I've seen David Bowie in Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth perhaps a half dozen times. Through the years, i have a fresh feelings for the film -- a wholly different focus depending on my own moment.
When i first saw it in the 1980s, the film was just too strange and unsettling to me.
Later on i could appreciate the atmosphere, but the middle episode of revelation through sex seemed so confusing. The movie lost its narrative and fell into an unearthly, chaotic hallucination.
As i watch it now, that middle part seems more revealing, with perfectly clear purpose and drive. I also see much more of a broad American landscape as imagined by a British person: New York City and the Desert Southwest. Stranger than the UK, yes, but alienating even to us in different ways from the purely urban to an uncivilized hostility.
This evening, i bought the novel on which it is based, by Walter Tevis written in 1963 to get an even deeper handle on this familiar and mystifying story that speaks across the decades in different shades of lightness and darkness.
The only environment the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, inhabits at all naturally is the corporation he creates based on his revolutionary patents that enrich him with stratospheric wealth in a very short time. The machinery of moneymaking, the Corporation, is as home to him as it is so often alienating to us. He knows of us from television. He is a Television Man having reaped signals across the universe like a harvest of 20th century mankind, a strange and mutant harvest filled with cowboys, indians, newscasts, Lucille Ball, war footage, advertisements, Wonder Bread. What he finds on Earth in search of water for his parched planet is both true to these lost signals and completely different, more delirious.
This great work, the lifting of words from a page in one decade, made into light in another is like the voyage from one world to the next. A cracked actor, a visionary film maker, the right moment of creation as well as revision are a compound that continuously emits radioactive alienation like X-rays. To the alien these rays are a blinding light. To ordinary people, merely a wave among waves.
Bowie's musical association with the film, appearing nowhere on its actual soundtrack, are his Berlin albums -- Low, Station to Station, Lodger -- from the middle and late 70s. Yet, this time the title to a later song of his, from 1985, kept coming to mind:
"Loving the Alien."