendous leaps in its chronology the next. In one scene, Bowie appears to see a century into the past, observing the story of the first European settlers in Man's New Mexico setting. Time has lost all meaning, as if the film were merely a series of predetermined ripples fanning out from that initial descent. In many respects, it's a haunting mess, packed with more notions than the story wants to contain. Man anticipates Saturday Night Live's Conehead family, but plays it straight: Bowie's alienness lets Roeg spin out commentary on American capitalist endeavor, the progress of technology, and modern love, in the form of an odd romance with naïve hotel worker Candy Clark (whose Betty Boop-like performance proves one of the film's weaker elements), all scored to sentimental favorites and soaked in an ocean of gin. The urge to overstuff occasionally hinders the project, and Roeg's radical approach occasionally turns it into a ball of confusion, but in the end, both tendencies help make Man the quintessence of the kind of thoughtful science fiction that Star Wars turned into an endangered species. Man's open-endedness leaves it subject to all varieties of interpretation, but at heart, it tells one of the simplest stories around. Stripped of his disguise, Bowie looks every inch the alien, but by the end, he's tragically human. He could be anyone who started out with a head full of genius and good intentions, but ended up with a head full of fog.


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