Criterion Sunday 304: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

I guess I really want to love Nic Roeg’s films more than I do (not that I’m about to start a list of ‘overrated filmmakers that I dislike and you should too’ because that kind of thing is corrosive to cinephilia), but I just really cannot seem to connect with them fully; I liked Bad Timing and Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, but in an admiring sense more than loving them. Indeed a lot of passionate words have been penned about this particular film and perhaps that’s down to the star being David Bowie (who passed away a few years ago), but I imagine it’s just that Roeg’s vision of the world gels with a lot of people more than it does me. The Man Who Fell to Earth is surreal and it’s frantic at times, thanks to Roeg’s customary vivid editing. It sustains a sort of weird prelapsarian spirit both in its central character — there’s something about the gaunt, alabaster Bowie gliding through all his scenes which suggests innocence, though all accounts indicate this is likely because he was deep into a narcotics addiction — and its setting, an American landscape soundtracked in an almost rustic way, but combined with guns and alcohol and corruption and copious sex (sometimes quite roughly physical sex, but never particularly exploitative). It’s about an alien called Thomas (Bowie) who is looking to transfer resources from Earth back to his desert-like home planet but who falls into a lifestyle that seems to prevent his making progress, and maybe that would be a spoiler but the film seems genuinely more interested in the rhythms of his life; the ending, when it comes, just sort of happens, but then suddenly you realise that the title isn’t just because of his alien origins, it’s because of his inability to achieve his dreams, despite every resource available to him. It’s a cautionary tale, after a fashion. I admired it, but I did not love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel by Walter Tevis); Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Candy Clark; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 29 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 303: Bad Timing (1980)

This is a tough film but I think it makes most sense in the context of the kinds of films being made at this period (which Russell herself touches on in an extra on the Criterion disc), films in which pretty young women act flirty and have sex with the (older) leading man, thus softening his hardened masculine persona. Except unlike those films, Bad Timing makes this relationship central to its plot and it doesn’t leave it there, but goes much further. This older man here is not just any man but an esteemed psychoanalyst Dr Alex Linden (living and teaching in Vienna, of course), and his obsession for Theresa Russell’s flirtatious and ‘easy’ younger woman Milena becomes something that ultimately contributes to her psychological disintegration. He projects onto her his own needs, takes out his jealousy and is overtly positioned by Roeg’s film as in fact not just a creepy sexual predator but also (and this may perhaps count as a spoiler, but it’s important to know in terms of the kind of psychosexual terrain that’s being covered in the film) a rapist. The film makes clear, through Russell’s fantastic performance, just how social constrained her agency is, a societal expectation as created explicitly by men like Art Garfunkel’s doctor, and which he preys on increasingly methodically. As such, it’s all rather psychologically (and at times, physically) brutal — their initial sexual encounter in flashback is cross-cut with a bloody, invasive surgical procedure on her unconscious naked body, following what appears to be a suicide attempt — so despite Roeg’s typically textural use of editing back and forth in time, little snippets of one time period fragmenting into another, it is a difficult watch. However, I do believe it’s trying to unpick the layers of obsession that can run through relationships (especially in films), pointing its finger firmly at 20th century psychoanalysis as being part of the problem.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Nic Roeg and his producer Jeremy Thomas sit in one of their kitchens and talk about the film some 25 years later, recollecting some of what went into creating it, how Roeg found Russell as his actor, and a little bit about the reception by the studio.
  • There are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, half of which have no sound (as it wasn’t preserved) but they give little extra scenes to flesh out some of the characters.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Yale Udoff; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring Theresa Russell, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 March 2020.

One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968)

It doesn’t seem as if this film collaborating with iconic 1960s rock band The Rolling Stones was particularly planned (it came together rather spontaneously when Godard visited the UK for another, failed project), but the work Godard has created from it fits in rather well with his ongoing politicisation following his end-of-days/end-of-cinema screed Week End. It re-examines the very fundamentals of artistic creation while looking towards certain increasingly urgent political themes that were developing even as the film was in production.

The film was shot in London in June 1968 as the Stones were recording tracks for their Beggars Banquet album, and specifically the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. This track has as its narrator Lucifer and recounts his involvement with a history of political violence right up to the present day (Robert Kennedy was assassinated even as the song was being recorded, necessitating a change to the lyrics). At the same time, with les évènements of May 1968 in France fresh in his mind, Godard’s sloganeering and agitprop tendencies have never been more in evidence. The film is punctuated by brief shots of a mysterious young woman spray-painting slogans around London, on cars, pavements, buildings and even the windows of the Hilton hotel, stuff like “CINEMARXISM” and “FREUDEMOCRACY”.

More substantial are extended scenes — almost skits in their jokey sketch-like quality — which unfold in long, measured tracking shots of student radicals and political protest, which form part of the structure of the film alluded to in the title (the documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones creating their track vs the staged scenes of radicals destroying civil society). The most prominent of these skits feature the Black Panthers, holed up in a junkyard alongside the River Thames (just under the Battersea rail bridge). Members of the group declaim political theory, including liberationist texts about the necessity of freeing themselves from the power of the white man and his language, though the first we hear deals rather more directly with the soul of black music (a wry nod towards the appropriation of a black rhythm-and-blues idiom in popular music such as that exemplified by the Rolling Stones themselves). These scenes wrap the texts up into a discourse of violence — guns are thrown around, and some (white) women dressed in white shifts are held at gunpoint and seen spattered with brightly-coloured crimson blood.

The counterpoint to this is the interview of “Eve Democracy” (played by the director’s wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky), wafting around a forest glade being followed by a camera crew. She may seem to embody ideals of peace, reinforced by the rural, sylvan setting, but her responses to the interviewer’s elaborate questions are never other than “Yes” or “No”, and finally, as the revolutionary rhetoric becomes too forceful, she flees. The other scene featuring white protagonists is set in a bookshop, its walls lined with pulpy novels laden with sexual, racial and political themes, comics and pornographic magazines. The customers pay by giving a long-armed fascist salute to the proprietor (who also reads from a revolutionary text) then slapping two long-haired Maoist militants sitting in the corner of the room.

The film questions the very notion of authorship that had underpinned Godard’s career over the past decade. The studio scenes showing the Stones recording their track lay bare the repetition and boredom underlying artistic creation, as members of the band and their entourage try over and over again to establish the basic elements of the song (the drum beat, the lyrics, the guitar sound, the backing vocals, et al.). Stylistically, too, these scenes seem to lack a certain coherence, with the camera just panning around endlessly in lieu of a script to follow. Just as the process by which the text is authored is revealed here, so the interstitial sketches work hard to erase the idea of authorship — very little is said that is not quoted or read from a text, and interviewers and camera crews are a constant presence. The final scene, which is itself of a film crew creating a shot, ends with a woman’s dead body hoisted aloft on a camera crane, and so the film’s reflexivity has folded back in on itself.

The film was in the end retitled after the song it featured (and added a coda with the final studio version of the Stones song, much to Godard’s disgust), but either version has a lot of productive material that reflects the turbulent times in which it was made. The pose with regard to authorship, not to mention the rambling discursive methods used, makes it a difficult film to watch at times, but it certainly marks a forceful break with the rest of Godard’s 1960s work and looks forward to the continued formal experimentation of the 1970s.

Next Up: Most of Godard’s 1970s was taken up with experimental televisual work and overt political films, with the exception of the bigger budget Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. You can see a common thread uniting his earlier works with this one, but it again has a radical structure and is co-directed by theorist and academic Jean-Pierre Gorin.

One Plus One film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond [as “Tony Richmond”]; Starring The Rolling Stones, Anne Wiazemsky [as “Anne Wiazemski”]; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 28 July 2004 (also on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 21 September 2013).