Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

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Nicolas Roeg’s early films are mysteries. He wasn’t really telling stories. He wasn’t creating drama. In the seventies and eighties Roeg was exploring a new language, melding sound and image, breaking down time and space. I always felt that understanding his films was less important than experiencing them.

That may sound like some kind of mystical rubbish, and there were plenty of people who accused Roeg of being glib and flashy. But from Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell) to Bad Timing (1980), I think Roeg was really trying to let us see and hear things in a new way. It may not have always worked, but I never doubted his sincerity.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of Roeg’s most ambitious films. It tells the story of the spectacular rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to earth and builds a vast financial empire based on startling new technologies. The film was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. (Tevis also wrote The Hustler, which was brought to the screen by Robert Rossen in 1961.) While the narrative mostly moves forward, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg don’t feel bound by traditional storytelling conventions. There are sensual reveries where bodies drift through an empty void. At times we hear sounds that seem to be echoing across the centuries. Time and space aren’t fixed in Roeg’s movies. They’re unstable. Porous. We may get a momentary flash of something that hasn’t happened yet. Or suddenly a window will open on the long lost past.

Mayersberg’s film résumé isn’t long, but it’s really interesting. In addition to The Man Who Fell to Earth, he also wrote Eureka for Roeg. And he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Croupier. It’s clear from just those three titles that Mayersberg is interested in outsiders. The first two are expansive, mythic stories of gifted men who build an empire and then see it stolen from them. The third in some ways is the polar opposite, focussing on a man who wants to isolate himself from the world around him, seeking safety in self-effacing anonymity. But all three are stories of individuals struggling with society, and in each one the main character finds himself trying to deal with a world which is basically corrupt.

Roeg is also interested in corruption, but tends to focus less on the world and more on the individual. His characters are often searching for something, sometimes literally on a journey of discovery. Along the way they tangle with sex and death, which in Roeg’s world are always closely intertwined. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton seems to be immortal, but he watches everyone around him age, becoming weak and fragile. And while Newton has a wife and children back on his home planet, he’s not immune to desire. He meets a maid in a hotel and soon they’re sharing the same bed.

Sex is a subject Roeg is very interested in, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is more explicit than any other mainstream film I know of from the time. In your standard Hollywood film, sex is almost always about love, and it’s usually reserved for the main characters. That’s not the way it works in Roeg’s world. Love may or not may not be involved, and even when it is, the lovers are never pure. They’re just as vulnerable as real people, feeling loneliness, fear, insecurity and desperation. In his films sex is truly intimate, and that intimacy carries with it all the perils it does in real life.

Love, American-style

Love, American-style

I’ve seen the film several times, but this is the first time it occurred to me that the three principal talents, Roeg, Mayersberg and Bowie, are all British. Watching it from that perspective, it seemed to be very much about a foreigner slowly drowning in American culture. At first fascinated, then addicted, then overwhelmed and appalled. When Newton arrives at his hotel room in the Southwest, he asks Mary Lou to bring him a TV. Then more TVs crowd into the room. Finally he’s sitting in front of a wall of television sets, all tuned to different channels, bombarding him with chaotic visuals and disembodied voices. He’s confronted with a manic, kinetic collage of machines and animals, sex and savagery. The sensory onslaught becomes so overwhelming that he flips out. When he finally shouts, “Leave my mind alone!” is it just Newton shouting, or are the filmmakers also making a comment on the suffocating effect of American pop culture?

The visual texture of the film is wonderfully rich and extremely intricate. Anthony Richmond’s cinematography takes full advantage of Brian Eatwell’s stunning production design. As editor, Graeme Clifford gives it all a seductive, hypnotic rhythm. The sound is equally complex, thanks to the efforts of Robin Gregory, Bob Jones, Alan Bell and Colin Miller. It’s also important to mention the electronic effects by Desmond Briscoe, who pioneered the use of electronic sound in Britain. And the music is a fabulous crazy quilt of old standards, rock n’ roll, bluegrass and avant garde, to which John Phillips, Stomu Yamash’ta and Duncan Lamont all contributed.

As his career went on, Roeg moved toward a more conventional approach to image and sound. He seemed to be rejecting the oblique, enigmatic style of his early years and embracing a more straightforward kind of storytelling. That’s fine. As people mature, the obsessions of their youth often fall by the wayside. But I keep returning to Roeg’s early work, and I don’t think it’s just a sentimental attachment. There’s something in those movies that keeps calling me back. His films from that time are disturbing, sensual mysteries. Don’t try to understand them. Just let yourself fall into them.

A Brit stranded in the American Southwest

A Brit stranded in the American Southwest

Trouble at Home

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If you don’t live in LA, you’ve probably never heard of the New Beverly Cinema. Even if you do live in LA, you may never have been there. But for a small group of people who love film, the New Beverly has been a home away from home. I think I started going there back in the eighties, when it was run by Sherman Torgan. Sherman died several years ago, and since then his son Michael has taken over. For both of them, running the theatre wasn’t a job, it was an act of love.

I’ve seen so many movies at the New Beverly. It’s been so important to my life. These days I don’t go as often as I used to, but I still check in a couple times a year. Not too long ago I saw Reflections in a Golden Eye there. It’s a very interesting and very obscure film, directed by John Huston from a novel by Carson McCullers. I never expected to see it in a theatre, but the New Beverly ran it as part of a Marlon Brando retrospective. I was so happy to see it on the big screen. But it’s not just the programming that makes the New Beverly a special place. It’s special because it’s always been run by people who care about film.

Quentin Tarantino has provided support for the New Beverly for years, and actually bought the property when Sherman died in order to keep the theatre alive. I know it means a lot to him. But apparently there’s been a dispute going on about how the New Beverly should be run, and Tarantino has decided he wants to be in charge, effectively taking control of the theatre away from Michael. I just learned of this recently, and I’m not privy to all the details, so I suggest you follow the link below to hear the story from someone who’s been a witness. Ariel Schudson has been part of the New Beverly family for years. Here’s the post she wrote about the situation….

What Price Hollywood?

Honestly, I don’t know what to say about all this. I feel like a kid watching Mom and Dad argue. I don’t want to take sides, and the whole thing just makes me feel really awful.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

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Years ago I was with my family at Thanksgiving when my nephew told me he wanted me to see some stuff he’d found on the internet. We went upstairs, away from the rest of the relatives, and he showed me a series of cartoons that were incredibly creepy and hysterically funny, all of them by a guy named Don Hertzfeldt. I’ve never forgotten that day.

Hertzfeldt’s early work may have looked crude, but it was actually way more lively and interesting than most of the animation you see in theatres. The big studios spend millions on feature length cartoons with incredible technical polish and zero soul. Hertzfeldt creates his work himself, with his own hands. His simple line drawings are combined with found images that are often blurred and distorted. For his soundtracks he relies on ambient noise and a fair amount of shrieking. But the end result isn’t just funny, it’s disturbing and moving.

The early shorts are all about brutal, absurd situations where people often get hurt really badly. But in recent years Hertzfeldt has added other dimensions to his work. His most recent release, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The crazy horror is still there, but now underlying it is a weird cosmic beauty. With all the terrible trauma we see on the screen, the film has a strange serenity to it. The universe may be a terrifying place, but Hertzfeldt accepts it as it is. And he seems to be saying that we should treasure the stray moments of happiness as they slip through our fingers.

You might think a film that was basically made by one guy would be a thin, minimal affair. But no. Hertzfeldt’s hand-made images vibrate with a crazy, implacable life. Flames leap across the screen. Seagull cries float on the breeze. Windows open up out of the darkness, flicker with distant memories and then close again. Along with the director’s deadpan narration, layers of sound create a dense, sometimes unnerving texture that can be overwhelming. A symphony orchestra plays while noise piles up on top of it, growing louder and louder until you just want it all to stop. And he also layers images over each other, in this case suggesting the way memories pile up in layers, rubbing against one another, slowly growing blurred and faded.

Memory is key in It’s Such a Beautiful Day. The film follows a man named Bill as he slowly falls apart, suffering from some unspecified disease. As his mind and body deteriorate, his memory fades. First he has trouble remembering recent events, and soon he can’t recognize people he’s known for years. Pictures from the past surface without warning, some that come from Bill’s distant memories, and others that conjure up frightening relatives who lived long before his time. The fear, pain and loneliness that haunt Bill aren’t new. They’ve been around forever, handed down from generation to generation.

This probably all sounds horribly depressing. Yeah. It is. Up to a point. But there’s that strange serenity I mentioned earlier. A sense of acceptance. It’s as if Hertzfeldt has stepped back far enough from our everyday struggles to take in the whole universe. Our suffering doesn’t seem so important in the vast, cosmic scheme of things. Bill’s final visions are of an eternal, shimmering, infinite universe in which he’s just a mote drifting through space.

Hertzfedlt may be an awful cynic, but there’s more to this movie than pain and loneliness. As Bill goes through his terrible downward spiral, he comes across reminders that people can care for each other, that tenderness exists. Love may be fleeting, but it is real. And finding the beauty in the world may just be a matter of opening your eyes to it.

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