Full of strange imagery and even stranger ideas about space aliens, the origins of technology, corporate conspiracy and government interference Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film "The Man Who Fell to Earth" has long been a cult curiosity. Opening in a new print of the director's approved version for a one-week run at the Nuart on Friday, the film marked the feature acting debut of musician David Bowie as a space alien turned businessman doomed to odd exile on Earth.
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" fits well into the arc of Bowie's own '70s narrative, as he transitioned from the spangled intergalactic persona of Ziggy Stardust to the dapper Euro-decadence of his late-'70s work. It likewise sits at the fulcrum point of Roeg's remarkable run of films that essentially covered the decade.
Roeg had a knack for dismantling the conventional grammar of filmmaking to create movies that often left a strong emotional impact even as audiences might have puzzled over narrative specifics.
"I think I've never really liked the idea of genre, a film that follows the rules of a genre," said Roeg, now 82, speaking by phone from London. "I like to think that we are all manners to all men. I think that's what drew me to it. You spotted right away that the distinct difference is it's on the verge of acceptable but it's difficult."
Roeg began his film career in 1947 when he landed a job in an editing room after being discharged from the British army. He moved on to become a cinematographer, shooting such notable films as Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" and Richard Lester's "Petulia." His first film as a director, co-directed with Donald Cammell, was 1970's "Performance," starring Mick Jagger and James Fox.
From there he made 1971's "Walkabout" and 1973's "Don't Look Now," starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. As a follow-up to that film, which was recently named best British film of all time in a critics' poll conducted by Time Out London, Roeg enlisted Paul Mayersberg to adapt the 1963 novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth" by Walter Tevis, who also wrote "The Hustler."
Roeg first saw Bowie in the BBC telefilm "Cracked Actor," a documentary of one of the singer's tours of America, and decided he was right for the starring role. He traveled to New York to meet the musician with an elaborate pitch designed to entice him to take the part and was left waiting for hours as Bowie was delayed at a recording studio.
Once Bowie arrived, their meeting barely lasted five minutes; the singer almost immediately agreed to star, Roeg said. Playing Thomas Jerome Newton, secretly an alien from another planet who introduces new technologies to Earth, Bowie gives a powerful performance as the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Thin, angular and androgynous, Bowie exudes an air of conflicting confidence and confusion as he finds himself swept up in events well beyond his control.
"I thought he was wonderful because how does an alien behave? Like Cary Grant or something?" Roeg said. "No, it's unique. It was a marvelously imaginative performance, outside the obvious. It pleased me because I found it hard to accept. I like the probability of the impossible."
The filmmaker gets tremendous mileage from the mundane futurism of early '70s architecture and design, as well as Bowie's costars Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn and Bernie Casey, turning the film into as much of a cultural satire of corporatizing manners as a straightforward science-fiction drama.
"It is a science-fiction film but, my God, it hasn't got science-fiction things, buzzes and beeps and bullets that go around corners," Roeg said. "It's familiar but completely different."
When "The Man Who Fell to Earth" landed in the U.S. in 1976, it was shorn of some 20 minutes by its distributor in an effort to make the film more straightforward, with entire scenes removed including a disconcerting love scene involving Bowie, Clark, booze and a pistol.
The results were rather disastrous, distorting Roeg's complex timeline and resulting in some poor press and audiences more confused than dazzled. A DVD and Blu-ray edition of the director's cut put out by the upscale Criterion Collection relatively recently is already out of print.
"Very little was changed," Roeg said. "Any cuts that are done to any film, they're usually things that have some personal resonance for whoever has got permission to cut it and feels they should. But it has very little to do with the actual weight, the truth of the piece. It's something like having a suit made and then telling the tailor to take the right arm off. It doesn't change the suit, it exposes the person who's cut it."
Clark is less circumspect regarding the original American release version.
"I totally hated it," Clark said. "It shocked my system, all that work hacked to bits. It made me sick, it really did. Once I saw it I stopped promoting the film. As it was it was hard to follow, and it totally lost its momentum when it was cut because it was indecipherable. But once it got healed and put back together I never gave up on that film."
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" always has had a strong following simply due to the presence of Bowie. The film presumably had some impact on him as well, as he used photographs from it as the cover art on his subsequent albums "Station to Station" and "Low."
"I don't think that it is intrinsically a '70s movie," said Bowie on the Criterion Collection commentary track from 1992, initially recorded for a laserdisc release. "I find that it gains strength and passion through the years."
Roeg has continued to make such films as "Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession" and "Eureka," though his output has slowed -- he most recently directed 2007's poorly received "Puffball." Asked if he considers himself retired, he laughed.
"It's impossible to say one's retired," he said. "I might not be the most in demand, but the advantage of that is I've never been the most in demand."