Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
I. The Revisitor
I first saw The Man Who Fell to Earth during its initial cinema release. It’s impact on me was profound, to say the least, and Thomas Jerome Newton immediately became part of my identity in a more intense way than even David Bowie had. I’d been a fan of the latter since 1969 and wore a maroon tee shirt to the screening on which was printed the legend ‘Major Tom’. As an acclamation, it felt pretty old by the time I left the Gaumont cinema. I vaguely knew Nicolas Roeg by reputation, and had seen the films Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), both enjoyably odd but nothing to prepare me for the two hours in a dark theatre that day in 1976. Some films (Superman, 1978) make you believe you can fly. But the impact of this film was to stir the soup of identity, not just my identity but the entire concept of it. This thought didn’t occur to me on that day, but rather percolated the more I reflected on what I’d seen. The film’s sensual affects made their hits on my body first. My hair turned orange. An old brown hooded duffle coat became an inter-seasonal friend. Water tasted better when it spilled in lazy rivulets over my chin. I took to walking with an unusual gait, as if navigating a steep descent. I remember the toots (and hoots) of drivers as they passed on the A12 while Newton assiduously descended the hills of the local golf course alongside the road.
My brain caught up with my obsession with identity later, in short stories and poetry about characters whose alienation challenged their perception of the world. As a doctoral student I wrote about performativity, how identity is the sum of its expression, and attended a science fiction convention where I presented an early version of the essay I have updated for free access here. A couple of years later I rewrote the essay for a conference at Goldsmith’s University, extending the theoretical preoccupation with identity so it worked better for an academic audience. A further ‘quantum theory’ version was written for the David Bowie Strange Fascination symposium in Ireland 2012. I really liked that version, even though it was so theoretically dense that you probably needed a degree in Quantum Physics to understand it. When David Bowie asked to see all the material from the symposium I was hesitant at first. All these years I had followed him, listened to everything (on repeat), read everything. Now he would read something of mine. Would he notice the bit of him that had rubbed off on me? Would he like how I had rescued Newton? There were two Bowies in my head, the musical chameleon (who straddled identities from Ziggy to the Thin White Duke) and the ever-present Newton. But there was a third Bowie, an intelligent and prolific reader who loved challenging ideas and so my anxious-elation settled. The anxiety only returned in January 2016, this time tinged with grief. Again I wondered what he had made of my essay, in which, rather than falling all the way to Earth, the character Newton is raised up, Icarus falling, Lazarus rising. Bowie didn’t respond personally to any of the delegate papers – not that I know of – but, yes, my idea? … me? … did I occur to him?
For the fortieth anniversary of The Man Who Fell to Earth I wanted to do something. As a big fan, the anniversary was going to prove costly. There’s the 4K restoration to watch at the BFI, which I am a proud member of, as well as the deluxe DVD release to buy. A real treat is the release of the soundtrack after all these years waiting. Like many fans, I have tried to source the original tracks over time, mixing my own compilation, never quite managing to complete it. The boxset will cost a pretty penny. There’s also the limited edition book by Jay Glennie (Unstoppable Editions, 2016). I sent Jay a copy of the Irish symposium version of my essay then worried about all the academic jargon. Academic language has its place, like any professional tool (a surgeon’s scalpel is different from a kitchen knife for good reason). Still, I wanted to do something fannish for the fortieth anniversary that didn’t just involve consumption. I decided to write another version of my essay that would hopefully appeal to the general reader and especially to other Bowie fans because, well, there’s all this talk about free access to research, for a start, and with the opening of Lazarus in London there seems no better time to circulate my reflections about the resurrection of Newton.
Here it is. And an admission. It isn’t easy to write in a clear, popular style when you are dealing with ideas and language whose role it is to challenge the simplicity of assumptions. Hell, it isn’t easy communicating at all … as the alien Newton found out. Nevertheless, one legacy of that character is his hybridity, so here is my hybrid essay. It’s part academic-alien and part fan-human. Thank you for reading it. If you care to give feedback, bless you, receiving that is worth more than getting paid (besides, I’m not getting paid!). And if you want to read the Strange Fascination symposium version that Bowie read, here is a link to the book David Bowie Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015) in which it appears. All things begin and end in eternity … you don’t need to be an academic or a scientist to appreciate that. What goes around, comes around with tweaks. Happy fortieth anniversary Newtonians!