KLAATU YOU (17)
April 23, 2020
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | d. NICOLAS ROEG | 1976
What I find most pleasurable about The Man Who Fell to Earth (TMWFTE) is that it’s more than just a science fiction film, it’s an identity fantasy that draws you into David Bowie’s otherness, allowing you to put on his skin and experience it from all angles.
Otherness was a key aspect of Bowie’s stage presence, and it’s impossible to watch TMWFTE and not think about Ziggy Stardust and his seductively androgynous rock star roots. But, TMWFTE pushes Bowie’s otherness further than his glam rocker persona. Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, is literally an alien, an extraordinary spectacle. Thomas is fetishized throughout TMWFTE, the camera explores the angles of his body, the slope of his cheeks and his trippy half-dilated gaze as he trudges through American landscapes and interiors. He’s “British,” we empathize with this stranger in America, but it’s his palpable physicality that’s objectified by the camera and makes the difference. The camera can’t look away, and neither can we.
Hopeful and full of plans to save his own planet, Thomas also stands out against the cliched mediocrity of people around him, including a randy college professor, and an ivory tower lawyer, myopic in coke-bottle glasses. His lover, Mary Lou, introduces him to basic American pastimes, alcohol and TV, which, along with sex, distract Thomas from his mission and purpose.
Mary Lou provides a visual and character foil for Thomas. Who’s the most beguiling? Arguably Thomas, who is more sensitive, intelligent, vulnerable and slender than she. The comparison upends gender stereotypes and emphasizes Bowie’s appealing brand of androgyny.
Mary Lou pursues Thomas, but while she finds Thomas irresistible, she has limits. When Thomas reveals himself as an alien to Mary Lou, confronting her with otherness and challenging her to accept true difference, she retreats in fear, at least while he’s in alien form. She likes his exoticism, but only when it’s palatable and easily consumable. Through this we learn that she’s really a proxy for Bowie’s audience(s).
Later, this exploration of otherness gives over to dissection, as the authorities take Thomas away to be poked and prodded. Just as Bowie and his personas were dissected by audiences determined to penetrate the facade and find the human underneath, so is Thomas picked apart by his torturers, an experience we see from his perspective as they restrain him and peel off a nipple.
Later, doctors mistakenly make Thomas’s human guise permanent by fusing his earth contact lenses to his alien eyes. The alien’s despair about this mirrors the imagined despair of the actual artist, discovering that somehow he’s become his persona, there is no longer a membrane between who he is and who he seems to be.
Worse, he’s finally made like us, and this makes him as miserable as we are, numbed by drink and looking for a way out. As his dead planet and lost wife and children become objects of maudlin nostalgia and longing, so is Thomas’s lost self, purposeless, sucked into a vortex of meaningless excess.
This reveals the poignant truth of TMWFTE: the ways we choose to enjoy, fetishize and consume otherness can often destroy the best things about it. Some would say that’s not a pleasurable realization at all, but finding that little bead of truth in the film makes the experience delightfully bittersweet.
KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM (4Q2021): NERDING | ARDUIN | KLINGON CONFIDENTIAL | MAP INSERTS | TIME | & 20 other nerdy passions. SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (3Q2021): WARHOL’S WALT WHITMAN | 70, GIRLS, 70 | TYRAEL’S MIGHT | SHIRATO SANPEI | THE LEON SUITES | & 20 other never-realized cultural productions. FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2Q2021): DARK SHADOWS | MANNIX | GET SMART | THE ADDAMS FAMILY | I DREAM OF JEANNIE | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) TV shows. FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (1Q2021): STEVEN UNIVERSE | TOP CAT | REN & STIMPY | SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER | DRAGON BALL Z | & 20 other animated series. CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2020): “Sex Bomb” | “Going Underground” | “Soft South Africans” | “Typical Girls” | “Human Fly” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) punk singles. KLAATU YOU (2020 weekly): ZARDOZ | METROPOLIS | DARK STAR | SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | SOLARIS | & dozens of other pre-STAR WARS sci-fi movies. CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2019): THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | ROLLERBALL | BLACK SUNDAY | SORCERER | STRAIGHT TIME | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) action movies. SERIOCOMIC (2019 weekly): LITTLE LULU | VIZ | MARSUPILAMI | ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | HELLBOY | & dozens of other comics. TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2018): LOONEY TUNES | THREE STOOGES | THE AVENGERS | ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | THE TWILIGHT ZONE | & 20 other Fifties (1954–1963) TV shows. WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) new wave singles. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other Thirties (1934–1943) fantasy novels. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.
What do you think?
I remember this as about as successful a star turn as ever I’d seen in an otherwise dreary series of When Popstars Act! Bowie typecast as he was, still conveyed the mutual bafflement of an alien encounter. And more than that, real loss and tragedy in an unknowable character, no easy feat. What disappointed me was that other, more interesting other world is lost to the audience as well, after a few haunting glimpses and is replaced by the analogy of the long, sad decline from stardom.
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