I recently got to see The Man Who Fell to Earth in its entirety for the first time. It's one of those legendary counter-culture dork movies that I'd always intended to see, but never quite got around to for whatever reason. So I'd seen bits and pieces of it here and there, and had no real feel for what it was really like. Turns out it's really weird, and a little tedious. In the film, David Bowie plays a space alien who comes to Earth with amazing technological advances that he uses to make enough money to build a rocketship he can use to bring water back to his drought-stricken homeworld. But, through the magic juju of television, x-rays, sex, and alcohol, he's slowly turned human instead. It plays a bit like a science fiction version of Citizen Kane, though I'm sure he's really supposed to be more like Jesus.
The film takes itself very seriously, and watching it in its entirety for the first time was quite the experience. It's artsy and psychedelic, and parts of it are very compelling. The decadence of Bowie's fall from grace is a little disturbing at times, and the unveiling of his true alien form is a moment of great, freaky cinema. I also like Buck Henry's understated performance as his business manager. But the film can also be dull and heavy-handed at times, and there's some pretty wretched acting here and there as well. Bowie's love interest, in particular, doesn't seem up to the task given her. The character has a sort of simple, almost animalistic, innocence about her, which she pulls off well. But dialogue is not her strong suit.
I was impressed with some of the old age make-up, though. The film covers 30 or 40 years, during which time the human characters age while Bowie stays the same. The make-up is convincing, particularly in a sex scene between Bowie and his now-middle-aged lover. Not only is her face doughy, but her body sags and bulges too. Nice work on a type of make-up that's too often unconvincing. Another character's old age make-up even took me by suprise. As he got older, I started thinking, "Heh. They've made him look like Rip Torn." So imagine my surprise when I got to the credits and discovered that it WAS Rip Torn! I hadn't recognized him as a younger man, but once he got old I saw it immediately. It's like they got a time machine and recreated his look circa the late 90s. Eerie!
But anyway. I was simultaneously fascinated and annoyed with the movie. I like the story, I like the space-alien-as-angelic figure stuff, and I like the idea of telling the story of that figure's fall from grace. But as I said, it's pretty heavy-handed at times. There's all this stuff about TV getting into Bowie's head that just seems kind of laughable to me. Sure, I understand the change in brain-wave patterns that comes with television viewing, and I've seen the data on how video violence can lead to a desensitization to real violence. But the message still comes off very conservative and reactionary to me. And in our current, even more media-soaked society, it even seems quaint and technophobic. An Amish plea to eschew technology.
But even more annoying and conservative is the film's attitude toward sex. It tries to draw a comparison between sex and violence, with a series of sex scenes that play out with an animalistic fervor, and dialogue that echoes the violent programs Bowie watches on TV. But it plays too much like bad, over-enthusiastic porn for me to take it entirely seriously. So when we watch a scene of Rip Torn rolling around nekkid with some young co-ed intercut with Bowie watching a Kabuki theatre sword-fight, I had to roll my eyes. And when it all pays off in the end, with a kinky-weird pistol-fucking scene that signifies Bowie's complete fall from grace... It just comes off really pretentious.
I suppose, coming out of an era where respectable intellectuals flocked to see Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, this film's sexual content fits right into the spirit of its times. And it's not the graphic sex I've got a problem with. It's what they did with it. Like a slasher flick that parades naked teens in front of the camera while delivering the message that sex is wrong, this film gives us acres of naked flesh but implies that there's something inherently bad about human sex. Alien sex apparently involves lots of cuddling while your bodies excrete some kind of pasty white liquid from every pore, and that's okay. But the combination of dicks and vaginas is violent and bad in this movie's spiritual hierarchy, and that's just not a message I can get behind.
(Of course, now I've also seen both David Bowie and Rip Torn's penises, and that's not something that was ever on my list of things to do before I die.)
So. The Man Who Fell to Earth is all freaky and progressive, and makes some rather earnest criticisms of the modern world. But it's also pretentious, and filled with a sort of unconscious Catholic guilt that undercuts its message and leaves it in a shambles by the end. Which sums up the 70s pretty well, now that I think about it. So never mind. It's a perfect encapsulization of its times! To see it is to see the decade, writ small! Watch, and be amazed!