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35 Years Later, David Bowie as ET in The Man Who Fell to Earth

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The Man Who Fell to Earth
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Rialto Pictures
June 24 through July 7, Film Forum

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“Lord, I never knew America was so beautiful!” cries Candy Clark, the ideal audience for British cinematographer-turned-director" Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, which surveys the USA at its most gross and grandiose, through alien eyes. For his protagonist and avatar of Otherness, Roeg cast David Bowie. Orange-haired and alabaster, Bowie plays an extraterrestrial who splashes down in the Southwest, assumes the identity of Englishman “Mr. Newton,” and proceeds to make himself a multimillionaire inventor, bent on developing the technology to return to his dying planet and family. The shifts of setting and passing of the 20-year timeline go unannounced; Newton never seems to age, while the singled-out characters affected by his visit—Clark’s motel-chambermaid-turned-companion, Buck Henry’s patent lawyer, Rip Torn’s professor, Bernie Casey’s government stooge—turn gray, heavy, and alcoholic. (Victim of muddling authorities and couch potato’ing, Newton grows venal and boozy himself.) Full of blown experiments like cross-cutting dinner-theater kabuki grunts with Torn’s lovemaking, the film, celebrating its 35th anniversary with a re-release, is undeniably long, Panavision-wide, but of questionable depth. While immortalizing Bowie’s mantis-like exoticism, Roeg fails to connect to the longing for family reunion that drives the plot. Domesticity is more vividly imagined as part of Earth society’s sickness, defied in a preposterous moment where Bowie slo-mo slaps a tray of chocolate-chip cookies from Clark’s hands. Like her, the viewer sticks out the bad for a chance at the extraordinary; Roeg’s images are nearly reward enough.

 
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