The Man Who Fell To Earth
It is obscure enough today that it bears a detailed accounting, and though long, indulgence on the part of the reader promises to reward and, for the sloth, it is in any event quicker than the 139 minutes its full appreciation would require. It begins with a sort of montage. A sudden illumination of the blackness with the orange flames of a stage separation. The background of planet scape is obscured for a moment with mirage-like ripples of flame cooling to the undulating tendrils of mere heated gas as the craft pulls farther and farther away from its blueish home. A double entendre here. The fire of the departure imposed atop the blue planet scape has both the most obvious connotation and a more obscure one- the dry, hot, and perhaps Malthusian death of a once blue globe. This latter interpretation highlighted by the subtle but sure sound of whale song in the background. We watch the craft cycle through its stages, pass endless kilometers before crashing down to earth- significantly, in the quasi man-made lake of an abandoned rock quarry, towering spray high into the air in front of green trees and rocky hills. Water here is valueless enough to fill a quarry with, for no reason other than boredom. Or scenery.
A lone, hooded figure- pale face and hands a deep contrast to the dark overcoat it wears- is first silhouetted against the sky, but increasingly surrounded visually by dark, and crumbling earth, awkwardly descends over fragmented shale, struggling for balance, and traversing the landscape with visible effort through rotted structures.
Even as the figure becomes surrounded by earth, ruins, and grown-over worksites, a second figure, clad in an impeccable three piece suit amid the shale and decay watches the first’s progress from atop a peak- unseen and ominous, surrounded by blue sky, mountainscapes and white clouds in the distance. The foreboding and hash calls of crows pepper the ambient noise of the background. The arrival is not as clandestine, perhaps, as was hoped for.
As the terrain moderates, our pale figure, as if slowly learning to walk, finds its legs and passage easier- but it is still not at home. A moment’s rest by a flowing mountain stream, a near fatal step- a blaring horn- in front of a speeding truck aside a sign that reads “Haneyville Village Limit Elev. 2.850.” Dispelling any doubt that our pale figure is out of his element, he brushes back the hood on his cloak (for it is now, we think, a “he”) revealing a riot of orange hair, and a pale, gaunt face. A deep, bone wrenching fatigue is evident in every part of him. A hesitant encounter with a massive, wind torn, clown faced, inflatable “jumpy castle” (such would likely terrify me on my first viewing) and an annoyingly forward local drunk suggest a deep naiveté.
Our figure finally comes to rest, prone, on a small bench outside a closed, dusty, almost southwest shop, windows marked with “Merchandise Exchanges, Guitars, Radios, TVs, Buy Sell or Trade Anything, Loans.” How fortunate for the traveler that the kiosks of desperation are so ubiquitous. Time passes, and a crone, decades of dry air have not been kind to her, making no attempt to avert her rude stare, passes before opening the store to the shrill clanging of an ancient burglar alarm, silenced a moment later.
She is the skeptic money exchanger, the watchful, scarred fox, the border patrol, the gateway, a cold, heavy revolver- which has, we are led to believe, seen some use- in the drawer under her assay scales. As our pale figure follows her into the now open store, her eyes never leave him. We take in the compulsive hoarding detritus of the shop as the sad horn and mournful “Blueberry Hill” plays in the background. In the first dialogue in 5 minutes and 48 seconds, the crone challenges our pale figure.
“Can I help?” She is almost fearful, leaning right and away from behind the glass display-case-made-counter.
“Yes. I hope so.” He fumbles in his pocket and retrieves a gold wedding ring. “ I want to sell this.
“Uh, where’d you get this ring.”
“It’s mine. My wife gave it to me. Look, the initials are on the side. Yes?”
She regards it carefully though thick, heavy glasses.
“T... J... N.... Do you have your I.D.?”
“I’m British. I have a passport.” It is old and worn.
“Thomas Jerome Newton,” She intones carefully, scrutinizing the picture, and then the pale figure. He brushes his hair aside, posing and auditioning for her examination. We see for the first time that his eyes are two different colors. His pupils two different sizes. If she notices, she does not let on. Or perhaps she has seen much stranger, and this is, to her experienced eye, an insignificant mutation.
“This is not a pawn shop.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“If I buy this ring now, you can’t redeem it later. Understand?”
She weighs it laboriously.
“Twenty dollars.” He looks disappointed with this.
“Take it or leave it.” He’ll take it, of course.
We are back on the outskirts of town. Thomas Jerome Newton kneels aside a wide stream from which a frog has just jumped to escape him. The sun is setting on what has been a long day. With great care he fills a short cup, totally ignoring the overturned wreck of a motorcycle, and who knows what leaking petroleum products, halfway in the water not five feet upstream. He sits down and drinks greedily from the cup, which he holds with a kind of ceremonial reverence, as tendrils of liquid run down both sides of his chin. It is as if the water is blessed, or has miraculous healing properties. The setting sunlight glints off of the dark, silver rimmed aviator glasses he now wears. He pulls from his pocket a fat roll of hundred dollar bills wrapped in a rubber band before standing to watch a truck pulling a barred trailer full of lambs, braying pathetically, perhaps bound for the slaughter. A dark omen surely.
As he pulls from an inside coat pocket a loop with dozens upon dozens of gold wedding rings, exact copies of the one he just sold, Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” of The Planets Suite rises slowly in the background, building as Thomas Jerome Newton drinks greedily again from the cup. A war, of sorts, is surely on the horizon. All is not as it seems with Thomas Jerome Newton.
By the time a now dark suit and black fedora clad Thomas Jerome Newton is introduced to the lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (the latter’s outstretched hand is received with puzzled confusion, rather than the firm grip of a polite handshake) our pale, gaunt figure is far more familiar with the nature of his surroundings. Not a fish out of water anymore, exactly, but clearly still somewhat ill at ease. Would he take a scotch and water? No, merely a glass of water. Is he alright? Just tired. By his appearance, this, at least, is to be believed. Wordlessly, Thomas Jerome Newton hands Farnsworth $10,000 in the thick envelope. $1,000 an hour, he explains when challenged, for ten hours of Farnsworth’s time. Right now. Farnsworth is shocked, but accepts.
Farnsworth is given a file of onionskin paper, handwritten formulas cover the pages. No, it cannot be left overnight. As the night passes into day, Farnsworth’s bemused and purchased indulgence turns into surprise, then shock then borderline incredulity.
“I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. You have nine basic patents here. Nine. That’s basic patents. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Really? I wonder.”
Then... finally, after the cinematic eternity of more than thirteen minutes, something, just a sliver, of the motivations of Thomas Jerome Newton are revealed.
“In say three years, what would this be worth to me?”
“I’m a lawyer not an accountant, Mr. Newton. But I’d say it must be something in the area of... three hundred million dollars?” The figure, in this context, is intended to be a stunning one. $10,000 for ten hours was, after all, a stunning figure for an attorney’s time.
“I need more.”
“What the hell for?” Thomas Jerome Newton turns away at the question, and parry-ripostes:
“I’ll offer you 10% of my net profits plus five percent of all corporate holdings.” An offer Farnsworth cannot refuse.
As they part, the oddity of the relationship is outlined.
“If you take this assignment you’ll have complete authority below me. I don’t want to have contact with anyone except you.”
So ends the first character arc, literally, the initial ascent and first descent of Thomas Jerome Newton. Having outlined the first and rather simple rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton, the piece undertakes to sketch in elaborate detail, the second, and more important of his arcs. The second, and the last, rise and fall of The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Given its depth and complexity, there are many ways to view this piece. As a film adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel, of course. As the Paul Mayersberg screenplay turned into one of director Nicolas Roeg’s defining works, yes.1 But deeper reflection reveals some nuances that have such contemporary appeal as to cause the more excitable (or the deeply reflective) pause. Consider:
Though the name Thomas Jerome Newton is an obvious compilation of Thomas Edison, the lesser known but almost as prolific Jerome H. Lemelson (inventor of numerous industrial robots, cordless telephones, fax machines, and 600 some other patents- averaging, at one point one per month for some forty years), and Sir Isaac Newton, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton is far more enigmatic than even these vanguards of invention. The real motives of Thomas Jerome Newton remain shadowy throughout most of the film. While it is clear that his “first order” goals include the acquisition of a large block of cash, his intentions thereafter, as his drive and unflagging motivation demonstrate, are as well defined and important as they are mysterious. Thomas Jerome Newton never lies, exactly, but he happily permits those around him to assume lesser and base motives (greed, power, eccentricity) to avoid a deeper scrutiny. His passive aggressive evasion is the hallmark of power-seekers with concealed motives. But Thomas Jerome Newton, for all his inscrutable origins, is not immune to the carnal appeals of Western society.
The temptations of man are not ignored. The raw and ravenous rapture of sexual conquest is juxtaposed against a faux battle of Samurai in a brilliant scene, with the seditious Rip Torn as that perverse professor we all once encountered, preying lustfully on fistfuls of fawning undergraduates. Sex culminates in “the little death” after all. Thomas Jerome Newton, appalled, must leave the orgy of Samurai violence. Both sex and death are far too unsettling for his stoic quiet.
The Labored Second Ascent (The Point of Maximum Dynamic Pressure)
Even before we recognize the nature of Thomas Jerome Newton’s quest, for good or for ill, his corruption at the hands of his many followers, hangers-on, servants and encounters begins. As he recovers from an acute bout of motion sickness caused by the elevator (the irony of Thomas Jerome Newton’s motion sickness becomes apparent later when his origins are revealed), hiding in a local hotel under the pseudonym “Sussex”2 our hero at first merely endures the wiles of the impossibly naive (and therefore imminently acceptable to the recluse) hotel maid Mary-Lou.3
“Do you think I could have something to drink?”
“Are you sure you should drink?”
“I’d like a glass of-”
“Gin? A nice gin and tonic, with four cubes of ice and a slice of lime. How’s that sound, mister?”
“Just a glass of water.”
“No, no. I’ll get it. Do you want me to go down and get some medicine? Maybe you should have something with your water. Some kind of pill maybe?”
“Just the water.”
Later, her maid duties sated, her uniform exchanged for what must be her best outfit, and a gin in her hand, lounging with ease in the hotel room of Thomas Jerome Newton, we hear:
“Boy. You’re really hooked on water aren’t you? One of these days you ought to try one of these.”
These are, of course, the constant pressures to integrate Thomas Jerome Newton into the way of polite society:
“The more secretive you are about your life, the more it arouses people’s interest...”
“...my life is not secret, Mr. Farnsworth, but it is private.”
Wherever he goes, the corrupting allure of the world abrades him like sand the windshields of desert bound Land Rovers. It is this, the constant moral erosion, that is the essence of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Mark this well.
The Role of the Foil
You cannot absorb this film, however, without appreciating the parallel development of the foils. These are expertly sketched, and, given the context of film making in the era, stand out for the period. While the arc of Thomas Jerome Newton dominates the film, one cannot ignore the convergence of the protagonist and his many companions. As they are lifted up, he is pulled down. It is the essence of gravitational attraction that both bodies are acted upon together. Rip Torn’s character (Dr. Bryce) provides a convenient example early on:
For a whole year I concentrated equally on two things: fucking and World Enterprises. It was neck and neck. Well, I have to admit that I- it began to look like Canutti was right because World Enterprises was evasive and slow to reply to my persistent letters and calls and- suddenly, I got this letter from Farnsworth. I’d landed a job in the research division of the fuel division. And strangely, after that, I gradually began to lose my interest in eighteen year olds. I don’t know what happened to me. I’m not sure. But my mind had developed a libido of its own and I didn’t need the stimulation of legs and so forth. The salary was terrific too. It was three times what I had been getting. The first thing I did is I ordered a French car. This upset Canutti more than anything else.
This taunting conceit, however, along with Professor Canutti, would come back to haunt Dr. Bryce, and Thomas Jerome Newton.
The Beginning of the End
Thomas Jerome Newton, now wealthy beyond description, lounges in front of seven televisions, at once playing seven different channels, while his lover, formerly his hotel maid, buzzes around him, humming like a mosquito he cannot be bothered to swat.
“I don’t know why you are living with me. You don’t need me,” she drones.
Of course, she still has her suspicions.
“Are you hiding out?” He shakes his head. “Well then how come you told me your name was Mr. Sussex?”
“I didn’t know you.” She considers this.
“Are you married?”
“Thought so. What’s she like, your wife. Is she like me?”
“Didn’t think so. Well, I guess I’ll do for now, won’t I?” Yes, she will.
Believing she has uncovered the source of his stoic silence she slips back into her bath. She is dangerously wrong, but this is the trap of Thomas Jerome Newton. His detractors cease their search when they discover the first potential ulterior motive in the many layered onion of his desires. There are deeper, darker designs, but these are too terrible to probe when a convenient and understandable flaw is presented.
With a series of flashbacks we are shown the fading vestiges, dying memories of a dying alien world. The home of Thomas Jerome Newton, we suppose. Even as he suffers through its memory, and that of his family waiting there, he drifts farther and farther away from them. His mission here slowly becoming the victim of the luxury he presently enjoys and the beauty of the green landscapes through which he travels. He fights the gravity of growing apathy weakly, and endures barely the strong urge to go native. He is a king in this world. Leaving it for a dying, desolate alternative is difficult.
A moment of brave fortitude:
“Tomorrow morning, I want you to start work on a completely new project, Mr. Farnsworth,” he orders over the phone. “I want the complete resources of World Enterprises at my disposal.”
Farnsworth breaks the news to his colleague (yes, his colleague, but also, and in what must have been deep scandal at the time- therefore a symbol of almost Persian decadent opulence and self-indulgence- his homosexual lover).
“Starting tomorrow, we are embarking on some sort of space program.”
“Space program? What for? I don’t trust him.”
“I don’t trust you, that doesn’t alter my feeling for you. Has he ever been wrong?”
“No, but he’s a freak.”
Even as he forges forward, his relationship with his earthly made come war bride expands. His stoicism, his xenocism, recedes as he revels in her caress.
“I love you. You’re such a nice man,” she coos.
“No I’m not,” he quietly admits. She possesses him, or part of him, but the rest remains distant and mysterious. His motives unknown and dangerous. But his second descent has accelerated. A dark slide into alcohol and tele-addiction.
The Curse (and Gift) of “Otherness”
Alarmingly, while he remains an ageless twenty something, those around him grow old and gray. His reclusiveness has logic after all. The marvelous and alien technology he has brought the world is everywhere, stamped with the ever-present, globelike, green and blue logo of his now ubiquitous World Enterprises. But in the midst of his ever-present influence, he is as ever-distant as ever.
“I believe we share a common interest, Mr. Newton,” a newly located employee quips. “Photography.”
“My interest is energy. Transference of energy.”
“Transference of energy?”
It is impossible to relate to someone possessed of such “otherness.” This, perhaps, is his fatal flaw. Or the source of his power. To challenge him is to push on wet pasta.
“The question you’ve been wanting to ask since we met.”
“Are you Lithuanian?”
“I come from England.”
“That’s not so terrible. Is this a weapon?”
“It is too small for interplanetary travel.”
“Assuming it is a weapon, does that matter to you?”
“Yeah, if I thought that you were building a weapon, you were employing me to help you, I’d have to quit the project.”
“Don’t be suspicious. I know people think I’m unnecessarily secretive.”
A knowing look. “If I were you I’d be secretive.”
Though he gives no answers, his adroit use of verbal judo disarms even the skeptical and scientific mind. He renders them powerless, blinding them to inconsistencies with the genius of invention, the promise of his benevolence (which he may actually believe in) and the stoic certainty of a man with a plan (however obscure as it is never really revealed).
Dark forces, however, are closing in. A mysterious agent of some power confronts Mr. Farnsworth in an open courtyard, walking with him, trailed by the telling bodyguard-escort of larger influence, 5 paces behind. Farnsworth misses the cue- cannot see the danger.
“Would you say we are getting closer to an understanding?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Peters.’
“Pity. We seem to have spent so much time on this question.” He is annoyed.
“Frankly, what you’re suggesting sounds like interference.”
The mysterious agent ambiguously confides to his escort, “It’s going to be hard.”
Storm clouds are shown, gathering.
“The problem with this corporation is that it is technologically overstimulated and the economic trouble stems from that fact,” Mr. Peters tells a mysterious power broker who sits beneath a portrait of Richard Nixon.
“Then you must go further. They have to take a wider view.”
“What kind of measure would you say is...” he struggles for the correct euphemism, “...appropriate?”
“We’re flexible. Something- uh- elastic. But remember, we are not the mafia. This isn’t an archaic Italian joke. We’re determining a social ecology. This is modern America and we’re going to keep it that way.”
Just as these forces begin to awake and build, Thomas Jerome Newton is growing anxious.
“I can’t explain it to you completely,” he tells his war bride. “If I stay here, I shall die.” This seems odd, considering the fact that he has never aged. But perhaps he doesn’t mean death in the traditional sense. Perhaps he has been dying all along.
“You are an alien,” she screams suddenly. True, but not in the way she beleives. “Do you know what will happen if they find out your visa has expired? You don’t know. How could you. You’re simple. You don’t understand how we live here.” It is ironic, but indeed not.
He finally reveals himself to her, removes the disguising contact lenses from his eyes, exposes his hairless head, and shows his full, glistening, sexless alien form. She, predictably, succumbs first to hysteria, and then falls into a catatonic state of literal incontinence. If he cannot reveal himself to her, who can he ever grace with veracity? He is certainly trapped in another body. He cannot openly shed his underlying self. His real self. What reaction if the public knew him for what he was? Secrecy and reclusiveness are more a ruse to avoid a complex web of lies than a ruse itself.
Finally recovered from her shock, the war bride recognizes her (small, but important) significance.
“I lifted you up once.”
But she cannot embrace his alien form, even having accepted it. She is revolted. She recoils from his moist, mucus-covered skin, even after recovering from her initial shock this is too much. He is even more alone. He adopts his disguise once again, but she cannot accept him in any form now.
“Your wife is out there somewhere. She is waiting for you. And your children, they must miss their dad.”
(Partial) Discovery and Gelding
Having taken an X-Ray picture of Thomas Jerome Newton, Dr. Bryce is suspicious. Thomas Jerome Newton invites him to a desolate, desert shack and here, finally, reveals to the cowboy hat clad Dr. Bryce, and to us, his motives, and his mission.
“Hello Mr. Newton.”
“Hello, Dr. Bryce. I’m glad you came. I hoped you would. I realize you’ve made certain assumptions about me. I can see the flash of an X-Ray camera. It’s blinding.”
“Why’d you come here?”
“Where I come from there is a terrible drought. We saw pictures of your planet on television. We saw the water. In fact, our word for your planet means ‘planet of water.’”
“You watched it all on television? Where exactly do you come from?”
“Well, I’m not an astronomer, but...” he points to the white cloud and blue sky close to the horizon. “...somewhere down there.”
“Are you the- the first?”
“The first what? Visitor? There have always been visitors. On my own planet we found evidence of visitors. You must have seen them here.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well I’ve seen them. I’ve seen their footsteps and their places.”
“I’ve seen those things, we’ve all seen them. That’s for theorists. I’m a scientist.”
“Well, I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity.”
“What are you going to do?”
“You mean, Dr. Bryce, what’s in my mind?”
“Yeah, what’s in your mind?”
“Don’t worry. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Even as he reveals his purpose, he evades.
His war bride abandoned, Thomas Jerome Newton is, for the moment, refocused. He imagines the slow death of his family on a decaying planet. His mission is, once again, is the foremost of his concerns. But even as he prepares his departure, he is betrayed, he is kidnapped, and a pair of men in suits, wearing absurd gold colored motorcycle helmets (a sign of the absurdity of government intervention, perhaps?) break into Mr. Farnsworth’s apartment.
“Hello, Mr. Farnsworth.”
“I knew it had to come. It had to come, didn’t it?” He resists, a futile effort. They won’t believe it,” he protests, even as they defenestrate him.
The darker (literally) Mr. Peters is in charge now.
Thomas Jerome Newton is imprisoned, under penthouse arrest. Professor Canutti, now a member of the new administration, explains recent developments on television:
Well, as we all know, a giant corporation that has become a household word in this country, ran into financial difficulties. The main reason for this was that this corporation relied on that two headed monster, innovation. Now the American consumer can assimilate only so many new products in a given period of time...
Thomas Jerome Newton’s loyal servant is now the much older Mr. Peter’s. He reminds everyone of the danger.
“You know, there are whispers in the media of a fraud. They will need to be reassured.”
Thomas Jerome Newton is experimented on. Dissected. Left in tatters to watch the ultimate film of secrecy and betrayal, the simply outstanding “The Third Man,” even while he is injected, prodded, poked by a legion of doctors not content to let him vegetate in front of the television.
The perfection of his disguise is such that his nature eludes them. Even as engineers destroy the spaceship he built to bring water to his home, their crude experiments actually fuse his biological disguise, fixing it in place and converting him permanently to human form.
One day, years later perhaps, and on a lark, he pushes on the door of his penthouse prison, only to find it open. Convinced that he is normal, his odd longevity aside, “they” have left him in a sort of watched stasis. Broken, ageless, but deposed and now powerless. He is forced to watch as World Enterprises is retooled to the purposes of its new masters. Harmless. Brought low, even as he descends in the elevator to the ground floor of his penthouse prison.4
The aged Dr. Bryce walks into a cafe, tired, limping, only to find a perfectly ageless Thomas Jerome Newton. Gray coat slung over his shoulders, sleeves draped aside. Tan fedora. Dark aviator sunglasses. Gin in hand. The wealthy, tired playboy, all the more doomed to boredom for his unusually long lifespan.
“How did you find me?”
“Your record. It took me awhile, but I traced you.”
“Did you like it?”
“Hmmm. I didn’t make it for you anyway.”
“Who’d you make it for then?”
“My wife. She’ll get to hear it one day. On the radio.”
“We hear most everything on the radio these days.”
“Do you see anything of Mary-Lou?”
“I don’t want her to get lonely. She still have enough money.”
“Don’t you feel bitter about it? Everything?”
“Bitter, no. We’d have probably treated you the same if you had come over to our place.”
“Is there no change then?”
“Of what? Of course there’s a chance. You’re the scientist Dr. Bryce. You must know there’s always a chance. Do you need money?” He shakes his head. “Let me know if you do, eh? I may not stay sober anymore, but I still have money.” He drops his glass. A waiter intervenes.
“I think maybe Mr. Newton has had enough, don’t you?” A slow, horn heavy, big band plays from the outdoor cafe’s speakers.
“I think maybe he has,” Dr. Bryce replies.
“Ah,” pines Newton. His head bows, his face obscured, we have only clothing to remember him by.
The second descent is complete.
The film could rightly be called “The Man Who Twice Fell To Earth.”
As a tale of rise and fall, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” is a Several references to Icarus sprinkle themselves throughout the book, including a simply brilliant reference in the form of a long shot of an art book detailing Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which, all things considered, must be the penultimate statement on the larger indifference of the world to the smaller (or larger) tragedies of our devastation. Never has the Icarian arc been so belittled to be relegated to less than one one-hundredth of a canvas. But this is but the reality of the uncaring world that progresses ceaselessly even as the heart-wrenching and tragic death of heros unfolds before it.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The message of the piece is that great falls, while of paramount significant to the fallen and their inner circle, rarely feel of any significance to the rest of the world. Of course, deep down, we know this to be true. Spitzer, for a time the center of every page of newsprint one could fine, is now relegated to the lonely dustbin of history. (Though watch carefully for his Milkenesque lecture-tour on redemption and recovery in the coming months).
The Man Who Fell To Earth was not particularly well received, but this is as unsurprising as the fact that it has, after its time, achieved cultlike status. It is long and deeply complex. This worked well for Bowie, despite the slow reception. His art, as 1976’s cold and automated Station to Station attests, flourished in this period. But the fame, luxury and gravitational attraction of decadence certainly didn’t help the man himself as Bowie struggled with himself in this period. But, then, the best artists are tortured artists.
Truly strange are the parallels The Man Who Fell To Earth has to this day and age. David Bowie, stoic alien visitor, would go on to introduce “Bowie Bonds,” certainly not the first, but probably the first really public application of asset (or cashflow) backed securitization securities.5 To close the loop, it was not quite three months ago when the BBC’s Evan Davis actually threw the credit crunch gauntlet squarely at Bowie’s feet, claiming that this first widely known securitization paved the way for the excesses that were to come.6
In an eerie return to his lead role in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie plays an oddly accented, equally elusive, unmatched iris and ethereal Nikola Tesla in the foreboding 2006 production of “The Prestige,”7 another double Icaran tale of a dark ascent and subsequent fall. Though I was taken aback when I saw his name (he looks nothing like himself) his role is almost exactly the same. One wonders if the casting director hadn’t watched The Man Who Fell To Earth and wondered aloud to herself “I wonder what has become of David Bowie after all these years?” I, for one, am glad she did.
In this second piece, as in the present one, Bowie (Tesla) is forced by his genius to abscond from the world, maintain in secret his formidable force of innovation:
The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire. The world only tolerates one change at a time. And so here I am. Enjoying my "retirement". Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier, what you want is simply expensive. If I were to build for you this machine, you be presenting it merely as illusion?
Well, if people actually believed the things I did on stage they wouldn’t clap, they would scream. Think of sawing a woman in half.8
But this older, wiser Thomas “Tesla” Jerome Newton now understands the dangers of societal reaction to innovation, and relays these mournfully and readily to the protagonist, the magician Robert Angier (played brilliantly by Huge Jackman, also of The Fountain, and Kate & Leopold and along side an “easy to mistake for someone else” Christian Bale).
Mr. Angier, have you considered the cost of such a machine?
Price is not an object.
Perhaps not, but have you considered the *cost*?
I'm not sure I follow.
Go home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.
Why, haven't good come of your obsessions?
Well at first. But I followed them too long. I'm their slave... and one day they'll choose to destroy me.
If you understand an obsession then you know you won't change my mind.
The Curse of Overstimulation
The central theme that pervades The Man Who Fell To Earth (along, incidentally with “The Prestige’) is the inability of society to cope well with radical change. We recall the analysis of Mr. Peters:
The main reason for this was that this corporation relied on that two headed monster, innovation. Now the American consumer can assimilate only so many new products in a given period of time....
“The Prestige” directly touches the same theme in a scene that ties together the magician Huge Jackman (Robert Angier), the almost impossible to repress (but somehow repressed) presence of Michael Caine (Cutter, seasoned engineer of magic tricks), and Edward Hibbert (as Ackerman, the cynical and annoyed booking agent), as Hibbert is shown something truly remarkable, magic that is not magic, designed in secret by David Bowie (Nikola Tesla):
Cutter: “What an honor it is to see you again sir.”
Ackerman: “When you told me you only wanted to show me one trick it piqued my interest.”
Cutter: “It’s a very clever trick, Mr. Ackerman.”
Angier: “Pleased to meet you Mr. Ackerman.”
Ackerman (impatiently): “Likewise I’m sure. Let’s get on, shall we?”
Angier: “Turn it on gentlemen.”
[A throbbing sound of electric generation is heard. Bolts of electricity arc through the air into a half-open metal cage in the middle of the abandoned and dilapidated theater].
Ackerman (unimpressed): “Very pretty.”
[The bolts build to a crescendo, Angier, in the middle of them, glows and vanishes].
Ackerman: “That’s it, Cutter? He simply... disappears? That’s not a trick. Well, he has to come back. There has to be a-”
Angier (now behind Ackerman): “A prestige?”
[Ackerman turns around, to see who has spoken, and starts once recognizing Angier as the speaker].
Ackerman: “Pardon me. It is very rare to see... real magic. It- it’s been many years since I’ve seen-”
Angier: “Are you interested in helping us?”
Ackerman: “Yes. But you’ll have to dress it up a little. Disguise it. Give them enough reason... to doubt it.”
An earlier scene shows us the driving motivation of Angier, disguised to spy on his rival magician, Christian Bale (Alfred Borden):
”What happened? Did you hurt him? What happened Robert?”
“He had a new trick.”
“Was it good?
“It was the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.”
[And later, with Cutter]
“Did they applaud when you saw it?”
“The trick was too good. It was too simple. The audience hardly had time to see it.
“He’s a dreadful magician.”
“No, he’s a wonderful magician. He’s a dreadful showman. He doesn’t know how to dress it up. How to sell the trick.”
“Well, how does he do it?”
“He uses a double.”
“No, no, no. It’s too simple. This is a complex illusion.”
“You only say that because you don’t know the method.”
If he stands for anything, the Bowie character of Tesla stands for the difficulty any agent of rapid change must endure. His subplot is filled with undercurrents of conspiracy and slander as his remarkable technology is decried by shills for Thomas Edison (oh the irony), pursued by Edison’s nefarious agents, his exhibitions shut down by nervous officials, until his pathological drive to continue requires him to abscond to a remote hilltop in Colorado Springs to find peace (which still eludes him)- the depiction is shot through with shades of the isolation mountains of such appeal to Thomas Jerome Newton.
The same challenges present themselves to Thomas Jerome Newton, who- his motives obscure, in some sense selfish and in another sense altruistic- must hide his intentions and his true self from all around him to avoid the catatonic incontinence that grips Mary-Lou. If his tactics seems confusing and inconsistent it is because the conflict with the assumptions of his contemporaries. Their view of his aims cannot be reconciled with the reality of his actions, but any attempt to delve deeper is rebuffed by secrecy and evasion.
Both are pursued by forces larger than themselves. In a sense, both are constantly running, both are inevitably hiding. But this dynamic is not sustainable. The corrosion inflicted on their façade by the environment they seek to master is inescapable. For Thomas Jerome Newton it is the technological inertia of society, and the force of a startled government that hinders. For Tesla, though he too faces the erosion of societal inertia, it is the very obsession and drive that eggs him on that also abrades him away.
Consider, in this context, the plight of Barack Hussein Obama II. It goes without saying that he began his term as a unique and heretofore unthinkable candidate for the office. The very fact of his diversity both elevates and places a heavy burden on his service to the office. The United States has not yet seen a President able to shoot hoops (and hold his own) with members of the armed forces. One quakes at the prospect of being forced to watch Gerald Ford attempt, much less sink, a jump-shot. His appearance on the political scene, like a fair, but small, fraction of former Presidents, was left-fieldish, but, most importantly, his message was at once sufficiently vague and sufficiently compelling to propel him to victory on the shoulders of great expectations.
Like Thomas Jerome Newton, he is almost impossibly driven. Tales of his early-years vision and long standing desire for and determination to seize the Presidency abound, for instance. His administration’s actions puzzle us. They seem at once hesitant, cocksure, purposeful and uncertain. One week capitalism is to be preserved. The next, the “old ways” are tired and tried and socialism is the answer. Bipartisanism waxes and wanes in 14 days time. Fiscal responsibility merits a committee meeting, even as deficits make records, and are scheduled to for a decade or more. And, above all, details are entirely absent. One almost expects the line “...not secret, but private...” to float across the pressroom one day.
What is eminently clear is that this president intends to radically reform the whole of the economic and political landscape in the United States. There is no need for extrapolation here, for this directive, at least, is overly stated and nearly as ambitious as transporting water aboard starships to a thirsty world far, far away. He intends to boost taxes on oil companies, small business, and- the guise of "carbon revenues" is adopted- everyone. All energy will be made more expensive so that green energy is made “efficient.” Capital gains taxes will be boosted, even as he depends on innovation to boost GDP. $650 billion will be spent making healthcare cheaper. The economy, destroyed by leverage, will be jump started by elevating housing prices with leverage. Every week a daring and bold new plan, each different than the last. Perhaps we should soon expect this announcement:
Tomorrow morning, I want you to start work on a completely new project, Mr. Farnsworth, I want the complete resources of
World Enterprisesthe World at my disposal.
But one wonders if the country is ready for such radical change so quickly. Indeed, the recession come pre-depression has boosted his already substantial political capital, but, like a series of remarkable inventions, absorbing the shocks he rushes to administer before his political capital checking accounts are empty may leave a sour taste in the mouth of society. There is also a substantial risk in spending all of his political capital in a mad dash to force reform in the first quarter of his term.
It is impossible not to recall Icarus in the face of such ambition.
For the conspiracy theorists or numerologists, it may be relevant that The Man Who Fell To Earth was released the same year as Jimmy Carter was elected, and that a remake is scheduled for this (Obama’s first) year. For the rest of us, it seems prudent merely to close with this:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts.
The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't.
The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.
But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige.”
We await The Prestige, Tesla.
- 1. His later work “Eureka” (1983) with Gene Hackman, tripled (alarmingly) with Rutger Hauer and Mickey Rourke touches on similar themes of the burdens of uberwealth, and the corrupting corrosion of leisure. But that film starts with a pale shadow of “The Man Who Fell” that is then washed through the muti-cycle Hollywood machine with too much bleach and set on the rough cycle “Regular.”
- 2. The county in South England or the breed of chicken invented in England, we are not to know.
- 3. Played by Candy Clark, who had by this time already played in “American Graffiti,” and would later play in Handle with Care, The Big Sleep and the simply brilliant “At Close Range,” aside Christopher Walken
- 4. The final scene of Alan Parker’s outstanding “Angel Heart” later borrows this imagery wonderfully. The descent to hell is obvious in the Alan Parker presentation, but less so, even if just as painful, for Thomas Jerome Newton.
- 5. Bowie sold forward interests in his royalties in the form of “back catalogue bonds” backed with the future cash flows from his existing releases: “I have a lot of money coming in over the next 10 years from my back catalogue, but I’d rather have the cash now and not have to wait.” The financial effort is the proper modeling of future cash flows from existing assets, their discounting, and underwriting. The cash flow modeling was a problem that both had reams of data and was quite well understood when it came to the long tail of legacy album and singles sales. If anything, it was a much easier securitization than mortgages would later be.
- 6. ”David Bowie's 'back catalogue bonds' may have started the credit crunch,” The Mirror News (December 1, 2009).
- 7. ”The Prestige,” Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Batman Begins,” “Insomnia,” “Memento,” “Following.”) (2006).
- 8. Ibid.