****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring
screenplay by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
directed by Francois Truffaut
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry
screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel by Walter Tevis
directed by Nicolas Roeg
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The second film of Francois Truffaut's "Hitchcock Period" (and the Nouvelle Vague legend's first English-language feature), Fahrenheit 451 is swathed in dread and melancholy--a sense belying cinematographer Nicolas Roeg's bright, elemental colour scheme and simply blocked mise-en-scéne, though a sense completely in line with Roeg's subsequent work as auteur. The weight of Roeg's compositions--and arguably the genius of them--is the way in which he uses the weak side of the screen to introduce an element of disquiet into otherwise innocuous situations. The brilliance of the man's eye in locating the menace and ineffable sadness in the midst of the bright and the mundane.
An adaptation of Ray Bradbury's lyrical fairy tale of book-burning in an intellectually repressive future (a work that only continues to grow in poignancy as such phenomena as reality television, socially-sanctioned anti-intellectualism, and the destruction of cultural landmarks before mass entertainment manifest themselves), Truffaut's picture evokes its own storybook feeling that's in line with his cult of childhood. Enough so that any question as to the viability of a marriage between Truffaut (who once denounced science-fiction as a genre) and Bradbury's (already an author best when working in childhood) only true work of sci-fi should be put to rest. Fahrenheit 451, after all, is about a child learning to read and growing into a member of a larger world. In its way, it's as much an Antoine Doinel chronicle as Truffaut's three Doinel films that would follow this 1966 film in 1968, 1970, and 1979.
Guy Montag (the great Oskar Werner) is a fireman in the near future, a black-clad paladin for cultural cleansing sporting a salamander patch and a "451," representing the temperature at which book paper burns. Married to a television and prescription drug-addicted Linda (Julie Christie), Guy's straight-arrow life ("And what if the government should ban lawn mowing, Montag?" his superior, the excellent Cyril Cusack, asks--"Watch it grow, sir," Guy replies) is thrown into turmoil when he meets free-spirit Clarisse (Christie again), who eventually convinces Guy to break the law and read the books he's mandated to destroy. Introduced by a spoken credit sequence in honour of the anti-text conceit, the picture finds itself best read as an abstraction understanding, ironically perhaps, that for as lovely as Bradbury is to read, he's nearly impossible to "say"--a conundrum that beautifully encapsulates not only Montag's awakening dilemma, but also key issues concerning the unreliability of communication both within, and without, the film.
With a visual sense firmly rooted in the British Mod, Fahrenheit 451's most chilling moment is not Linda's attempted suicide (nor the immolation of an old woman who pronounces Bishop of Worchester Hugh Latimer's 16th century promise: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God' grace shall never be put out"), but a seduction scene where the freshly-resurrected Linda seduces her husband with a judo move learned from television. The eroticism of the images are tinged with Roeg's hallmark menace (a juxtaposition the auteur would revisit in many of his subsequent works, Don't Look Now in particular) and set against Bernard Herrmann's obsessive score. More, Truffaut's sense of the real is tested in this scene, almost Godardian in its self-reflection: At perhaps the most uncertain moment in his career, following the critical and popular failure of The Soft Skin and working in a genre he disdained in a language he couldn't speak, Truffaut is forced to consider the process of storytelling and the transparent nature of mass communication.
The focus of the picture, then, is exceptionally complicated: Not content to merely be about the evils of censorship and, by extension, a criticism of a fascist state, there exists in the piece the realization that what's actually indicted is the human inclination towards the easy. In a society increasingly based on convenience, the denunciation of blousy housewives drunk on television while visual technology advances to the point where intimacy (and power) is reproducible and murder a matter of smoke and mirrors becomes both powerful and uncomfortable.
Fahrenheit 451's finale in a colony of people devoted to memorizing and passing on specific works of literature is jarringly naturalistic in comparison to the forced urbanity of the rest of the picture. Truffaut's visual motif (and Roeg's) finds its thematic completion in this environment, something vaguely of Renoir's "The Luncheon at the Boating Party" that will find a parallel in Patrick McGoohan's seminal "The Prisoner" television series. It returns the new wave director to the arena of the "found"--the old man reciting his "work" to a child is at once the hope of a future and the uncertainty of comprehension that dogs the filmmaker at this point in his career. At the end of the day, what is Fahrenheit 451 but a study in the delicate opposition of communication, forever at odds between what is said and what is understood. It is perhaps Truffaut's most tortured work, certainly his most underestimated.
When Roeg broke from the ranks of top-class DP to director in 1968's brilliantly uncomfortable Performance (a film shelved for its controversial images until 1970), he took with him his sense of alien eroticism, primary palettes (with a particular affection for red), and subterranean relational havoc. Though his best-known work as director is probably the justifiably lauded Walkabout (or his cold adaptation of Roald Dahl's cold The Witches), Roeg's finest hour is split between 1973's astonishingly thorny Don't Look Now and the subject of this further discussion, 1976's The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is the passive centre of The Man Who Fell To Earth, an alien come to Earth ostensibly to find a way to provide water for his dying planet. Armed with a lapel-full of gold rings and the patents for technological advancements, his is the story on one level of the progression of the evolution of economic security at the birth of the gadget era--and security of all varieties reveals itself as the central worry of Roeg's work: security in family, security in profession, eventually the sort of existential security that comes from an understanding of sexuality, faith, and issues of reality as they're shaped by personal mythologies. (The focus on eyes and ways of seeing in Roeg demonstrate that cant--note the point-of-view push-ins in the picture.) The underlying message of the director's vision appears to be that in our quest for what is suggested to be an illusory intellectual completion, the unknowable mysteries of the emotional, illogical universe lie, sometimes mortally, unexamined.
An early scene in a Japanese teahouse finds Newton appalled at the "alien-ness" of a highly stylized sword dance, its choreographed insanity filmed by Roeg in horror movie swoops, scored by the strange groans and squeals of fallen professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) in one of his many dalliances with his comely students. The human sexual act, for Newton, is thus seen as something threatening--taking his point-of-view for ours, Roeg undermines our comfort level, challenging the sociological and cinematic language mostly taken for granted. Later sex scenes are undercut with the sort of narrative-aiding digital distortion that Walter Murch pioneered in THX-1138 and The Conversation. Bryce is revealed as an inept scholar, challenged to relinquish his security at his university and compelled to borrow a little of Newton's success--cast again in the role of Judas, Torn's second shot at the role after Nicholas Ray's King of Kings.
Patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry at his most myopic) aids Newton in distributing his inventions, and Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) provides by turns an affecting/hilarious love interest/protector. Both offer Newton a kind of terrestrial security, Bryce providing a counterpoint in greed and lust that points to the will to achieve wealth and love that Newton completely lacks. The Man Who Fell To Earth (considering, too, a moment where Newton watches seven television sets at once) isn't so much the quest of a quiet Anglophone alien looking for the salvation of his planet, but a cautionary fable about the ultimate emptiness of God, love, and affluence. Life for Newton (and the typical Roeg protagonist) is an endless protracted purgatory punctuated by moments of surreal disconnection and unremarkable misunderstandings. When epiphany comes, if it should come, the revelation is often a sort of crucifixion: It isn't so much the lightness of being that is unbearable as the gravity of its entropy. The spinning of the camera at the horrific (and cruelly absurd) conclusion of Don't Look Now is mirrored here in the lolling stagnation of Newton by the end of his journey, time crashing in on him in insensible waves like so many televisions tuned to static or ironic entertainments (Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon mocking Newton's lack of humour and inability to love, Carol Reed's The Third Man predicting betrayal).
The Man Who Fell To Earth is how Truffaut described Hitchcock's The Birds: an apocalyptic tone poem set at a moment at the beginning and end of time. Its special effects easy to mark as dated are more usefully described as constructed artifice, recalling the bad mattes of Fahrenheit 451's monorail and jet-pack sequences and the carefully constructed rear projection (and bad mattes, again) of Vertigo. (For artists so gifted in the creation of compelling visual illusions, dismissing the staginess of effects as amateurish is a bad miscalculation.) The artificiality of The Man Who Fell To Earth (and of Roeg's Venice in Don't Look Now, and the toybox sterility of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451) speaks to issues of the construction of reality through memory by way of the catalyst of film. As Newton urges his televisions to "get out of his mind" (scored with what must be the best use of Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou" ever), so should the audience, for this film considers the penetrating influence of mass media in shaping what we know and, more importantly, what we think we should discover. If the firemen of Fahrenheit 451 seem less the machine-tooled automatons than the freemen scholars of its conclusion, a look at Roeg's mistrust for traditional modes of contact and achievement finds the perception not so much accidental as the product of auteur obsession.
Fahrenheit 451 gets a gratifyingly exhaustive Universal/Laurent Bouzereau treatment, starting with a warm 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that only succumbs to distracting grain for a few seconds in chapter 10--the result, no doubt, of a bad optical transition inherent in the source print. That it's noteworthy at all speaks to the quality of the picture, which is light-years better than all previous video releases of the title; a 2.0 mono audio track reproduces Herrmann's magnificent score with a satisfying fullness. Bouzereau's trademark documentaries litter the DVD, beginning with a "Making of" that features a little too much of an overly-exuberant Thom Noble (editor), who seems fixated to a degree on the fact that Fahrenheit 451 was his official first feature-length assignment. Better are docus on Bernard Herrmann's score (facilitated by Steven C. Smith, Herrmann's biographer) and Ray Bradbury himself, who, in his grandfatherly way, relates how he came to write the novel in nine days and, serendipitously, serialize it in issues 2, 3, and 4 of a fledgling magazine called PLAYBOY.
A film-length yakker is advertised on box and in-menu as "with Julie Christie," which, while factually accurate, is misleading in that the chat-track actually includes occasionally screen-specific commentary from Christie, editor Noble, producer Lewis M. Allen, Herrmann expert Smith, Bradbury, the brilliant Annette Insdorf, and the ubiquitous Bouzereau. Some thought has been afforded to the arrangement of the snippets, as, for example, Christie will first express her dissatisfaction with her Clarisse performance and then Bradbury will, recorded separately, chime in to agree. My main beef, personal perhaps, is that Bouzereau's contributions are by and large self-serving ("There was this one time I met Truffaut in a poster shop and told him I liked The Last Metro") and that Insdorf is given so little time and introduced as "Columbia University Professor" when she's also the most sensitive critic of Truffaut's life and work. The best moment comes in an examination of the monorail scene (in which several passengers engage in neurotic behaviours), where producer Allen confesses to being puzzled by it and Noble is hysterically wrong about it, but Christie, in her description of the passengers as "sensory starved" rather than narcissistic, hits the nail right on the head.
Rounding out the disc: an alternate title sequence (just a different voice, really); a poster gallery; a trailer; and a "suggestions" list of other Universal titles. The loaded presentation resembles, in its love, an Anchor Bay release, and indeed that company's refurbished, THX-certified The Man Who Fell To Earth DVD is jaw-dropping. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is eye-popping, the best the film has yet looked at home. Roeg's images have not looked this good, I would wager, since they were first projected. Audio options include booming (loud! is the exclamation of the day) Dolby Digital 5.1 EX with DTS-ES 6.1 tracks; the use of sound an underestimated element in Roeg's films, it is impossible to ignore in this amazingly faithful remix. It should be noted that although the box advertises an MPAA "R" rating, the version of the film is the 140-minute "uncut," director-approved edition.
The second platter of this two-disc release (housed in a gatefold case ensconced in a slip-cover with new Bowie-centric cover art) contains a 24-minute documentary ("Watching the Alien") that features a fascinating conversation with media-shy Roeg, revealing that he met The Man Who Fell To Earth producer Si Litvinoff while the DP on Fahrenheit 451, during an excursion that resulted in Roeg stealing Litvinoff's then-girlfriend Candy Clark. In the spirit of the age, no hard feelings, and Litvinoff (also the rights-holder to Burgess's A Clockwork Orange at the time) recalls with justifiable pride the process of getting an extremely unconventional film made. Roeg talks about casting Bowie (though he doesn't make the connection to his fascination with flamboyant musicians begun with Mick Jagger in Performance), speaking with candour and an almost amazing, in this day and age, excitement of making pictures that were essentially financial failures. Anchor Bay's track-record of producing new and brilliant documentaries is firmly intact--the piece is indispensable.
Five remastered, non-anamorphic trailers (including a couple, in perverse logic, narrated by William Shatner) revel in the psychedelic fallout in the United States (though the international trailer focuses more on Bowie). Two television spots are confusing and badly-framed, if interesting for their scholarly value, and an exhaustive photo & still gallery provides a few interesting images I'd like blown up for my office. Mark Wickum, the notes-writer I've had a crush on since discovering his work with Anchor Bay, provides brilliant discussions of Roeg and Bowie masquerading as cast & crew biographies, work not to be outdone by an excellent packaging inset.Genuinely great films matched with genuinely great DVD products. It's not all wine and roses in the reviewing business, but some weeks remind of why it's worth it. Originally published: May 18, 2003.