Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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From Anthea With Love

Three works by Walter Tevis have been adapted for the screen, The Hustler, The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Color of Money. Of these, he himself considered the film versions of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth to be improvements upon those stories. Both are now considered classic films, and the latter was recently re-released by the Criterion Collection on DVD, and it may be one of their best packages to date.

While there was a former, vastly inferior release that was non-anamorphic and monaural from Fox Lorber that is now out of print, but nevertheless served as my first exposure to the film, this 2 disc set supplants a previous Anchor Bay release, which had a THX approved transfer and a remixed soundtrack presented in Dolby 5.1 EX and DTS-ES 6.1; Criterion's picture transfer is much cleaner, and the sound, which is presented in its original stereo mix, is much more distinct that the overly airy surround mixes on the Anchor Bay. While the other disc had a decent documentary on a second platter, Criterion's supplements blow it out of the water including the very introspective commentary track that was included on their 1992 laserdisc release of the film with director Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie (who credits the film with changing a lot about his approach to his own music) and Buck Henry, and a new featurette with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg about the adaptation process . The most interesting supplement, however, is the inclusion of Tevis' original novel, which I found myself unable to put down.

There are very few films that you can point at as being more abstract than their source material, and this is certainly one of them. Part of this is, of course, because Roeg is less interested in linear narrative than in cinema as an experiential art form. If The Man Who Fell To Earth has not dated much, it is for that very reason.

While there are some political elements that are jettisoned from the book by Mayersberg, for the most part the film is an expansion of the novel. Replacing Tevis' quiet, understated style is communicated by the very matter of fact Panavision photography by Anthony B. Richmond, which is similar in finding the poetry in simplicity. The film, like the book, is told from Thomas Jerome Newton's point of view, and so it is likewise charged with making the familiar seem distant and alien.

Newton is embodied by David Bowie; he is the character who is most similar to what appears in the book. The movie works perfectly with his otherworldy persona, but in keeping with Roeg's intent to explore deeper into the characters, the film introduces a sexual relationship between him and Mary-Lou. Mary-Lou was named Betty Jo in the book, and while they start out being very similar people (save that Mary-Lou is about ten years younger than Betty Jo, but one could easily imagine Mary-Lou ten years later being what Betty Jo is when we're introduced to her in the novel), and it is in her portrayal that the film departs most from the book.

Few filmmakers explored sexuality as well as Roeg did in the 70s (Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now). It makes the film and novel more distinct from one another as befits their respective media, and introduces some very interesting essays on the nature of intimacy. The arresting scene where Newton reveals his true form to Mary-Lou (which is exactly what the book describes) is perhaps one of cinema's most penetrating statements about how difficult it is to really understand another human being.

Of course, the biggest changes from the book to the film involve the passage of time. The novel takes place over the course of a few years while the movie seems to take place over an indeterminate amount of decades, but since Newton experiences time differently from the way that the humans around him do, the film follows a very elliptical course, perhaps the most chaotic Roeg has ever assembled. Newton remains the same but the people around him age, gray and wrinkle, time leaps forward and sometimes backward without warning. Meanwhile, the character himself becomes successively more ineffectual as he succumbs to alchoholism.

This last bit is surprisingly more apparent in the film than it is in the novel. It is a major aspect of both The Hustler and Tevis' life in general, and it is in the book of The Man Who Fell To Earth, but the omnipresent bottles of Beefeater's gin littering the landscape of the film tend to make the alcohol practically another character in the film. It is also more clearly tied into Newton's mythic "fall" as well, more so than in the novel.

That fall is, of course, the ultimate direction of the story, which may easily have also been titled "The Man Who Fell On Earth." Newton may (or may not) be an extraterrestrial, but his failings are all too human, whether it be the alcohol, the sex, or being overly trusting the people around him. He approaches many of these events with a sense of inevitability, which is often how people justify their failings to themselves. The scenes of Newton on his home planet tend to be intercut with his most viscerous dealings with Mary-Lou also imply a very human falling, and it is interesting that the film emphasizes that his doomed mission is to save his family, whereas in the book he is sent there by the Antheans to preserve their species. The death of Anthea is more visceral in the film, seeing his wife and children die, than it is in the book, where Newton is forced to concede defeat in a more abstract manner.

Most films attempt to maintain a normal linear narrative. Roeg's do not, and so it was really interesting to see how much of the book is, in fact, in the film. On the whole, this is a very accurate adaptation of the novel it was based on, the areas where it was changed are those that tend to make it work better as a film. In this case, those changes elevate the film from being a cautionary allegory (numerous literary and non-literary allusions litter the film, from Bruegel's The Fall of Icarus and Auden's poem about it - both in the book - to the Jesus fable to the mythology of modern rock music) to being a lasting example of the cinema as an art form.

Some of Bowie's album Low, a collaboration with Brian Eno, is music that he was considering scoring the film with. Every source I've checked has a different story about this, whether Bowie was ever actually considered to score the film or not; the editor says he tracked the film mostly with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which is what the original score sounds more like most of the time. Either way, Bowie himself has said that the music for this record was directly inspired by the experience of making the film, and that is why the cover is a publicity still of him as Newton from the movie.

"I am playing pool, Fats. When I miss, you can shoot."

An aside: Robert Rossen's film of The Hustler was made available from Fox a couple of years ago with a fantastic anamorphic widescreen transfer; if you haven't seen it in its original black-and-white Panavision (impossible since its last theatrical run) than you haven't seen it at all. There are also quite a few very good supplements on the disc, although I would suggest avoiding the pointless bogus stereo track that Fox seems to feel the need to include with their older films. This film is completely timeless, and is as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1961. And you can't beat a cast that features Paul Newman at his very best, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Murray Hamilton. Keep an eye out for Jake LaMotta and Vincent Gardenia (who looks exactly the same here as he did in Little Shop of Horrors and Moonstruck) who also appear in smaller roles in the film.
Tags: cinema
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