David Bowie

The Man Who Fell to Earth

14/07/19

Nicolas Roeg’s challenging – and in many ways groundbreaking – feature first hit cinema screens in 1976, the year before Star Wars came along and changed the intergalactic movie game forever. The Man Who Fell to Earth came hard on the heels of three other Roeg successes: Performance, Walkabout and (best of all) Don’t Look Now, all of which demonstrated the director’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking and his absolute refusal to tell any story in a straightforward manner. Now back on limited release, it’s interesting to reasess TMWFTE on the big screen. I saw it in 1976 and haven’t watched it since. I remember being blown away by it at the time.

David Bowie plays space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton, who plummets down into the wilds of New Mexico, with a bunch of gold rings to pawn for ready money and with a bundle of  gamechanging patents in his back pocket. (Disposable cameras anyone? Tiny stero sytems? Nah, that’ll never take off.) Pretty soon, he’s a reclusive Howard Hughes type, living in New York, and using lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) as the frontman for his various multi-million dollar business enterprises. Philandering university lecturer Nathan Bryce (the recently departed Rip Torn) notices the ripples that Thomas is making and soon ends up as an employee of the company.

On a trip back to New Mexico, however, Thomas falls in with ditsy chambermaid, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and the two of them quickly become an item. She introduces Thomas to the dubious joys of alcohol and, from there, he begins to take on the various shortcomings that humanity has to offer. As the film progresses, they exert an increasingly powerful hold on him, until he is finally subsumed by them.

It’s a dazzling trip, though some of the elements – viewed through a contemporary lens – have not aged particularly well. There’s an over-preponderance of long (and extremely graphic) sex scenes, some of which feel decidedly prurient – and the state-of-the-art makeup effects now – inevitably – look somewhat shonky. (The conceit here is that Bowie’s character stays the same age, while the human protagonists around him age dramatically.) But there’s little doubt about the power and grace of Bowie’s performance, even if it has to be said that he’s clearly portraying a character who is only one step removed from his own persona at the time.

Bowie would never again find a film role that fit him as perfectly as this one and Roeg too was about to see his fortunes decline with the failure of his next feature, Bad Timing, and the films that came after it. But TMWFTE stands as a testimony to an auteur at the height of his powers, a long, twisting kaleidoscope of a film, full of eyepopping images and wry observations on the depravity of mankind.

It’s not what you’d call perfect, but it’s well worth a look.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

This House

27/03/18

Politics. What’s it all about, eh?

Well, a viewing of This House will certainly make you feel a lot more informed on the subject. Not so much the more visible aspects of it – the ministers themselves –  as those who wheel and deal behind the scenes: the party Whips. There’s a live band up in the gallery, who offer a couple of spirited Bowie songs that eerily echo what’s happening down on the stage and, lest anybody assumes that politics inevitably make for dour viewing, please be aware that this is a lively, engaging piece, utilising humour to illuminate some grim facts. Ultimately, what the production does best is to demonstrate what an outmoded farce our political system is, and it’s very entertaining in the telling.

This play is a fiction, though it references many real players and actual events. It is the whips’ job to ensure that as many members as possible make themselves available to come in to the Commons and vote on the latest motion set before the house. Sometimes, they are called upon to make near superhuman efforts in order to effect a win – in some cases, even calling MPs in from their hospital beds! First performed at the NT’s 400 seat Cottesloe Theatre (or the Dorfman, as it’s now called)  in 2013, This House‘s success has created such demand that it’s now playing much larger venues, which obviously has something of a distancing effect, and I find myself envying the select band of spectators who are seated on green benches on the stage (in the House of Commons chamber) so that they’re woven into the very fabric of the piece. 

The action takes place in the years 1974 to 1979, when the UK famously had a ‘hung’ parliament and where the absence of a single voting member might result in the ruling Labour party having to vacate its seats. Everyone on the red side of the house is horribly aware that a certain Mrs Thatcher is waiting in the wings for her chance to rule the world… Oops, sorry, I mean, country. Obviously.

If the characters on both sides of the divide occasionally come across as caricatures – the Labour team all ‘eh up, lad, what’s ‘appenin’?’, the Tories as suave and slick as their Savile Row suits – I feel that’s entirely intentional on the part of writer James Graham. With such a big cast, it’s crucial that those time-worn divisions are made as broad and accessible as possible. In this, he succeeds admirably. With everybody on stage working their respective socks off, it’s difficult to single out individual performances, but I do like Martin Marquez’s turn as cockney wide boy, Bob Mellish, and Matthew Pidgeon’s ultra-groomed toff, Jack Weatherill, is also eminently watchable. Natalie Grady makes a big impression as the labour team’s ‘token’ female, Ann Taylor, ready to correct anyone who has the temerity to underestimate her abilities.

So, grab tickets for this and, if it’s at all possible, get yourselves as close to that stage as you can – perhaps, if you’re really lucky, even on it. Interestingly, it doesn’t cost more. You just need to ask when you make the booking.

4 stars

Philip Caveney