Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
The #Icarus #Lazarus serialization continues tonight at 7.00 GMT with part VII, The Bowie-Newton. We’re passed the midpoint for this academic-turned-free-access essay on Roeg’s masterpiece but in this section it’s all about the Bowie-ness of Newton (and the Newton affect on Bowie). When it boils down to basics, the essay is all about tense and sense: the use of the past tense in the title, which implies the doomed fate of the lead character.
But the midway also seems an appropriate place to flip not just the tense but the verb. In line with today’s prompt, could the title be re-imagined as The Man Who Jumped to Earth? It’s the sort of question that asks about the ability of the character to take matters into his own hands since jump implies a voluntary act. Or does it? Bowie’s 1993 record Jump They Say continues his theme (and fear) of mental illness, and specifically references his brother’s suicide. Is suicide about jumping, falling or being pushed? Suicide is too often depicted as a voluntary act and one that conceals all the social pushing and falling that leads up to the final act.
Similarly, there’s a lot of jumping and pushing going on in the film, as the scientific, political and economic angels of death pursue those whose actions threaten their power. Newton isn’t the only one who falls. Farnsworth and his partner are both pushed out of their apartment building. You could argue these acts are dressed up to look like suicides. Farnsworth even apologises to his anonymous helmeted-assailants for not cooperating when his body is thrown against the window and only cracks it. Then again, he knows this is coming, fearing that his own greed and dealings have made him an enemy of the state. So did he jump or was he pushed?
And we could carry on asking this question of Newton, Bowie and – what I refer to in the scheduled post tonight – the Bowie-Newton, where a bit of each rubs off on the other. Who pushes who? Who jumps into the other? Who falls for the other? Those odd-sounding and vague questions point not just to the extraordinary star-affect Bowie has on the film, but how the identity of Newton is, like a Möbius Strip, incrementally part of his own identity. Who pushes them together? Roeg certainly felt they were meant to be one (read why tonight) but possibly Bowie had already jumped into being Newton in the documentary Cracked Actor (Yentob, 1973), which had so influenced Roeg.
Pushing, jumping, falling … they are variants of the same action. But just swapping them around leads to important questions about self-control and social power. Anyway, jump back here later for more on the Bowie-Newton.
For the 40th anniversary of the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, I am revisiting my 2003 essay on the film and its themes of identity and difference. The work has been through several iterations primarily because my aim was to find a way of rescuing Thomas Jerome Newton, the stranded and broken alien. Presented at three conferences, read by David Bowie himself and written as a chapter in the book David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge 2015), I have never considered myself fully finished with the work. This is partly because the stage play Lazarus (2015) by Enda Walsh and Bowie makes explicit those themes of rebirth I highlighted in the film. But also partly because my writing relies on some difficult theorising in order to argue against the film’s language which oppresses Newton. Some readers feel oppressed by academic language and footnotes.
A conversation between Bryce and Newton, set against the barren New Mexico desert sums this up. Bryce asks if there have been other visitors and Newton replies that he’s “seen their footsteps”. For Bryce, a jaded academic, this is no kind of answer at all. “We’ve all seen them. That’s for theorists,” he insists. And that is where I realise my academic footsteps are too small, that if I want to leave my mark, I have to find bigger shoes. So this new version of my essay has more than just a new name (a name change that boasts the Lazarus connection): it is serialised and written in a less jargon-filled language, one accessible to all.
‘What’s in your mind?’ asks Bryce. And like Newton, I want to reassure you that I don’t want to hurt you with my theorising … it’s just a bit lonely out here in this academic hut. And now you come along …
I write other blogs but this one is intended as unashamedly about me. Or about me and writing; a pocket in which to drop research pensees, reblog through a personal filter and manage my public profile (impact is the key word in academic research). So when you boil it down, this blog is about me writing about me writing. If that sounds overly personal, dull and repetitive, then that sounds about right. Naturally, I was taught to avoid self-conscious reporting as it lacks criticality and objectivity, but writing promotes self-discovery even when it purports to review objects and events in the real world. And dull, repetition can conceal a surprise. That is why television seriality is so rewarding: the pleasure of familiarity leading to the surprise of difference.
So it was with BBC Four’s new series All Aboard! The Country Bus tonight. A compelling real time bus journey of the Northern Dalesman as it travelled across the Yorkshire Dales photographed by Flying Glass specialist cameras. The Radio Times called it slow viewing, Chiman called it reality TV. Virtual journeys are about slowly surrendering the self to the drift of spectatorial projection, the traveller at once the camera and the landscape. Even on train journeys I like to imagine myself cast out onto some unfamiliar passing scene to start a new life while leaving myself behind on the train. The screen is the enemy of this fantasy. And this programme is full of reflections: on the faces of passengers trying their hardest not to look camera-shy; in the slowing down of oncoming cars as drivers spot the cameras and wave; in the disembodied god shots where we find ourselves looking down on the bus; in the augmented reality of pop-up road signs baring historical legends (and the producers reluctance to stray too far from the BBC’s abiding mission to educate while entertaining); in the random historical recreations as ghostly mining families haunt the green dales in black and white. Self-conscious reflections. And with a turn of the head, and the light falling so on the television, I catch myself reflected in the curves of the Panasonic 44-inch screen that it is suddenly all-too-visible.
Only yesterday I was filming my own journey through the somewhat less hilly Suffolk countryside. Driving with my family. Idling. Taking snaps on my phone. Of the countryside. Catching myself unawares in the side mirror. Catching myself in an act of reflection. Here I am in that reflection, all balled up in the curves of the wing mirror taking a picture of myself taking a picture. A mise en abyme, an experience of being caught in the abyss between two screens. In my hand what looks to be a blood-soaked handkerchief is no such thing. God knows what it is. An omen of ill health? A reflection of some out-of-view object that’s redness jumped into my abyss? All I know is that I was not bleeding or wiping blood and yet here is proof otherwise. How do you argue with your own self reflection?
Slowly. Laboriously. If a blog is like a journey, it surely is a wing mirror that takes us by surprise. So I hope. Else what’s the point of a journey? What’s the use of looking?
All Aboard! The Country Bus. BBC Four. 20.00 – 22.00. Aug 29th 2016.