Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Concluded

Finishing this up. My days turned to weeks. 

9. Nicolas Roeg allows viewers much room to intuit connections in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The first few minutes are among the most illogical. All you have to go on is the title. Something seems to explode in the sky and crash into a lake. A boring looking man in the distance watches another man with unusual hair struggle not up from but down toward the lake. How do we know this is the man who fell to Earth?

What Newton plans to do if his spaceship gets home is anyone’s guess. Why is the launch aborted? It seems Newton climbs into the limo and leaves the site on his own initiative. 

10. The dialogue of several of the old movies Newton watches on his banks of TVs blends is seamlessly with the action. The conversation from Love in the Afternoon could be Newton and Mary Lou’s, as well as that in The Third Man. When his driver comes to an abrupt stop outside the shack Newton lives in when he leaves Mary Lou, it sounds like he has blown out a tire. But that sound like a gunshot is on the television — a cowboy and Indian movie this time.

11. When Mary Lou takes a bath in their apartment, Tommy looks into his eyes in the mirror much as he will when he reveals his true self to her.

12. How does Tommy transform shape? One way may be the removal of his contacts. (Bowie is wearing a contact as he plays the role because the pupil size of both Thomas Jerome Newton’s eyes is the same.) A special twisting of nipples seems involved, too. Nipple play happens often with Bryce and his girls. Tommy seems nervous about it when he is in bed with Mary Lou. Why do scientists use a scalpel to get blood from Tommy’s nipples, a scene causing Bryce, to whom Bowie calls for help, to run away?

13. “Freak” is a jarring word in the movie. Mary Lou uses it to Tommy, as does Oliver Farnsworth’s boyfriend about Tommy.

14. Is Mary Lou’s cry, “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy can you hear me?” when Tommy locks himself in the bathroom a call-out to Bowie’s old friend the Who’s  Roger Daltrey’s Tommy?

15. Faith and trust: Newton told Mary Lou his name was Sussex because he did not yet know her. When she asks if he is married, he does not lie. Deceit is not natural to him, in spite of his assumption of the appearance and behavior of a member of a different species. He seems more comfortable doing this than claiming he is English. Newton tells Bryce and Mary Lou he trusts them. He misreads them. Or is this a self-deception?

Tommy really does not want to go to church with Mary Lou. Her talk of God turns his face to sky and memories of his family.

The night before his first physical visit with Bryce, he transmits his image to the dock where Bryce is fishing with the message, “Do not be suspicious.” When asked if they have met before, Newton’s standard answer is evasive, that he has thought about him a few times, as if those — being in physical and mental presences — are same.

After he has been imprisoned, Mary Lou asks Tommy to reveal to the authorities that he is who she knows him to be, but he will no longer prove himself to anyone.

16. The sphere ornament over Newton’s red bridge attracts Bryce’s attention, and foreshadows the huge sphere in the space capsule.

17. There is a statue of an angel or saint along with a mural of the moon in one of the government’s medical exam rooms. Church bells herald Tommy’s escape. At the lake, there were three crucifixes over one of Bryce’s inner thresholds.

18. Farnsworth calls his glasses his eyes. In her last appearance, Mary Lou is bothered by a displaced false eyelash. The x-ray of Newton’s eyes doesn’t blind him, but fuses contacts to his cat eyes, and if the removal of the contacts is an essential first step to leaving his human identity (see above), he is now stuck in disguise.

19. Drink doesn’t sicken Tommy, but it does, he says, allow him to see things. Mary Lou is scandalized by his answer to her question what kinds of things? “Women. And Men.”

20. In Chapter 16 of the Criterion DVD at 13:40, Newton bathed in blue light looks like a much older Bowie. In several scenes, Newton is uncannily still, foretelling the puppets or mannequins of arguably his creepiest video “Love is Lost” (Steve Reich’s remix).

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Some Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Part 1

Each time I watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, I wonder anew. I have no thesis here, so these thoughts just roughly follow the chronology of the movie.

  1. Bowie’s character does not smoke cigarettes during the movie. Buck Henry’s Oliver Farnsworth does in the first scene in which he appears and at least once again. Stills from the set show a great deal of smoking going on, but although this was during Bowie’s chain-smoking days, Thomas Jerome Newton does not smoke.
  2. Is Newton drinking water from cupped hands when we first see him crouched? I used to think so, but he is too close to the roadway and far from the lake to make that practical. After he sells a ring to the curio shop owner for $20, he returns with a coffee cup. It is more of a prayerful pose. (He has cupped hands (2)bundles of $100 bills, but these must have been counterfeited on his home planet, which is the way that Newton is finally taken into custody in the Walter Tevis novel. From television, Tevis’s aliens had gotten a good idea, but not good enough, of the appearance of $20 bills. Also, paying with $100s to get a cup and some snacks would be attention-grabbing.) 
  3.  There are three trains, excluding the one on Newton’s planet: a rusted steam engine, a Santa Fe freight, and an Amtrak passenger. A presentiment of the opening of Station to Station?
  4. This is America. We know immediately and for certain because there are guns. The first is in the cash box at the curio shop, a snub-nosed piece. The Chekovian rule that if a gun appears in Act I, it will be used by Act V sort of applies when Newton orders a pistol that shoots blanks from his jailers when he hears of Mary Lou’s visit. At first he says they gave him one, then corrects himself: he paid for it. He [unwillingly] pays for it all. Not their faces, but their guns are also what we first see of police who check out Newton’s limo in NM. They are a prominent feature in many of movies Tommy watches, including The Third Man and cowboy and Indian movies.
  5. Did Newton walk all 20 or so staircases to Farnsworth’s penthouse to avoid the elevator? Just going five floors in Artesia, NM leaves him in a faint.  From the views and time it eventually takes Farnsworth to fall, his penthouse must have been high up. This falls into the realm of the unknowable, the suspend your disbelief category. Newton could have gone one floor by elevator or stairs, rested, and continued. He could have had Tony carry him. It doesn’t matter, just a curiosity. 
  6. Some equally irrelevant things are knowable. For example, if Arthur isn’t allowed to go over 30 mph, how long would a limo ride take to Artesia? (By the way, at 3,380 ft elevation, any physical exertion would be harder than at sea level.) Artesia is 1965 miles from New York City, so that would be roughly 65 hours, 30 minutes. So if Arthur drove 12 hours a day, about 5 and a half days. Not so bad. By the time Mary Lou and Tommy start looking for a building site for their home, they must have moved their base to Albuquerque because from Artesia to the city is 239 miles, about 8 hours, Newton time. (The film locale is Fenton, just 77 miles or 2.5 hours at 30 mph.)
  7. Coca-Cola is everywhere in America, but considering that the movie was filmed during a hiatus in Bowie’s coke years, it is amusing to hear the Coke commercial “I’d like to teach the world to sing” on in the background on one of the TVs in the early days of the movie and to see a Coke machine in the lobby of the hotel in which Bowie had been kept prisoner.
  8. Mary Lou has an orange cat in her apartment in Artesia and much later when she is living with Nathan Bryce. It could be 10, 15, even 20 years old. Bryce and Mary Lou have certainly aged — and Mary Lou looks fairly bloated — since they betrayed Tommy, although Mary Lou still looks the same naked when she visits the prisoner, who has been in custody long enough to declare his intention to stop trying to prove anything to anyone. Enough time passes between Tommy’s release, Christmas with the unhappy couple, and the final scene for Tommy to have recorded The VisitorWorldwide had been in business for long enough to have a publishing and photography division when Dr. Nathan Bryce enters the story.

Check back in a few days for more.

 

 

Playing Favorites: Bowie-Yentob-Pullman

Other than being two of my favorites, David Bowie and novelist Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust) have nothing much in common beyond having been born in post-war England within a few months of each other (1/47; 10/46). That, and having interesting minds and reading widely.

Now I find that BBC One, which I cannot watch in the US, has aired a new documentary by Alan Yentob, Angels and Daemons featuring Philip Pullman. While he seems to have had a busy career in the UK these past 43 years, most of the Bowie community will, I expect, agree that Yentob’s supreme accomplishment is Cracked Actor, during which he accompanies Bowie at his most vulnerable during the Aladdin Sane tour. When he watched Cracked Actor, Nicolas Roeg knew that he had found his star for The Man Who Fell to Earth, in spite of Bowie’s meager film experience totaling a few minutes of screen time. The Bowie that Yentob captured seemed himself an alien visitor. 

Perhaps the best scene, one of the strangest in a strange filmscape, is Bowie singing along with Areatha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” remarking on a fly in his milk, and questioning the wisdom of placing a wax museum in the desert. Start at around 5:17 in this clip. If the limo and chauffeur look familiar, it is because Roeg used them in his film, too.

In 1997, on the occasion of Bowie’s 50th birthday, Yentob interviewed him again. He’s a good interviewer, asking interesting questions and not interrupting his subject. I hope that Angels and Daemons will find a way into the US market.

Pullman and Bowie share one other thing: a respect for children and young people struggling against the totalitarian drive for power of mind and soul crushing adults. In recent weeks, with the emergence of high school activists against automatic rifles, Bowie has been quoted a lot (“And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through).

Pullman’s child heroes are certainly “quite aware of what they’re going through.”

With Bowie, his support for children and young people isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But I have seen more than a few, some public figures, many not, say that the sheer existence of Bowie made it possible to get through their teens. As Bowie entered his 50s and onwards, he became a patron to young visual and musical artists. For his first return to the stage, and one of his last public performances following his heart attack in 2004, he was the youngest person on stage by roughly 30 years when he appeared with Arcade Fire. See “Wake Up,” always a pleasure to return to.

fedora cropped

 

 

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: David Bowie, Cosmos-politan, 1

“He looks like a comet, his flame-like hair slicked back on entry into earth’s atmosphere.”

Philip Hoare, on the fall to earth of alien Thomas Jerome Newton, aka David Bowie. RisingTideFallingStar (130)

After a brief meditation on the fall of Icarus (this book is about risings and fallings and risings of tides and stars, and Icarus, Lazarus, Billy Budd, Ishmael, to name a few), Hoare turns to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Throughout he refers to Bowie as the starman, and Bowie becomes a comet, a piece of a star not yet fallen to earth “forever roaming” (118), often seen as prophesying a sea-change in human affairs, apocalyptic or progressive. Hoare sees Bowie as both “outcast & sensor” (329), a resonant comparison. 

Comet Lovejoy seen from orbitThe 1618  blue-green comet was taken by the Pilgrims as a sign that it was time to cross the sea to a New World (118). Their appearance is dual: comets with their ball and tails move very quickly, but since they can cover such distances, appear to be slow moving ; their cooling blueish tails may be our source of water (118). Water has disappeared from Newton’s planet and it is this for which he searches.         Comet Lovejoy, as seen from International Space Station (NASA).

Hoare’s description of Newton’s hair being like a comet makes so much sense to me. It is — and isn’t  — human colored. In the novel by Walter Tevis, Newton is finally busted because his $20 bills aren’t quite right. His planet’s reception of Earth’s transmissions was very, very good — but not quite good enough to see exactly the whorls on the US currency. Similarly, Nicolas Roeg’s/Bowie’s Newton almost passes as human, but in the first minutes of the film, as soon as his hood falls down, it is clear something is different about this guy.

566988main_comet_july2011-orig_full_0

“A sun grazing comet as witnessed by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, as it dived toward the sun on July 5 and July 6, 2011. SOHO is the overwhelming leader in spotting sungrazers, with almost 3000 spotted to date. SOHO can see the faint light of a comet, because the much brighter light of the sun is blocked by what’s known as a coronograph.” Credits: ESA&NASA/SOHO

Bowie is also extra terrestrial in an uncommon sense; terrestrial to the extreme as a shape-shifter within his own species’ anatomy, which is not enough to accommodate his imagination. Hoare reminds us of the changes preceding Man Who Fell: Bowie as “half-canine, half-human, a dog  star…with a feral yelp” — a Diamond Dog (132).

Image result for diamond dogs album

Hoare notes too that on the stack of televisions Newton watches, trying to make sense of Earth and its life forms, is a snippet from John Huston’s film of Melville’s Billy Budd of the beautiful sailor “golden Adonis or dark star” (338) who is hoisted up to be hanged, and then his dead body is buried at sea, falling to the depths.

Hoare then brilliantly links Man Who Fell’s use of whale songs when Newton and his wife are together in a “fluid cybersexual space” (132) continuing on to illustrate the similarities in covers for Songs of the Humpback Whale and the album 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of astronaut David Bowman (134).

Image result for sons of humpback whale album

Image result

And whale songs, Hoare reminds us, are among the sounds sent on the golden discs in Voyager Explorer, launched in 1977 to tell another world’s people who Earthlings are, as are “Blakean images [of] a naked man and woman and transect lines indicating Homo sapiens’ place in the solar system [that] appear on the Black Star [sic] album” (note for page 134).

 

More to come, soon

Comet 2

Great comet of 1618

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of  the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?

It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.

As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328). 

In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar, “as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar reminds me of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare in The Guardian:

 “There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it.  It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.” 

As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.

But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.

It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.

There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement. 

I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”

Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.

Echoes of Cocteau

I was flipping through Jean 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.

orphee_4116152

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:

man-wfte

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; Cocteau said 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.

The Annunciation.
©Victoria Emily Jones

What came to mind: the “Look Back in Anger” video.

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:

barbettesang

That oppish bullseye and strange haired figure is vaguely reminiscent of the set and weird woman of “Strangers When We Meet.”

strangers

Here’s another image from Orphée. Flanked by two biker angels, the Poet and Death stroll through the Underworld:underworld

Could this have been an inspiration for the Village of Ormen of “Blackstar”?village-of-orman

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:

marais

to this one from Outside: fishman

 

I don’t know what to make of this.