Last night I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time in years. It is a bonkers, brilliant and flawed film and is well worth seeing again. Fans of David Bowie can marvel at the fact that he looks amazing. Fans of Iron Maiden can hail the typeface that was used for the film’s poster: it is where they got their logo.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but the entire film is something of a pun. Bowie, as Jerome Newton, is the ‘man’ who fell to earth: he is an alien who has decided to descend to our planet. He is also the man who fell to earth in that he is brought down with a bump. Bowie becomes more human and he gets humdrum. His ideals and inventions come to nothing. He instead succumbs to alcohol and inadequacy.
This is the underlying message of the film. Don’t fly too high – your wings will get burnt. It is underlined by a scene in which the character Dr Nathan Bryce looks at an art book, which contains the W.H. Auden poem ‘Musee des Beaux Art’, as well as the brilliant Breughel painting that it references:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
What an odd message this is, though, for a film about an alien. Jerome Newton shouldn’t be cast as an Icarus; he’s not hubristic. Perhaps this is why Bowie decided to revisit the same character, but in the guise of Lazarus. This time he will rise like a bluebird; this time he will be free.