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Critic's Notebook

‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ still quite a trip

’76 Roeg film returns from another time

RIALTO PICTURES/STUDIOCANAL Candy Clark and David Bowie in a scene from Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.’’ The 1976 film has been rereleased in a new print with vibrant colors. RIALTO PICTURES/STUDIOCANAL
Candy Clark and David Bowie in a scene from Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.’’ The 1976 film has been rereleased in a new print with vibrant colors. (Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 12, 2011

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Some great directors have whole schools devoted to them. Just this summer, half the movies have come down with a case of the Spielbergs. Some, like Hitchcock, are practically a university system. Then there are the gentlemen with empty classrooms. Judging from the movies of the last 35 years, nobody wants to be Nicolas Roeg. How do you teach his blends of sterility and eroticism, intelligence and emptiness, humor and solemnity, horror and serenity? In “The Man Who Fell to Earth,’’ from 1976, the hot Santa Fe lowlands look cold.

The movie is back in a new print whose colors are vibrant. But, in typical Roeg fashion, they don’t produce any heat. You could say the same about David Bowie, who makes that fall to Earth, assumes a human body, and goes by the name Newton. He’s arrived from some other planet, intent on acquiring what aliens in his predicament usually want: water. There is a plot, although what precisely Roeg, who’s English and 82 now, and his screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, adapting Walter Tevis’s novel, mean for it to do is unclear. But gradually you realize that the parts are gravitating toward some kind of center, that there’s an organizing principle, an event.

Newton moves in with a bellhop named Mary-Lou, who’s played by Candy Clark, a woman whose organic daffy-woozy-boozy likes the movies will never see again. He gets a lawyer (Buck Henry, in thick window-pane glasses) who pulls in a bullish scientist (Rip Torn), and they form a mega-corporation with a hand in everything from gasoline to self-loading, self-developing film. The business attracts the attention of a federal agent, played by Bernie Casey, who shows up just past the halfway point, in a moment that’s terrific for the baldness of its sexy badness. He’s introduced diving into a swimming pool and popping out naked, with his backside in our faces and his front in some luscious white lady’s.

This is a 1970s exclusive, wherein a director could do and say whatever he liked, where he could give you both another movie of Torn bulldozing through fleets of adoring young women in the spirit of the Norman Mailer macho ideal, and scenes of Bowie as that ideal’s antidote - or its nightmare, really. With Bowie, masculinity was self-consciously androgynous in a way that was dangerous in the age of feminism. If boys could become women, what then would the politics be? His sex scenes with Clark achieve Sapphic delirium. In 2011, they’re like watching her make love to the cosmic daughter of Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett.

From the standpoint of pure charisma, Bowie is a dud. He hops and sulks and strolls and makes faces that say, “Nic, I’ll let you figure it all out, OK?’’ Gamboling around Manhattan and the American Southwest, he’s a kind of zombie fashion model flaneur. The charm of him here, though, is partly a matter of extraterrestrial prerogative. Most aliens in 1976 might pick Warren Beatty or Burt Reynolds. Choosing Bowie implies deep confidence.

I suppose Roeg was after the big ideas: media saturation, the subliminal power of advertising, God, technology, and art. What it all means is a secret. Really, provocation was the answer that kept coming easiest to his filmmaking (1973’s “Don’t Look Now’’ is still his greatest movie). He pretended to shrug at taboos, transgressions, and subversions. That white woman Casey plants himself in front of? She’s playing his wife. Henry, meanwhile, is in a relationship with a big blond man, and they appear to be living inside a giant humidor. His inexplicable decay now feels like an eerie harbinger of scourges to come.

In 1982, Roeg married the actress Theresa Russell, and together, in “Bad Timing,’’ “Eureka,’’ “Insignificance,’’ “Track 29,’’ and “Cold Heaven,’’ they leapt off an artistic cliff. “The Man Who Fell to Earth’’ remains a similar leap. But, here, he’s got a good set of wings. It’s science fiction drunk with low-key, dried-out despair. Some of this, especially the way sex is handled, feels archaically groovy.

Roeg began as a cinematographer, and the poetic boldness of his imagery - the colors, the juxtapositions, the allusions, the outré ridiculousness (Clark turns into a geisha) - is still something else.

Early on, one of Torn’s bedmates tosses a shirt over his head, and it’s the who-am-I surrealism of the painter René Magritte. W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts’’ gets a reading. The house Newton and Mary-Lou share starts to turn into one of Richard Hamilton’s collages. At some point, Bowie sits before a wall of televisions that itself becomes a kind of mixed media: a swell of images of planes, Elvis, insects, car ads, lions, snakes, Stacey Keach, and a beautiful Kirk Douglas, all as Roy Orbison sobs out “Blue Bayou.’’ Roeg is the movies’ laureate of tragic waste. What was a heady amusement in 1976 now feels like a living culture museum.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

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