Roeg Nation

     December 22, 2008

Written by Andre Dellamorte

There’s no denying that Nicholas Roeg is a visionary director. He’s a director to wrestle with. Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and this guarantee his place. I’m a fan of Don’t Look Now, that’s easily my favorite of his films. He has a great sense of visuals. He began as a cinematographer. He’s visually strong, not surprisingly.

The Man Who Fell to Earth was damaged in its initial release. It makes the uncut version (presented by Criterion) fetishizable. A film like this in the 70’s with a cut version is the sort that gathers a cult following. Hushed tones. There is a lot to see here, themes to figure out. I had never loved this film, and I try.

David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton. He comes to America with some rings to pawn, get money and a lawyer (Buck Henry), and patents a bunch of ideas that make him powerfully rich. He hires professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) to work with him. Newton also falls for Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), who becomes his kept woman. What Newton really wants is to design a spaceship so he can get back home. As he reveals to Mary-Lou and Bryce, he is an honest to gosh alien (or maybe not), but when he finally gets all his pieces in place, the government, headed by Peters (Bernie Casey) decides to step in and stop him by any means necessary.

Roeg’s sense of cinema is wholly his own. It’s a cadence that is wholly unique, and how he cuts, how he tells a story is extraordinarily unique. For that I celebrate his work whole-heartedly. But with this film, I like the edges. I like the ideas, and the moments but not the whole. Bowie is perfectly cast, there’s no one who could play that role in the same way, and the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s also great to see Buck Henry in a nice plum role. Buck Henry calls the film circular poetry. I think that Roeg leaves a lot to the audience to decide how they feel. The film is hopelessly dated. Not so much in technology, but in the very grammar of the piece. There’s things, I know how they’re supposed to work, but they didn’t click for me. Moments distinctly Roeg-ian that may have been compromised by their language being absorbed by the music videos directors who likely watched this film ad nauseum.

There is no Bowie music, but this is as crucial a piece of his history as an artist as Ziggy Stardust. Both Low and Station to Station are haunted by this film. And this one of his finest on screen efforts, partly because it uses Bowie’s own imagery to compliment and deepen the film.

The Criterion collection presents the Blu-Ray in widescreen (2.35:1) and in LPCM 2.0. Roeg is a visual filmmaker, and the 1080 transfer makes this already beautiful film all the more absorbing. The clarity and color just pops. The extras are replicated from the Laserdisc, and the two disc special edition, though not included is the novel, as it was with the DVD release. Here there’s a commentary by Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie and Buck Henry that was also included on the laserdisc (it was recorded in 1992). It’s a great track and everyone says interesting things – everyone here seems to have done some homework, and have great stories to tell about the making of, and the content involved. This is one of the better commentary tracks ever. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg gets a chance to talk about his work in adapting the novel (26 min.), and he’s fairly interesting, while his source writer Walter Tevis gets a chance to speak in a 1984 audio interview (25 min.), While performers Candy Clark and Rip Torn get their own featurette and speak to the beaten nature of the film upon stateside release (25 min). Torn is considered a hard man to work with, but it’s impossible not to love him. Impossible (at least from a distance). Also included are audio interviews with costume designer May Routh (20 min.) and production designer Brian Eatwell (24 min.), along with a still gallery for Routh’s costume sketches. Six trailers and a TV spot have also been included, along with still galleries for behind-the-scenes photos; production and publicity stills, introduced by set photographer David James (3 min.), and a gallery of posters from Roeg’s films.

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