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Bowiefest: The Man Who Fell To Earth

September 11, 2012

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

Most people will be familiar with Mr David Bowie as a performer, probably in one of his many elaborate guises, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, and film wise in his most iconic turn as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth. Unsurprisingly there’s always more to discover about this intriguingly multi-faceted star and his films are certainly no exception. This month saw Bowiefest – billed as ‘the UK’s first Bowie film festival’ – celebrating the star’s contribution to film over a packed and exhilarating weekend at The ICA in London.

With a film career that includes an emotive performance as a soldier in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, documenting his final turn as Ziggy with his band The Spiders from Mars and his striking performance as a blood thirsty vampire in cult British horror classic The Hunger – directed by Tony Scott no less, it’s hard to choose a favourite Bowie film. Personally I’d opt for one of his most challenging and provoking roles to start the ball rolling.

In Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis – Bowie plays an extraterrestrial who adopts the humanoid persona of Thomas Jerome Newton, having crashed to Earth on a mission to find water for his home planet. At the time of making this film Bowie was battling drug addiction and disenchantment with his lifestyle. He uses his demons to present a character that’s eerily detached: embodying on screen an otherworldly persona that adds a fundamental dimension to the overall surreal and unsettling tone of the film. As Jerome, Bowie offers an insight into his own psyche and provides a disturbing emotive realism to a surreal piece of cinema. Bowie’s characters can be read as extensions of his mind-frame at a difficult time in his career, which arguably made his many evolving creative personas all the more fascinating.

Roeg uses the arrid New Mexico landscapes to present a depiction of planet Earth that really does feel alien. Roeg strips away any sense of comfort and stability to explore ideas of trauma that stem from an unsettled modern world with a growing media presence, political instability and immigrant marginalisation.  Jerome fails to find salvation for his own planet, faced with extra challenges stemming from a growing sense of instability and isolation on an alien planet. This is not a light hearted watch but this film is well worth visiting, and indeed revisiting, because it shakes you; throwing up questions of human consciousness in an evolving ‘modern’ Western society by presenting a cold alter reality.

In the year of David Bowie’s 65th birthday, and the 40th anniversary of the seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, we are seeing a Bowie season, with The Victoria and Albert also set to exhibit his incredible stage costumes. Bowie’s contribution to fashion, music, film and popular culture as a whole is vast and where better place to start exploring and appreciating this star’s talent than with one of his most subversive and evocative film roles. Customary to Bowie’s many projects and reincarnations, in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie offers an unforgettable performance that will stick with you long after the closing credits.

Kerry Flint.