Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
VI. The Limits of Exchange
‘You’re an alien’
The film’s preoccupation with fluids and bodies, taken together with its reliance on the binaries of masculine/feminine, human/alien, being/becoming, constitutes the visual language for reading the character Newton. At one end of this coded spectrum is the deteritorialized flow: the flow of alien bodies as they blurrily become in the ether; the flow of time in the alien-Newton’s disorganized perception; the flows of exchange (of ideas, money and sex). Matching these deterritorializations are reterritorializations, the management of flows: the transubstantiation of Newton; the organizing androcentric worldview; and the limits of exchange. As the CIA agent Peters (Bernie Casey) says, ‘We’re determining social-ecology … this is modern America and we’re going to keep it that way’.
The film associates fluid with the becoming-environment of unrestrained life-flows, which is nevertheless not the degree zero it at first appears. Frank Watlington’s whale music (from the album Songs of the Humpback Whale, Capitol, 1970), as well as Stomu Yamash’ta‘s tracks Mandala (from The Man From the East, Island Records, 1973) and Windwords (from Freedom is Frightening, Esoteric, 1973), which include whale call effects, are used throughout the movie. The sounds are used both as vaguely diegetic musical motif (relating that is to events in the film world) and also extra-diegetic (emanating from outside the film world and therefore performing a commentary role), used as a sensual referent for unrestrained flows. This association highlights the film’s reliance on a differential ecology. In aligning Newton with liquid becomings, the film ties itself to an abstraction that is already marked by an economy. Water is valued, sought-after, cradled and sipped cautiously by Newton. Water is the sign both of (natural) abundance and (cultural) aridity. Newton fails at first to appreciate just how spoiled the water on Earth really is and it is Mary Lou who warns him ‘the water here’s all polluted’. This has greater emphasis in writer Paul Mayersberg’s screenplay (see pages 4, 25 and 50) distributed privately by Davidson Dalling Associates of London to promote the original film to the press, and clearly always intended as a significant trope. The desirability of liquid otherness is highlighted during the scene where Bryce betrays a gin-soaked Newton who watches a dreamlike World Enterprises advert where his simulacrum witnesses ‘shots of the desert dissolving into waterfalls’ (Mayersberg, screenplay: 50). Since ‘man’ has already been marked by the conflation of mankind and the embodied man, Newton’s foetal-like wet alien-ness is aligned, rather than to any state of imaginative alien genderlessness, to the inherited historical human binaries man/woman, culture/nature and androcentric/alien.
By operating within such a framework, the film fails to separate its critique of androcentric reason from the language of androcentric vision it appropriates. In other words, it borrows the oppressor’s language to help us see another reality but this language, historically resilient, is already signifying and giving shape to the social reality we experience as a world. The un-radical parroting of this language merely paints the oppressor’s house when what it hopes to do is deconstruct it. A similar objection could be made against the Deleuzean conceptualising of becoming. Becoming-woman is the antithesis of being-man and the opening to the further becomings of becoming-child, becoming-animal and so-forth until the ultimate goal of becoming-imperceptible. Becoming-woman then, like Roeg’s whales, frames the preferred evolution as an androcentric de-evolution, but also privileges it along the already economized duality of immanent/feminine against transcendent/masculine. This is both a privilege and an insult, of course, since it reifies ‘woman’ while locating her a rung down the evolutionary ladder.
The graduated process of Newton’s mastery of nature can be summarized by the difference between (the film’s flashbacks to) his alien intravenous connection to water and the Peters character who attempts to master Newton’s flow of ideas. In between these episodes, Newton’s management of fluid is problematic. ‘I can’t seem to get dry,’ he complains. Peters, on the other hand, is ‘superb: muscular, tense, a perfect human being’ (according to Paul Mayersberg’s character notes in his screenplay, p68) and demonstrates the same sublime mastery of swimming as he does of his woman, effortlessly plucking her out of the water, standing tall both over her as over the flow of innovation that threatens his management of ‘social ecology’, moralizing over business as over his family: ‘I wonder if we say and do the right things in front of the children.’
Newton’s fall to mastery is dramatized over two bedroom scenes. In the first, Newton divests his human male exterior. The sequence begins in domestic tension with Newton knocking Mary Lou’s home-baked cookies into the air – as they fall to earth the film cuts to the alien-Newton rising and falling in the ether. In the bathroom mirror, Newton then scrutinizes and discards his human shell before confronting Mary Lou with his wet, castrated otherness, his alien eyes – as the cut to his point-of-view demonstrates – as odd in their appearance as in their fish-eye perception. Paul Mayersberg’s screenplay gives camera directions to allow the viewer to share Newton’s alien point-of-view through a fish-eye lens, so ‘we realise that this is the way he sees the world, and people, rounded into a sphere’ (Mayersberg’s screenplay, p37). Mary Lou, having made an attempt at congress with the alien, once its wet hand passes over her breast, runs screaming from the room.
At this point there may be some skepticism as to the correspondence between this section of the film and my argument about the feminine figuration of becoming. Why is Mary Lou so terrorized by the Newton-alien if her femininity is linked to his becoming? My answer, referring to Deleuze’s insistence that both men and women must deterritorialize by becoming-woman, is to point out the film’s problematizing of Mary Lou’s ‘natural’ femininity. Her character, who – we are told – has always wanted to be a character in someone else’s story, is indeed played out as a foil to the Newton subject of the film: an already-fallen woman who seduces him into alcoholism and yet who admonishes, ‘You’re an alien!’ In an echo of Newton’s stripping away of prosthetics, Mary Lou peels a thick, false eyelash from her heavily made-up face. Somewhere beneath all this is the core feminine nature the film values yet clearly she does not. The film’s alliance of her deep femininity with Newton’s otherness is emphasized by their shared nostalgia for the time ‘when grass was green’ and trains were, in some unspecified way, intrinsically better. While the evolution preferred by the film is a cultural de-evolution, both characters are developing historically and androcentrically. In relation to the privileged figuration of flows, it is significant that when Newton strips down to reveal the ‘thousand tiny sexes of becoming’ (Deleuze, 1987: 213), Mary Lou wets herself – a spontaneously reactive egress of flows that owes as much to the disciplining of bodily borders as Newton’s subsequent reterritorialization.
In the second scene, drinking heavily, armed with a handgun and boasting about his wealth, the fully substantiated Newton, bullies and manipulates the desperate and aged Mary Lou treating her as little more than a plaything. But Newton’s impotence is highlighted by the stark contrast between his alcohol-fuelled fantasies of difference and the realities projected onto and around him. ‘I see things,’ he tells Mary Lou. ‘Bodies… women… and men.’
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