Saturday, November 1, 2014

Moonage Daydreams

OMNIBUS - CRACKED ACTOR: A FILM ABOUT DAVID BOWIE (1975)
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

"I'm just a space cadet, he's the commander." CRACKED ACTOR is a poignant portrayal of David Bowie's infatuated audience, as he attempts to escape from his Ziggy Stardust persona and discover American soul.

IN 1974, David Bowie embarked on a 70-concert, 6-month American Diamond Dog tour. Midway through, a BBC crew - headed by Alan Yentob - were invited to document proceedings, resulting in the insightful CRACKED ACTOR programme screened under the OMNIBUS arts strand. Opening with a US reporter - Wayne Satz - dissing his Bowie interview as "it would be nice to talk to somebody not being evasive and discussing riddles," the BBC documentary unsurprisingly is more patient, searching and rewarding that such an observation. Taking its title from a track off Aladdin Sane, Bowie aims to distance himself from the overbearing ghost of Ziggy Stardust and conquer America on his own terms, aborbing the United States as a land of myth which could fuel new avenues of his imagination. Yentob paints a picture of an exhausted and undernourished performer surviving on cocaine and milk (many years later, Bowie proclaimed "I was so blocked ... so stoned ... when I see that now I cannot believe I survived it"), but also one that is constantly seeking to discover forms of performance art best suited to the shape of his work beyond the lyrics.

Scenes of Bowie and Carole King in a limo taking in the American west especially fascinated PERFORMANCE and DON'T LOOK NOW director Nicolas Roeg, as the singer talks about a fly inside his milk while listening to an Aretha Franklin song that King co-wrote ('(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'). This synchronicity must have appealed to Roeg's layered mentality, as a year later the filmmaker would cast Bowie as a fragile alien consumed by humanity in the hallucinatory THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. In fact, CRACKED ACTOR was shown to the backers of this new project, and the shots of Bowie in the back of the car - especially the wearing of his hat - created a mood that morphed into his title role.

Unlike the body-snatching or maiming mentality of most aliens-on-Earth movies, David Bowie's traveller has his character and mission eroded by human traits in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.

Roeg's film exists in a science fiction void between the sterile 2001 and the fantasies unleashed by STAR WARS. Tim Lucas, in his Video Watchdog review (#17, May 1993), offers a more specific place in motion picture history, stating that the production "is the turning point in English-language SF filmmaking that BLADE RUNNER is often assumed to be." Very loosely based on the 1963 novel by American Walter Tevis, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was an inversion of the norm: rather than a United States-funded picture filmed in Britain, here was a subversive film that was British-financed and made largely in New Mexico. Hiding his native hairless, cat's eyed appearance, the visitor takes on the visage of an English electronics entrepreneur in America. Soon under the surveillance of the CIA, the alien uses the name Thomas Jerome Newton, and rapidly amasses a fortune through a number of patents set up as World Enterprises, with the help from attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). It is revealed that with this money, Newton seeks to transport water back to his drought-ridden home world; but even though Newton befriends lonely hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), he becomes a recluse corrupted by the Earthly fascinations of sex, alcohol, wealth, television and fame.

The film's use of time lapses and abrupt crosscuts also alludes to different genres: it is a science fiction film without special effects, a drama, western, love story and even satire. This non-linear story also creates a dream mentality, a key sensation in Roeg's visionary and portent-themed style (Farnsworth's line "when Mr Newton entered my apartment, my old life went straight out the window" takes on a literal meaning later). In Joseph Lanza's 1989 book Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy, and Misadventures of Nicolas Roeg, the author mentions a number of manifestations in the director/DPs personal makeup that leave lasting impressions. As a child, Roeg's feverdream of a beach resort decaying into an apocalyptic visa - complete with writhing creatures - is turned into the alien's featureless, desert-like home world (replete with an almost amusement park-type train service); and a white mare that appeared on a grassy knoll but eluded being captured on film as Roeg lensed FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD acts as a recurring motif here and in future work.

"Get out of my mind ... all of you!"; Newton encounters the effects of channel-hopping in one of many prophetic elements of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. What is most astonishing is how the narrative anticipates technologies that have shaped our lives: disposable cameras, self-developing film, digital music and multi-channel viewing have all come true since the film's release.
 
By the very nature of Roeg providing an out of sync story, this caused an extraordinary situation with the film's United States distributor. On viewing a rough cut, the newly appointed chairman of Paramount Pictures - Barry Diller - rejected THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH on the grounds that it was not a linear story. The kaleidoscope nature, the chairman argued, was not the film his studio bought, and resulted with producer Michael Deeley instituting a lawsuit where Paramount eventually contributed a modest settlement. The picture was actually picked up by Don Rugoff's New York-based outfit Cinema V, which specialised in unusual European releases. Even though British Lion clawed back two-thirds of their deficit with Paramount, Cinema V didn't have the same weight as the major Hollywood studio, and could not open the film on the same scale.

In real life Bowie was also a UFO enthusiast - he even contributed to a British UFO journal in the late 60's - belonging to a long list of rock luminaries who were actively involved in saucer investigations. But Bowie is THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, an outsider who - according to Roeg - may or may not actually be of extra-terrestrial origin ("you in the audience think perhaps he's from outer space, I don't think that's definite. All we see is what's in his mind.") At the time of the production Bowie was using around 10gms of cocaine a day, consequently the musician/actor was as alienated as Newton himself.  Deeley - in his 2008 book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off - My Life in Cult Movies, reveals an episode where Bowie was adamant that his beloved glass of skimmed milk was poisoned, making the star unable to work for two days; another where Bowie insisted that his mobile dressing room be moved from a location he considered to be an Indian burial ground. Against the odds, the leading man was allegedly accessible and ready for the extraordinary scenes Roeg asked of him; as Deeley states in his book, "David Bowie lived in his own world, and I'm not sure how many other inhabitants it had."