I was flipping throughJean Cocteau by Patrick Mauries recently and came across this photo of the character Death in his film, Orphée, based on the myth of Orpheus, a poet so in love with Death he follows her into the underworld.
Here we have Death (María Casarès) [photo by Roger Corbeau/Ministère de la Culture/AFDPP].
I was reminded of Thomas Jerome Newton in his homeland costume, and applied a black and white filter:
Not exact by any means, and I don’t know whether Nic Roeg or Bowie had any ideas about Newton’s alien garb. Costume designer May Routh says she wanted the water tubes but conceived them as more like lace; the special effects team interpreted the design differently, making the tubing more substantial.
We know that Bowie was interested in Cocteau’s surrealistic imagery. Heroes‘s “Beauty and the Beast” is a nod to the Cocteau film La Belle et la Bête, starring Jean Marais, who also played the lead role in Orphée.
Cocteau and Marais were lovers; Cocteausaid of his young man:
“It does not depend only on sensual grace. It flows from the child still at the heart of the mature man. That is the true source of the expressive beauty of his eye, of the way he looks at you, imposes his physical presence.”
Cocteau could as well be describing Bowie.
Cocteau was a sensualist, a painter of murals for churches, and fascinated by angels, who typically were modelled as beautiful boys, like this one, the Angel of the Annunciation at Notre Dame de France in London, England, photographed by Victoria Emily Jones. See her essay and photographic tour of Notre Dame de France in London, England by clicking the link.
It goes beyond angels, however. One minute into the video, Bowie rises quickly from his bed, in much the same way that the poet’s wife is commanded to rise from hers at the minute mark in this snippet from Cocteau’s Orphée.
When Bowie rubs his hand across the painting, his skin takes on a grotesque appearance as if his face is now a painted facade disturbed. Now, in another film of Cocteau’s, La sang d’un Poète (The Blood of the Poet), a sculptor has a similar fright. First he does some sketches, but the mouth starts to move. He tries to rub it out, but it transfers itself to his hand. He tries to rid himself of it by pressing it to the mouth of a statue (movie stills).
The statue entices him to break through a mirror to a different dimension and gives him a gun to kill himself. Instead he returns to his reality, and smashes the sculpture.
Smashing through mirrors is common to several Cocteau’s films. Go back to the Orphée snip and view the last frames.
Tormented Bowie places his angel painting in front of a mirror so he will not have to see what has become of his face, but can’t resist studying his new ugliness. He doesn’t manage to break his mirror or spell and ends up crawling under his bed, instead.
When the artist of Blood of a Poet is on the other side of the mirror, he encounters some strange scenes (movie stills , like this one, featuring a transvestite, Barbette, who Cocteau later wrote about:
That oppish bullseye and strange haired figure is vaguely reminiscent of the set and weird woman of “Strangers When We Meet.”
Here’s another image from Orphée. Flanked by two biker angels, the Poet and Death stroll through the Underworld:
Could this have been an inspiration for the Village of Ormen of “Blackstar”?
Finally there is one more odd Cocteauian echo for today:the similarity to this photograph of Jean Marais dressed by Chanel for Cocteau’s Oedipe Roi:
Last January while waiting forSerious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant, I chanced upon Philip Hoare’s, The Sea Inside, and enjoyed it so much that after Serious Pleasures I returned to Hoare, this time The Whale (UK Leviathan), and hence to Melville’s Moby Dick, a wonderful book to live in for several weeks, when not required reading. I also started keeping an eye out for Hoare’s short pieces in The Guardianand following his Twitter feed (@philipwhale).
Looking for allusions to David Bowie in Hoare became a game with me because if he could work Bowie into a book about whales, then where would one appear next? Now the game feels bittersweet; in the past few weeks so many have written so much.
Already it is tapering off, this deluge of tributes. I suppose tributes — their writing and their reading — are part of grieving, which serves the living, not the dead. I wonder too if there is not some element of magical thinking about them, whether they are like the command not to speak ill of the dead or RIP [rest in piece], means perhaps of insuring that the spirits of the dead are placated, safely sent on their way, no lingering, no haunting.
I find tributes to the living much more compelling, and this, I realize, is what I was looking when I started keeping track of Bowie Sightings, in Hoare and in Matt Haig’s novels.
Such sightings I see as thank-you notes, sent out into public space, with generosity of spirit: to Bowie, and to the future readers.
When authors I respect allude to those from whom they have gained much, I take note (Patti Smith’s highly allusive M Train is a moving, melancholy meditation on memory and mediaries to the mystical. To read what she has: a fantastic voyage).
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” — E. M. Forster, Howard’s End
Forster, best known for his novels including A Passage to India, was a friend of Stephen Tennant’s, but what I’m interested in here is “only connect.”
By sharing or connecting, the personal becomes public, while still remaining just as personal to Hoare or Smith, undiminished.
Consider (again) the Bowie allusion in The Whale [Leviathan]:
“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transatlantic ships sail by, like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past, waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth.”
Hoare explains this in the notes on the text:
“17 ‘boats borne back ceaselessly’ F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin, 1974, 188. Gatsby looming over the water is a reflection of Ishmael at the Battery, whilst Fitzgerald’s closing phrase about ‘that vast obscuity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night’ echoes the final passage in Moby-Dick: ‘then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.' In The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), Thomas Jerome Newton also looks out over the water, and the film’s director, Nicholas Roeg, cites Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, with its reference to Icarus.”
Several yearsago I wrote about similarities I saw between Jimmy Gatz (who the Great Gatsby was before he was Gatsby) because I see Bowie as very much a self-made man. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are Americans novels that have very little in common except what matters most: they will endure.
Here, however, Hoare is responding to resonances of imagery. There is no ocean in The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), but there is a pier, and at the end of it is a light. Newton and his girlfriend live across a lake from the scientist who seems Newton’s friend but betrays him, and all collapses for Newton, as it did for Ismael.
When Hoare was asked byElectric Sheep who he considers his avatar or alter ego, he readily responded:
“Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
“Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock.”
In David Bowie Is, Hoare remarks that “The Man Who Fell to Earth is such a key point in the Bowie universe because it exists sui generis – it’s completely on its own” or “reduced to the essence of Bowie-dom. . .always being beyond.”
I agree, and if I had only one Bowie item — album, video, film — that I could take to a desert island, it would be The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Magic — that is the only explanation for the trinitarian creation of Thomas Jerome Newton by Walter Tevis (who wrote the novel), director Nicolas Roeg, and David Jones/David Bowie (and I will add that the actor in those other movies of Bowie’s is more correctly David Jones).
It’s not that Bowie fits the description of Newton in Tevis’s novel; he doesn’t. But Roeg knew when he saw Cracked Actor that only Bowie would do, no matter that he had no previous experience. Interestingly, in his next picture, Walkabout, Roeg would cast David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, an Australian aboriginal who spoke no English (as well as his own son, Luc) in the lead role, and it seems unimaginable that any other man could replace Gulpilil in the role.
So why did Roeg chose Bowie? He is not human. And he isn’t. He is a projection. When Newton teleports, when he sends messages home by way of music broadcast into space, he is Bowie. When he is the gentlest of gentlemen, private and remote, and one of the most influential people on the planet, he is Bowie.
The way I connected Bowie and Gatsby differs from Hoare’s, and he brings them together via Melville.
In other instances the public persona of Bowie is connected in more obvious ways. Take, for example, Oscar Wilde and Bowie. In Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, Hoare slips in a reference to Heddon Street, where Bowie is photographed for the Ziggy Stardust cover. Bowie of course had no direct physical connection to Wilde (1854-1900), but Hoare sees Wilde as a proginitor of Bowie — and Bowie as a guide to those who preceded him, including Wilde (connections run multiple ways). “My education came from him [Bowie] as I learned about William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and Jean Genet. Just like Oscar Wilde, he commodified dissent for the suburbs,” and in a review ofWilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity,Hoarenotes that author David M Friedman “might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World– would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.”
I agree Bowie’s visit to Warhol’s Factory led to his re-invention of himself. When I look at the picture of Bowie in his man-dress, scowling and being paid no attention at Warhol’s, I think Bowie’s epiphany is that a colorful and embracing decadence is what he could offer England, that NYC already had the dark decadence market cornered: consider the Velvet Underground’s songs “Venus in Furs” about S&M and the paean “Heroin.”
I’d also argue that Bowie’s legacy will surpass Burrough’s, Warhol’s. Genet’s and Wilde’s. He was a magpie: Bowie took the shiny bits he found and built himself a magnificent fortress. And he had well over 50 years to do so.
“Live in fragments no longer,” to repeat Forster. Add to this Ezra Pound’s command to poets to “make it new,” Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” and Blake’s “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”
There’s a great scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth when Mary Lou [Candy Clark] takes Thomas Jerome Newton [Bowie] to church with her down in Artesia, NM. The pastor announces that a song sheet for a special hymn is in the pews which the congregation will sing in honor of their special guest who has come all the way from England. Mary Lou beams, and Tommy, the alien — but not the Englishman — squirms. He should know “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s words set to music by William Parry, but he doesn’t. And when he tries to sing, well, no, it is best he tries just the tiniest bit.
At the turn of the 19th century, “dark Satanic mills” were already part of the English scene, but an idealized vision of a pastoral England lingers. And through the 1970s, this persisted even in rock and roll lyrics by guys who had grown up in some of the least pastoral spots on the island, Liverpool, for example, or post-war London. Consider:
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed ma’am/It’s just the sprinkling of the May Queen”
“Jennifer Juniper, rides a dappled mare,
Jennifer Juniper, lilacs in her hair.”
“Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun. . .”
“In the sunshine of your love. . .”
“Out here in the fields/I farm for my meals/I get my back into my living.”
You would never mistake any of these lines for a Bowie lyric.
Bowie doesn’t do the pastoral thing. He doesn’t compare girls to rainbows and he isn’t lamenting the loss of days at Strawberry Fields.
In his earliest days he tried it on. In “Memory of a Free Festival,” “The children of the summer’s end/Gathered in the dampened grass,” but it just didn’t fit.
Away with the wavy locks and on with the paint and spandax.
He never did look quite right in blue jeans. Charcoal jeans, yes. He could wear anything that stretched, tailored suits, socks with sandals, Alexander McQueen — but never blue jeans, especially not bell bottoms. And when he tried to look outdoorsy, Bowie looked like a demented Von Trapp brat, kept hidden in the cellar, a problem not even Maria could solve.
The animal world is different for Bowie than for his immediate predecessors. No “Sheepdog, standing in the rain/Bullfrog, doing it again” no “swans that they live in the park,” not even any wild horses.
Instead, there’s a “pink monkey bird,” “tigers on vaseline,” diamond dogs, and if you insist on real beasts, you get “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.” There’s one exception that comes to mind, and trust Bowie to do the best animal image in English rock and roll: the dolphin of “Heroes.” (I have to qualify that so I can exclude Patti Smith’s “Horses.”)
The natural world is best viewed from a distance: “Here am I, flashing no colour/Tall in this room overlooking the ocean”; but much has been lost: “Once there were mountains on mountains/And once there were sunbirds to soar with.” Far more to Bowie’s taste is the perfect interior [internal?] environment:
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Oh yes, there is the album Outside, which has not a thing to do with the great outdoors, and its song “A Small Plot of Land” about the one who “swings through tunnels,” clawing his way. This album’s world is about as far from Blake’s “Jerusalem” as you can get.
But then again, Bowie is not just a post-pastoral Englishman, he is the reluctant Earthling, the post-terrestrial man.
I’ve written before about Bowie’s train trips. Would he not have seen a great deal of loveliness crossing the USA in the mid-1970s, the years he refused to fly?
Only if he had been awake during the day. But nights are his. And from the observation car of the Super Chief, what Bowie would have seen were stars. Stars and stars and more stars. From Chicago to LA there is a whole lot of nothing — no towns, no lights — just stars.
That’s where Bowie’s imagination is grounded: in the heavens, or emptiness of space, infinity, where none has gone and from where we came.
It’s one of the great constants in his work. Shall I count the stars?
The stars are out tonight. Moondust will cover you.
Nothing seems quite as inanimate as an animaton who will never again be animated. Such is the fate of Hoggle, the mischievious imp of Labyrinth, fated to stay encased in Scottsboro, Alabama.
The Hoggle was lost and forgotten, never reaching his destination, on a flight from who knows where.
He turned up, the worst for wear, in Scottsboro, AL, when an old crate was pried open at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. A puppet surgeon was called to assess the case, and the rotting Hoggle was restored by Gary Sowatzka of Sowatzka’s Dolls.
The store is like a peculiar thrift store: all its merchandise is what its name says — lost baggage that was never claimed. Most is from the airlines and most from individuals. There’s a lot of what you might expect: hats, lightweight jackets, small electronics, souvenirs, and then again a lot of what you’d think someone wouldn’t leave behind by mistake or would surely be unique enough to be reunited with its owner: wedding dresses and snow skis, for example.
Unclaimed Baggage buys by the crate load (think the reality show “Storage Wars”) and then sets about getting what it has bought sight unseen in shape to sell.
Unlike most things that land at Unclaimed Baggage, Hoggle was not put up for sale. He is the showpiece of Unclaimed Baggage’s two-case museum in the foyer to the store.*
If you’ve heard of Scotsboro, AL, it is probably as the site of one of the most widely publicized cases of injustice in the segregated South — the arrests, trials, and near-lynching of the Scottsboro boys.
Other than to pay homage to Hoggle, there is no reason to head to Scottsboro, but if you are determined, here’s a little 2-day tour you could take that would include three other spots with at least some tiny connection to Bowie.
You could begin in Memphis and visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. Presley and Bowie share the same birthday, January 8, and Bowie is said to have offered “Golden Years” to Presley, who rejected it.
From there take US 72 east to Huntsville, AL, and visit the US Space & Rocket Center. You can go looking for satellites and see a Gemini spacecraft, Astronaut Jim Lovell memorabilia (he had a cameo in The Man Who Fell to Earth), and moondust.
Downtown Huntsville offers this for contemplation: The Werner Von Braun Civic Center. No kidding. The city is still all gaga for the man who built the V2 rockets that reduced so much of Bowie’s hometown to rubble.
Resume US 72 East and drive 45 minutes into Scottsboro and follow the signs to Unclaimed Baggage.
After you pay tribute to the goblin, get back on 72 and go east til you hit US 24. Take that into Nashville, then go west on 40 and follow the signs to Vanderbilt University.
Take West End Avenue to 21st Ave S and stumble around until you run into Furman Hall. That’s where the Department of Philosophy is housed. You have now seen a building in which Duncan Jones once studied before ditching his doctorate.
What an inspiring road trip!
*Photos of Unclaimed Baggage and caps courtesy of The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Updated: Since I wrote this, I got hold of the Criterion DVD with the extras, including interviews with Production Designer Brian Eatwell and Costume Designer Mary Routh. Additions in green.
Trying without success to figure out how astronaut Capt. Jim Lovell landed in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Hallo Spaceboys), I came across a number of interesting bits. The scenes depicting the home planet of Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, and the hours before Newton’s lift-off in the rocket he had built to get home were shot at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Perhaps Lovell just happened to be visiting the Missile Range or the New Mexico Museum of Space History. This is possible. After all, Lovell isn’t the only one playing himself in the film; novelist Terry Southern is also at the festivities preceding the non-launch of Thomas Jerome Newton’s spacecraft, but Southern was involved in the film world, and was visiting Bowie’s co-star Rip Torn (Dr. Nathan Bryce) during filming in New Mexico.
“All of the cast and crew had to be cleared by the government,” he recalled. “There was even a time when we were filming that the military police showed up and made us stop filming. The range was doing a missile test and I think they remembered that there was a foreign crew on the ground. We had to wait until the missile was up and then it was fine.”
Here’s another picture making the rounds: our favorite visitor, having a look through the camera, on location in White Sands, New Mexico.
The film was shot in July and August, 1975. Temperatures average in the very high 90’s during these months in White Sands.
Newton comes from a planet suffering from severe drought. He and his family wear tight-fitting body stockings criss-crossed with plastic tubing attached to a tank on their backs.
While not all deserts are hot, the Newtons appear to be not just thirsty, but broiling, as Bowie must have been on the set.
So why this costume?
What we sort of have here is one layer of an Earth astronaut’s spacesuit, which would function as a personal air-conditioning system. The NASA version was a lot tidier, of course:
“Lunar crews also wore a three-layer Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCG) or “union suit” with plastic tubing which circulated water to cool the astronaut down, minimizing sweating and fogging of the suit helmet. Water was supplied to the LCG from the PLSS backpack, where the circulating water was chilled by an ice sublimator.”
Mary Routh says she was challenged by Nic Roeg to include in the aliens’ costumes what they valued most — water, and that she had in mind representing the veins of the body through lace when she came up with the circuits of hosing through which ran colored water. The apparatus was fragile, and forever having to be patched and adjusted, she remembers. Co-star Candy Clark added that the body suits themselves were quite thin, nearly transparent, in fact.
It took me a long time to find the next image. What words would you use to search for this thing? It’s a puzzler, isn’t it. Why would a society with the technology to get Newton to Earth with all those patents that made him a billionaire design their transit vehicle to resemble a Teletubbies’ playhouse? And why if their situation alone in that desert was so dire didn’t Newton’s wife and kids hop on? Anywhere had to be better than where they were.
Brian Eatwell remembers wanting the aliens to have a vehicle that didn’t look typically sci-fi shiny metallic. So he built an A-frame over a cart, covered it with a hay mulch mess, and spray-painted it orange. Then when it came time for the thing to move along the rail, the scrapyard engine powering the contraption failed. A man on the set solved the locomotion crisis by bringing in two white horses draft horses. The ropes were edited out, but horsepower is what moves the extraterrestrial train. While Eatwell didn’t mention this, there is a very brief shot of two white horses in a lush green field during the scene when Newton recalls his planet before its drought, and I bet those horses are the same two.
What does this have to do with White Sands? I can only think that it was the presence of rails in the desert that inspired someone to build this thing.
Here’s an example of a stretch of track, now moved to the museum in Alamogordo. Rocket sleds were used to test craft considered too experimental for launch, see how many G forces a man could tolerate, perfect ejection seats, and test missile components. In 2003 a land speed record was set on Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo of Mach 8.5 (6,416 mph / 10,325 km/h).
And poor Tommy, who had trouble with elevators, would complain when his chauffeur exceeded 35 mph.
Be sure to read the comment below regarding the tracks.
How does an Eagle Scout, US Navy Captain, and retired Apollo astronaut end up in a movie with David Bowie that initially was rated X for full frontal male and female nudity*?
What did they do, these retired astronauts, place ads?: “Wanted. Man who came closer to walking on moon than you ever will seeks a role in movies.”
Did they figure if rock gods could be movie stars, so could astronauts? Why not?
I refer, of course, to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Capt. Jim Lovell, who appears as himself in the scene where crowds gather to wish Thomas Jerome Newton [Bowie] well on his voyage alone in the spacecraft built by Newton’s company, Worldwide Enterprises. Newton tires of the excitement, and tells his chauffeur to take him home for the remaining hour before he needs to board. Big mistake. He ends up never making it off the Earth.
[Twenty years later, Lovell would appear in a movie again, this time as the USS Iwo Jima’s captain in the film Apollo 13, based on Lovell’s book, Lost Moon. Lovell himself would be played by Tom Hanks.]
Other than sharing a taste for jumpsuits, two men with less in common than Bowie and Lovell would be hard to imagine, as would their characters. However, of all the astronauts, in some respects, Lovell was one of the three who had the most in common with Bowie’s character, the reclusive Newton. With Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, on April 11, 1970, Lovell left his home planet in Apollo 13, headed for the moon. An explosion on board the Command Module ended the mission and could well have ended their lives.
Then they would have been in the same fix as poor old Major Tom in Bowie’s “Space Oddity,”
Ground control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?…
Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do
which, oddly enough, the BBC used as a theme song of sorts for its coverage of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, the first moon landing.
But the three made it home, and the way they did so ended up giving them the distinction of having traveled further from Earth than any other people.
Prior to the Space Shuttle/Station era, Jim Lovell had spent more time in space than anyone else. His flight with Frank Borman in Gemini 7 in December 1965 lasted 14 days, which doesn’t sound so long now, but the Gemini capsules were small. Gemini means twins, and two babes in the womb would have more room to move around than did Gemini astronauts.
I wonder how David and Jim would have fared spending 14 days side by side?
Did you know, by the way, that The Legendary Stardust Cowboy [Norman Odam] sings his version of “Space Oddity” on his latest album or that his song “Paralyzed” was banned by NASA as a morning wake-up call for a NASA mission after just one play?
Lost the plot?
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy was the source of Ziggy’s last name.
And on Heathen, Bowie paid tribute to “The Ledge” by covering Odam’s “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” but changed “spaceship” to “spacecraft.”
I wonder if anyone has brought this to Captain Lovell’s attention. I think I will.
Here’s Bowie in 2002 on Top of the Pops. Enjoy especially the moves around minute 3.
*Not to mention US government-ordered assassinations and a kidnapping or suggestions of incest (two of Dr. Nathan Bryce’s [Rip Torn] collegiate lovers comment on viewing his penis that he doesn’t look at all like their dads), etc.
Just like we think Bowie knows something
these people think I know something.-- Philip K. Dick, Exegesis (283)
When David Bowie took charge of his young son Zowie/Joey/Duncan’s life in the late 1970’s during his Berlin years, his values and priorities were clear to his son. Reflecting on his “fairly unusual upbringing,” Duncan Jones said:
“My dad really thought it was incredibly important that I read. I used to spend an hour or two a night reading — that was the rule at home. As a kid, sometimes I’d get frustrated with it and I wouldn’t want to do it, and one of the ways my dad would lure me back into it was with science-fiction books, which were almost like candy.”
Which sci-fi books did Bowie pass along to his son? Duncan remembers,
“George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1984, and then John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. He introduced me to Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer. In movies, he was the one who showed me 2001 and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. So he really was the kind of guy who introduced me to all the things that excite me in science fiction.”
Duncan’s Homage to Blade Runner
(and thus to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based on Philip K. Dick’s [PKD] Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Duncan, as you know, has directed two acclaimed sci-fi movies, Moon and Source Code. Blade Runner and PKD are still favorites of his. On the Manmade Movies website, there’s a post with a link to a letter that PKD wrote when BladeRunner was still being filmed, along with a few of Duncan’s reactions to PKD’s letter:
“Anyone read that beautiful letter Philip K Dick wrote the production team of Blade Runner after he saw the first few shots? Amazing stuff!. . . He said BR wasn’t sci-fi — it was “Futurism! Love it. . .”
Duncan is also a great fan of Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner, and in 2009 had hoped to make a movie set in a futuristic Berlin, called Mute:
“It’s very much a love letter to Blade Runner. It’s a very different story but trying to create a world that’s as believable and as vibrant as what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner.”
It was Ridley Scott’s brother, Tony, who encouraged Duncan to drop his PhD studies at Vanderbilt University and go to film school instead. They had gotten to know one another when Duncan hung out on the set of “The Hunger” television series starring his dad and directed by Tony Scott.
1981 — “VALIS” Within VALIS: Philip K. Dick’s Homage to
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Back to 1981. Duncan is ten years old, likely too young for Philip K. Dick’s new novel, VALIS. I wonder, though, if he at once saw that the movie described in the book was inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth.
In 1981, when Hartford Advocate reviewer John Boonstra said, “the novel reminded me in its style of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth,” PKD replied:
“You got it. You got it. That’s where the idea came. It’s like Madame Bovary going to see Lucia — I remember that scene so well, how it crystallized all the nebulous things that were floating around in Madame Bovary’s mind. Now, that impressed me enormously.
“I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films – not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. I thought it was incredibly original, incredibly provocative, rich in ideas, beautiful in texture, glorious in its overall conception. It was enigmatic. In no way is the film VALIS the plot and theme of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the idea occurred to me that a science-fiction film, if well done, could be as rich a source of knowledge and information as anything we normally derive our knowledge and information from. The film tremendously impressed me; I just loved it. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that.”
And Then There’s PKD’s Exegesis
As he worked on his massive and never completed Exegesis, PKD continued to think about the film. He refers directly to Bowie five times, including the line quoted at the top of the post. On February 3, 1974, PKD had a visonary experience that suggested to him, to oversimplify, that the nature of the universe was a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Exploring his role in this universe of information was his occupation until his death in 1982 and the subject of his last three novels and Exegesis. He believed a new savior might soon appear, not born into this world but “smuggled into our midst unnoticed, to mingle with us as an ordinary human” (p. 398) and references “the Bowie film” as an example of how this could happen.
There’s a very brief scene at the end of The Man Who Fell to Earth when you see into a record shop and find that Thomas Jerome Newton has released an album, The Visitor (Young Americans is also in the frame). Newton’s hope is that if his wife is still alive, radio waves from broadcasts of the album will reach her. PDK connects this to the hypothesis set forth by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians that “superhumans” living anonymously among us would use pop culture to stay in touch with each other. Such media is universally dispersed, and, more importantly, the receivers of the messages would be untrackable (p. 336).
Later, PKD is seized by the idea that his own writing is “messages smuggled out!”, an attempt to “contact outside help” — “like Bowie’s LP record. . .to reach his wife” (p. 411).
The messenger need not be conscious that he is relaying information to a specific receiver. PDK speculated that “transterrestrial intelligence” “entered me as information” that he then “distributed” in his stories, and that this was “not just info concerning it, but it itself.” This happens by a collage assemblage of pop culture media in the transmitter’s brain that “once begun” causes the person to seek out “missing parts of the pattern (i.e., it). It even describes itself — e.g. the Bowie flick” (p. 418). The movie VALIS (inspired by “the Bowie flick”) within the novel VALIS illustrates this idea.*
Speculations on Gnosticism pervade PDK’s Exegesis. You may recall from a few posts back that in the mid-1990s, Bowie said he had “started reading books on Gnosticism, a form of early Christianity, an interest I have.” Duncan Jones, by the way, completed the coursework for a doctorate in philosophy before leaving academia to make movies. His areas of interest: applying ethics to sentient machines, mind and AI, and moral philosophy in general.
*I’ve seen variations of Wikipedia’s entry on The Man Who Fell to Earth and the movie within VALIS all over the place:
“The film [MWFTE] was used as one of the key elements of the novel VALIS by Philip K. Dick, with David Bowie appearing in the novel as “Mother Goose” and the film represented by the titular film “VALIS”, although plot elements were changed dramatically, so that the film became something very different in Dick’s novel. The novel also incorporates a – fictional – incident in which Dick visits David Bowie and Brian Eno, who turn out to be harboring a small child who may be the messiah.”
This doesn’t mesh with the novel I read, and I can’t figure out how anyone could associate the fictional Eric Lampton who plays Father Goose (the lead character in the fictional VALIS movie within the novel) with Bowie/Thomas Jerome Newton, let alone the fictional musician Mini with Brian Eno, except that Lampton is an actor and so is Bowie, and Mini makes music, and so does Eno. Who then is Linda Lampton [Eric’s wife]? No way is she modeled on Angie. And is Duncan then the inspiration for Sophia, the new messiah? I think not.