Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
II. Postmodern Prometheus
‘Boy, you’re really hooked on water, aren’t you?’
David Bowie’s single ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) depicts the character Major Tom as cut adrift from Earth on a perilous mission into space; while it cashes in on the Apollo moon landing, the author’s concern is a more personal obsession with the inner space of the mind. Seven years later, Bowie plays another Tom, this one surrendering to gravity, rather than the space abyss, and arguably in greater need of rescue. This essay focuses on the Thomas Jerome Newton figure, in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), as representing not just a single configuration of identity – and another Bowie one at that – but identity per se. This essay promotes identity as a process rather than a fixed state, one which Newton struggles with as a postmodern Lazarus figure, enduring the mortality of his identity in alien form, forced to comply with man’s majoritarian identity but, crucially, offered the opportunity for rebirth.
In the Walter Tevis novel (1963), Newton’s objective in building a spacecraft is to raise up his people from global apocalypse, carrying to them a cargo of water and hope. Its launch would be a gesture of sacrifice and renewal. But the film’s figuration of Newton appears to weigh the character down with its oppressive insistence on his fallen-ness, a state which might possibly be temporary if only the form and language of the film would tolerate such a turnabout. The Newtonian figure cannot help but be fallen, a character in someone else’s story, one made to signify and who therefore presents a blank account of character agency. In order to restore the promise of identity – his Lazarian potential – I offer in his place a post-Newtonian figure, one with the opportunity to become-quantum and, upsetting the film’s narrative, timeliness and grammar, become not the man who fell, but the man who falls … and who keeps falling and simultaneously rising.
The Man Who Fell to Earth ostensibly tracks Newton’s failed attempt to acquire water for his dying planet. Exploiting his advanced technology to write nine basic patents, he quickly embarks on a space program but is detained by covert Government agencies looking to protect corporate interest and social-economic stability. Having been introduced to sex and alcohol by girlfriend Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), Newton becomes dependent and self-obsessed, unable to prove his alien identity and powerless to prevent the destruction of his ship. But the film narrative plays down the heroic quest concentrating instead on the character’s journey to ‘self’-discovery and failure to sustain intrinsic otherness. The synopsis circulated to the British press also plays down the plotline: “Newton’s rocket site is destroyed, his plans are in ruins. In an astonishing conclusion, Newton fights his captors without violence. They let him go free, having achieved nothing but the frustration of his plans. Perhaps Newton always knew this might happen” (Davidson Dalling Associates press pack, 1976: 17).
Newton’s plans can be understood as relating to the project of the self, the shape-shifting between his alien otherness and the human character he adopts and who, it might be argued, he fully becomes. His alien-sensual disintegration is the corollary of his ‘sensible’ (human) transubstantiation, the disciplined, gendered physical boundary, which constrains the full potentiality of life-flows. Newton is interesting on two accounts then: he is the man who fell, whose being the film binarily opposes to alien-ness, and the man who fell, and who therefore embodies the crisis of human subjectivity.
Newton is the postmodern Prometheus who deliberates anxiously on the boundaries between knowledge/perception, self/other, man/woman, human/alien. Like Prometheus, Newton falls from the heavens bearing the gift of new science and thus provokes anger and enmity with resentful authorities. In a way, they are both creators of man—Newton materializing as one—and their punishment is to be placed in bondage, suffering eternal blooding and reconstruction. Each morning, the body of Prometheus is reconstructed, it’s integrity an obsession he carries with him all day, protecting against the inevitable sharp beaks which will pluck it apart again. His hard materiality feels like a godsend, a right, the skin and muscle holding back the abject and loathsome interior. This hard envelope is more than that, it is a proof of who he is, his identity. This body is an investment with social value and meaning and is therefore the more vulnerable to attack.
In the film, the narrative focus on water becomes the central metaphor, one equating otherness with feminine flows, and therefore refers to the common cultural anxiety of masculine border integrity. Klaus Thewelweit has made a brilliant study of the German Freikorps in his book Male Fantasies (1996), soldiers who continued fighting after the end of the First World War – a period Bowie was fascinated by – refusing to surrender either national borders or masculine ones to the threat of red invaders and feminine flows. The erect body is a validation of the soldier through the eyes of his peers (and therefore himself), an erection put to work in the maintenance of the social body, a force against those liquid forces of change.
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