A new print of The Man Who Fell to Earth tugs the offbeat director back into the spotlight
Taking considerable liberties with Walter Tevis' novel, Paul Mayerberg's screenplay and Roeg's direction enlarge several subsidiary characters, add a number of new incidents, and minimize Newton's backstory. Yet when Earth was first released in the U.S., its 20-minutes-shorter edit removed much of the more outré inventions — including a whole lotta sex scenes, mostly between college prof Torn and myriad female students — oddly re-asserting the story's science-fiction emphasis. Yet what remains fascinating about the film, beyond Bowie's silvery performance and Roeg's arresting stylistic strategies, is that it's every bit as much a stunned observation of mid-decade middlebrow Americana as the same year's Nashville. Like a Tibetan monk transplanted to a papier-mâché dinosaur theme park, Newton is agog at a vigorous garishness that's as invasive as the probes eventually stuck into his body. Chocolate chip cookies, evangelical hysteria, Elvis musicals, and Mary-Lou's ever-changing hairdos are all an equal amazement to him. The people around him age decades, but he never does, and strangely neither does the culture; when Clark and Torn visit a record store in their twilight years, it's still selling Jim Croce records to Me Decade longhairs. Newton's tragic fate is to be trapped in a space-time warp of alien triviality.
Famously crossing over to direction from cinematography (on movies like 1967's Far From the Madding Crowd and 1968's Petulia), Roeg brought a sensibility to his own projects that owed less to film and theater than to modern still photography, experimental cinema, and the literary avant-garde. Before anyone else thought likewise, his soundtracks felt like wildly unpredictable (but apt) mix tapes.
None of his features strictly fit any genre they're aligned to, when there is one. Don't Look Now is less interested in the supernatural than the psychological deterioration of a marriage. Bad Timing is still under appreciated as the decade's more disturbing follow-up to Last Tango in Paris (1972), wherein male control of the female sex object grows increasingly desperate and destructive. Performance, co-directed with the late Donald Cammell, was supposed to be a Swinging London snapshot a la Blow-Up (1966) — fashionable, arty, a little kinky, with Mick Jagger acting as lure. It turned out such a druggy, gender-bending mindfuck that Warner Bros. initially refused to release it. A processing lab destroyed some "obscene" footage without permission; even without that, audiences walked out, demanded refunds, even vomited. Performance no longer shocks, but it's still subversive.
After 1980, Roeg's output grew steadily less compelling. After years of silence suddenly there was 2007's Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball, a seriocomic semi-fantasy curio based on a Fay Weldon novel. No one saw it; they didn't miss much. At 82, it's quite possible Roeg won't make another feature. Yet that single decade of remarkable work still points forward, and has influenced many of the more interesting younger directors' approaches to style and storytelling since.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.