Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
VIII. Encounters with the Third Man
‘I think Mr. Newton’s maybe had enough.’
The title of the film expresses Newton’s crisis historically, as the man who ‘fell’, thus indicating the space for the narrative to take up the story: what happens next. Correcting the grammar of the film, I want to suggest what happens next is ‘falling’ since the determination ‘man’, contingent on the maintenance of boundaries, is a gravitational field without a true core. There is no core to identity, it’s ontology is merely the effect of stylized repetition. Wind identity back and you peel away all the investments that shore it up. But even to speak of investments gives the impression of freedom of choice. As I stated before, culture and history precede the individual’s arrival on Earth, so those apparent choices and identifications are techniques of self-discipline each individual acquires in order to maintain a coherent and ‘natural’ identity. We have already noted that Newton has no true core and it is clear that his investments of identity are ones acquired culturally, many of them mediated through television. In the television screen, Newton sees himself reflected into the worlds of the host culture (or perhaps it makes more sense to say the world of the host cultures).
The famous scene where Newton is surrounded by television images is something the art critic Frederic Jameson has remarked upon. But the point at which Jameson freezes the image – the image of a bank of other images – is not the same point upon which the film dwells. While Jameson’s viewer grasps at the multi-channel array, Newton is drawn to one screen. The film draws particular attention to it, playing it out over a sequence of untimely episodes where, word for word, the rapidly aging Bryce, Mary Lou and ever-youthful Newton, reiterate lines from Carol Reed’s (1949) ‘The Third Man’.
This sequence suggests, I argue, a third way of thinking identity which is neither the untrammelled liquid flow of desire promised by blurry images of the alien Newton nor a complete rooting in the androcentric world that humanizes Newton, but a hyphenation marking a simultaneous glancing back to the center of stability and glimpsing ahead to the abject yet sublime void of its absence. A story of self-discovery, ‘The Third Man’ indicates the anxiety of agency that awaits Newton at the very same time as the paralyzing effect of male-fantasy. The central male characters in Reed’s film, like Newton, experience a symbolic death and rebirth. The Harry Lime character is, like Newton, a fugitive who deludes himself he has evaded surveillance and is free to dictate his own fate: ‘I told you before, I came alone. I came alone. Nobody saw me.’ Lime’s absence from the first hour of the film does not however prevent others reconstructing him. He turns out to be ‘the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living’ and, it would seem, his masculinity compares poorly to the hegemonic heroism of his friend Holly Martins. But as Lime points out, ‘Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.’ Martins, having confronted his own naivety and capacity for betrayal, begins to write up of his experiences into a novel also called ‘The Third Man’. This novel, he claims, will be born out of corruption and guided by social responsibility. In so saying, he not only echoes the words of Harry Lime that real art issues from darkness, he becomes the active transcendent of the film’s tilted and shadowy post-war environment.
On the one hand, at the end of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Newton’s physical resemblance to the characters – indicated by his taking up of the 1940s suit and hat – suggests a romanticization of transformation into an uncomplicated male identity. This fantasy nostalgia represents a psychic attachment similar to Newton’s vague memory of trains. These memories root him in the policed world by demonstrating the reality of this world in comparison to the dream-like other that exists, if at all, in the deep recesses of memory. This melancholia marks the abandonment and repression of all prior and possible identity, and therefore is only vaguely recalled as nostalgia. Melancholy is often described as low feelings and its association here with the drunken Newton is one that corroborates with the sense of gloomy surrender to fate, and nostalgia for times when everything was good. But Freud (1917) had a very specific understanding of the term, defining melancholia as an unconscious grieving for a loss that cannot be clearly identified or comprehended. If melancholia is an attempt to describe the loss of the previous world it is also the process through which that world is internalized as a prohibition (never do that again, or, never go back there!) and then forgotten. This forgetting is a surrender to the social self so Newton’s fantasy of completeness marks his surrender to majoritarian identity. Newton’s alien otherness is so repressed not even the doctors can find it.
On the other hand, Newton falls somewhere between the characters of Lime and Martins: like Lime, he becomes a recluse, hiding himself away from the gaze of others. But if his evasion of surveillance is an attempt to avoid domination, what can we make of his attempts to get noticed since, like Martins, he attempts to affirm his own experience (writing a poetry album called ‘The Visitor’)? Perhaps this is not really an either/or choice since identity itself is about projecting the desirable elements of the self while attempting to conceal the less desirable aspects. The camera validates identity but also polices. But there is another reason not to accept an either/or proposition for if we accept one proposition over the other, we are in effect condemning Newton to the final death of his otherness through the illusion of transcendence, into a being-man whose ‘deep masculinity’ has risen to the fore. By this reading, Newton’s identity crisis is ‘resolved’ through a mythopoetic treatment of the past, which is not dissimilar to the film’s treatment of nature/feminine (the mythopoetic men’s movements of the 1980s responded to the perceived threat of second-wave feminism by retreating into a nostalgic, or mythic, deep-masculinity).
On the third hand, if we argue that the end of the film lies somewhere else, somewhere in the connection it has made with ‘The Third Man’, we find Newton gravitating at the edge of darkness, anxiously, just as Martins does in the unconventionally unhappy ending of ‘The Third Man’: the excruciatingly long minute the film makes us wait – on a single take – reveals Martins’ growing anxiety; realizing he is not going to ‘get the girl’, he nervously lights a cigarette and casts the spent match to the ground signaling the darkness of the end of the cinematic fiction, as well as the beginning of the rest of Martins’ fiction, one in which the character’s agency is no longer predetermined by an author or scrutinized by an audience. Suddenly we really are in a spectator-free zone.
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