Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi’

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

themanwhofelltoearth_main-poster

Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, out on Blu-ray January 24, is a strange, sometimes successful cross between a straight sci-fi and an art installation. The film attempts to incorporate pretty much everything you might expect from both forms of art, mixing perception, dreams, reality, and drug-induced hysteria into a plot that doesn’t so much arc as hover slowly to different ethereal planes.

What little plot there is concerns Thomas Newton (David Bowie), an alien from a drought-stricken planet who arrives on Earth to bring water home. He immediately acquires great wealth using the technology from his home planet, bringing him power and increased scrutiny. He falls in love (sort of) with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid and bellhop in a rundown hotel, who introduces him to booze, sex, and religion (and cookies). With the help of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing scientist who guesses at Newton’s alienness, Newton hopes to construct a spaceship to return him home to his wife and family.

Of course, The Man Who Fell To Earth can’t do something as easy as tell a coherent story about a stranger in a strange land. Newton’s rise and fall is interspersed with a complexity of images, sounds, and scenes as he flashes back to (or dreams about or has foreshadowings of) his home planet and the family he left behind. His experience of Earth is likewise informed by media, as he absorbs everything from TV to music in a smorgasbord of sensory experience. Never having had alcohol before, he becomes an alcoholic; never having experienced human sex, he becomes a nymphomaniac. Yet he’s also curiously distant, unable to make real connections with those people around him.

The problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely certain what it’s trying to do, or why it’s trying to do it. Whole swathes of time are covered in single scene changes, while other scenes drag on and on, for no clear reason. While I never argue about a naked David Bowie, I could have done without seeing Rip Torn bed an ever-increasing number of ingenues. Nor is it clear what, if anything, these scenes are supposed to accomplish. The Man Who Fell To Earth is too linear to be surreal, but too scattered to tell a coherent story. It seems to be desperate to say something without having much of a clue about what it wants to say.

Bowie is the weirdly comforting center of all this, his beauty as ethereal and mesmerizing as ever. While he gave better performances in his acting career, he would never step into a role that suited him as closely as playing a gentle alien who just wants to go home. His moving performance attempts to articulate his experiences to human beings ill-equipped to understand them, and keeps the film from vanishing into its own personal black hole. Newton stretches out for contact that he’s not capable of, trying to express love or connection in a way that he can’t accomplish. There’s a sadness to Bowie’s performance that makes the viewer feel that we’re truly watching someone desperate to connect who doesn’t have the means or the language to do so.

This Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Man Who Fell To Earth is a gorgeous one, and offers the film in a beautiful 4K restoration, so that one may experience the Thin White Duke in all his multi-hued glory. The extras on the disc itself consist of new interviews with the costume designer May Routh and producer Michael Deeley, a multitude of archival interviews with Bowie, Candy Clark, Roeg, and writer Paul Mayersberg, and a “Lost Soundtracks” featurette, detailing the sound design of the film and what might have been. Although the interviews are interesting, they don’t entirely clarify the meaning behind the film and fail to reinforce it for anyone who might be unconvinced as a fan. The inserts in the pack are great, however, including a 72-page booklet, art cards, and a mini-poster with Bowie front and center (and which now adorns my wall).

The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that’s interesting as a curiosity and provocative for what it doesn’t quite succeed at doing. It’s an incoherent film, but it’s an interesting incoherent film, one that doesn’t entirely fail despite it’s incoherency. It aspires to the photographic beauty and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the emotional resonance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, and seems to forget, at times, to just be a film.

LAST NIGHT: SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)

santa-claus-conquers-the-martians-martians

Well, ’tis the season.

I have sat through Death Bed: The Bed That EatsHell Comes To Frogtown, Space is the Place, Plan 9 From Outer Space and countless lesser Ed Wood films.  I have watched The Room.  I thought I was proof against the truly dreadful.  I was wrong.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is probably the worst “Santa Claus gets kidnapped by Martians” movie ever made … and as far as I know, it’s the only one.  Basically, the Martians – who are dudes in green underwear and flight helmets – are all upset because their kids keep watching Earth’s TV programmes and have become despondent.  Why? Well, they don’t have Santa Claus.  And they eat pills instead of food.  And their parents speak in stilted sentences.  And their planet is made of cardboard.  Right.  So, naturally, being concerned parents, the leader of the Martians Kimar (Leonard Hicks) and his rag-tag team of fellow Martians, Voldar, Dropo, Gomar and … someone else, head to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus (John Call) and bring him back to Mars to make the Martian children happy again.  On the way, they pick up Billy and Betty, earth children in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There’s also a robot made of cardboard.  And elves.  And guns that are definitely hair-dryers.

The production values of this film are worse than a high school stage musical.  In fact, I’m pretty positive that the films my friends and I made when we were 15 had better sets and more realistic performances.  But let me give you a run down of some of what is awesomely awful in this movie:

  • Santa winds up running what is tantamount to a sweatshop on Mars.
  • The villain Voldar is defeated by an onslaught of wooden toys, despite being in possession of a gun that can disintegrate people.
  • The robot is made of a cardboard box and a coffee can.
  • There’s a dude in a polar bear outfit at the North Pole.
  • Santa laughs like a cartoon villain and/or pedophile.
  • The Martians can’t quite decide if they’re supposed to be all green or not, so they all just have a smear of green make-up on their faces.
  • Earth apparently has one TV broadcaster.
  • The extensive Defense Department footage of rockets and planes taking off that you’ve seen in every 1960s movie ever.
  • Santa’s workshop consists of 3 elves and Mrs. Claus.  Mrs. Claus is the best actor among ’em.
  • You can tell the villain is a villain because he’s the only one with a mustache.

And so forth.  Honestly, I didn’t watch the MST3K version of this because I wanted to experience it in all its unadulterated glory.  This movie is so bad that I laughed all the way through it.

Oh, there’s also the theme song:

You’re welcome.

martian mustache

How to be a douche in two easy lessons

As my friends are well aware, I am a total snob.  I’m a film snob, a literature snob, and, most recently (due to my sudden interest in Nietzsche, that syphilitic genius), a philosophy snob.  I watch movies with long names and long takes, like Last Year at Marienbad and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  I read Thomas Pynchon for fun.  I like Baudrillard and Foucault and words like ‘signification’ and ‘heteronormative structures’.  I write douchey posts on my blog, like this one.

But …

I also like terrible B-movies, slasher flicks, sappy romantic comedies and things in which Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel blows shit up.  And I read genre books: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and their subgenres, steampunk, cyberpunk, even the occasional romance novel.  I do not like contemporary literary fiction as a rule.  Everything recent that I’ve taken interest in usually turns out to be what would be broadly classified as ‘genre’ fiction.  You know, genre.  That thing that snobs are not supposed to like.  That thing that is repetitive and has rules and is, like, generic and stuff.  That section of literature (or film, or art) that is not ‘serious’.

Recently, a furor broke out over the BBC’s World Book Night last month.  Lead by Stephen Hunt (an excellent steampunkish author), a group of fantasy/sci-fi writers responded to what they perceived as the BBC’s anti-genre attitude.  I believe the phrase ‘sneering derogatory tone’ was used.  The BBC of course denies that they sneered at genre fiction. (Hunt’s original post can be found here: Stephen Hunt vs BBC , the BBC’s response according to The Guardian here: BBC Denies Sneering at Genre Fiction ).

I did not see the program, so I really can’t comment on how right or wrong the sci-fi authors or the BBC are.  Being that an opinion is much easier to hold if not hampered by the facts (thank you, Mark Twain), I choose to side with the authors.  But the point that this whole debate makes is one that keeps coming back to me: what’s the matter with genre?

What is it about so-called genre fiction that makes folks like the literati over at the BBC sneer? I use the BBC specifically, but this extends to a whole section of writers, readers, professors and intellectuals.  Why is To the Lighthouse literature, and Farewell My Lovely not? I once took a whole class in 20th Century Crime Fiction at a university known for its stalwart dedication to the canon of English literature.  Why is this debate still going on?

Warhol, like him or hate him, made great strides in making pop culture art.  Thomas Pynchon wrote a potboiler, a steampunk novel, an adventure story.  Cormac McCarthy writes westerns, but no literary critic will admit that he’s working in the tradition of Zane Grey.  Robert Louis Stevenson is taught as canonical, but lest we forget that he was a genre author: horror (Jekyll and Hyde) , adventure (Kidnapped, Treasure Island), historical fantasy (The Master of Ballantrae).  Dickens was a popular writer who got published in monthly installments in magazines.  Jane Austen, let’s face it, wrote chick lit.

I blame the Modernists.  Before Virginia Woolf et al began venerating themselves, novels were largely modes of entertainment.  They were a popular medium intended for a wide audience longing for a three volume escape from mundanity.  They were TV for the middle classes.  The best ones (for my money, Dickens, Hardy and Thackeray, but that’s debatable) were entertaining first; the depth of their subjects, their political commentary and social consciences were a marvelous addition.  The Modernists made the novel deep as a cave and just as dangerous.  They gave it a greater social conscience, and moved it towards real political efficacy, but in the process lost sight of entertainment value.  We read Ulysses because it’s important, but is it fun?

This is not to say that there is no place for intellectual books.  I love intellectual books.  I also don’t want to be bored by something just because it’s ‘important’.  Anti-intellectualism is a terrible thing, but sometimes I get the sense that intellectuals are looking to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world, to look down their noses at something just because it does not fit into an arbitrary criteria of ‘art’.  The fact is that literary fiction is as much a genre as anything else: there’s BAD literary fiction, and there’s good.  We just slap the phrase ‘literary’ on it and suddenly it’s a tome worthy of the New York Review of Books.  Good genre fiction is difficult; it requires as much skill, as much intelligence and attention to detail as any other work of art.  Entertaining people is hard work.  So, basically, we all need to get our heads out of our own asses and realize that literature is a slippery category.  Besides, some literary fiction could be improved by a dirigible or two.