Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
‘My interest is energy, the transference of energy’
All of this means my reading of Newton unavoidably departs from several critical responses to the film. Most reviews focus on its kaleidoscopic imagery arguing that there is “more strangeness than the film can contain” (Sight and Sound, Summer 1976: 198). Jonathan Rosenbaum describes it as a “photogenic mess … signifying nothing” (Rosenbaum, 1976: 86). Neil Sinyard proposes a relationship between the audience’s and Newton’s screen consumption: “[t]he more he sees, the less he seems to know … [the film] piles on imagery so lavishly that we are left dazed and confused by the concatenation of conflicting signals” (Sinyard, 1991: 61) leaving the director with no idea what is going on and “drifting helplessly into alienation” (Sinyard, 1991: 67). Many biographical responses read Newton as the character-creation of the actor, the “alien messiah” figure who represents a “key concept for the understanding of David Bowie” (Stevenson, 2006: 62) one who combines “charm and froideur” (Doggett, 2011: 239) in a story that “uncannily paralleled the fantasies and preoccupations which had dragged David down” (Gillman & Gillman, 1986: 414). While I do not overlook the relationship between Bowie and Newton, such a causative focus swells Bowie’s stardom into a g-force that drags Newton down, forestalling his character agency. As will become clear, I do see the relationship between actor and character as fundamental, and I will explore the Bowie-Newton figure as correlative rather than causative, a matrix of affect from which new identities and agencies emerge, intensities which are produced and flow uniquely through the combination of otherwise independent and discreet positions. After all, the Bowie-Newton is but one of these constellations of life flows. Film-goers may recognize others, such as the October-Newton, and so on.
Other critical responses have argued for what they see as Newton’s ‘spiritual’ transcendence. Gerald Loughlin explores the Christic nature of Newton (Loughlin, 2000: 92) while Mark Greene insists the protagonist has the “final victory … of transmutation” (Greene, 1995) and, following Jung, that we, the audience, are witness to the “raising-up of the corpus glorificationis” (Jung, 1994: 1–25), a collective experience of redemption. Foregrounding Newton’s minoritarian identity (his alien-ness), the subjugation out of which he is resurrected as an archetype of becoming, has value in rescuing the character from his fall. However such readings conveniently elide his transubstantiation as a majoritarian figure (his privileged human identity) an identity borne of the privileged modes of human (as opposed to animal) and male (as opposed to female). Privilege is a bar to the freedom of life-flows because it licenses a certain way of seeing and being, and interpreting life flows. Like those German soldiers, good form is understood as the very antithesis of variety. The philosopher Deleuze puts it thus, “There is no becoming-majoritarian; majority is never becoming. All becoming is minoritarian” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 106).
For art critic, Fredric Jameson, Newton’s “dysynchronous” and “discontinuous” television consumption is a grasping for “radical and random difference”, “a new mode of relationship through difference” that can achieve an “original way of thinking and perceiving” (Jameson, 1991: 65). Like those reviewers above, Jameson’s response is amenable to treatment using the Deleuzean conception of ‘becoming’. However, like the viewers of Nam June Paik’s installations, who practice the “older aesthetic” of concentrating “on a single screen” as if it held “organic value in its own right” (Jameson, 1991: 65), I have been moved to ask whether all images carry an equal weight. Does Newton gravitate towards a singularity? Reading the film on its own terms and in its own vocabulary, Newton’s evolution is not a mutation towards random difference but a hailing into an androcentric worldview. The androcentric world is male-centered, organized that is through the inherited perception of the dominant, human male (although, of course, the German Friekorp only dominated the hills and outposts where they felt safe enough to congregate, in their fantasies they dominated women and all other creatures). Therefore, it is important to note that Newton is affected by the images, investments and intensities of the host culture(s), and these actualize his ‘andro-id-entity’ not his ‘difference-becoming’. This androcentricism is a gravity field pulling Newton into its natural outlook.
In addition, Newton’s ambition to return home sets him apart from being characterized, in Deleuze & Guattari’s (1983) terms, as rhizomic – a nomad of limitless desire. The rhizome
has no history, is non-hierarchal and – like water – moves freely with an energy that seeks new spaces and gaps rather than sticking only to the established, organized and approved territories. Newton’s journey is perhaps more analogous to migration for, as Mary-Lou reminds him, it is his assumed Britishness that marks him as alien. His status as illegal immigrant, and his eventual adaptation to the host identity, runs parallel to his subordination to androcentric actualizing and hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, the logic of the film’s linear narrative initially necessitates a reverse reading of Jameson’s “evolutionary mutation” towards difference, since the alien’s becoming potential appears doomed to the gravitational pull of the being-man.
So I am seeing things a little differently to those I have hurriedly reviewed here. Even so, I do share with these critical responses the desire to emphasize the what might be described as the film’s Deleuzean affect, its disorganized perception, non-linearity, ‘untimely’ image-sequences and sensory aesthetics. And, as I have stated at the outset, I share the goal of resurrecting the fallen Newton. Indeed, I go further in reinstating his potential to becoming – presenting us with an identity that will not be forestalled by human gravity – yet this ultimate goal means dealing with the reality of the film, how its language and form argues against this. And also the language of becoming, in particular the Deleuzean application of the term which, like the film, appears to harbor an oppressive figuration.
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