Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

WHO: David Bowie stars, Buck Henry (pictured), Candy Clark and Rip Torn support, and Nicolas Roeg directs.

WHAT: This non-escapist science fiction film was Bowie's first role as an actor, and may be the most delicate of Roeg's works. Whether you find it an entrancing masterpiece or a pretentious bore may depend largely on your circumstances when seeing it; I thought it was pretty close to the latter category upon my first viewing nearly twenty years ago, but that was a version cut down by twenty minutes. If you think it's paradoxical to think of a longer cut of a film as better-paced than a shorter cut, think of the endless examples where it is (you may not agree with everything on this list but then again you might).

One fan of the film, at least of an aspect of the film central to his own cinematic interests, was activist and film historian Vito Russo, who throughout the 1980s frequently cited it as one the few examples of commercial cinema to depict a gay character in a way that was neither stigmatizing nor patronizing. He wrote in his chapter on the 1970s in The Celluloid Closet
Homosexuality was almost never incidental or second nature to a screen character; after all, sexuality was always the reason for using a gay character in the first place. In fact, except for the hitchhiking funny lesbian ecology freaks (Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil) whom Karen Black and Jack Nicholson pick up in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Buck Henry's incidentally gay lawyer to Davdi Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Robert Altman's unobtrusively integrated, happy lesbian couple (Heather MacRae and Tomi-Lee Bradley) in A Perfect Couple (1979), American cinema was unable to portray gay characters without their being sex-obsessed or sex-defined.
The fact that The Man Who Fell To Earth was actually a British-produced film that happened to be filmed and released in the United States makes his comment all the more damning to Hollywood portrayals of the era.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:00.

WHY: Though the PFA's recurring A Theatre Near You programming was conceived of to bring new restorations and art-cinema releases that bypassed the dwindling East Bay arthouse screens during recent commercial releases, and indeed this Saturday's screening of Buñuel's Tristana (on DCP rather than Blu-Ray as when it played in San Francisco in January) fits this bill, it seems the philosophy behind the "series" (which I've sometimes called a "non-series" due to its eclecticism) seems to have shifted somewhat. Now it seems to be more of a catch basin for any film that hasn't been able to be fit into any other recent PFA series (like the ongoing Studio Ghibli and Agnès Godard sets or the upcoming programs devoted to Eastern European classics and Raoul Walsh) but would likely appeal to PFA audiences. Which is fine. It means films like The Man Who Fell To Earth and the Mill and the Cross, both of which screened down the hill at the Shattuck in the Fall of 2011, have another excuse to unspool in 35mm. 

Though tonight's screening probably indicates that no Nicolas Roeg retrospective is planned for the PFA anytime soon (might I suggest he's a tad overdue for one?), later this year the venue will be hosting at least three more retrospectives devoted to great auteurs of the 1970s. Last month I mentioned that William Friedkin is expected in town for an (at least partially) in-person retrospective in September. Since then I've received a fundraising letter from the institution that tipped off a couple more: one for Pier Paolo Pasolini (whose last PFA retro was almost six years ago and very incomplete) and one for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which I hear will include his entire filmography, and will be mirrored in San Francisco by complimentary Fassbinder screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Roxie Cinema this Fall (this is confirmed by a note at the bottom of the latter's summer calendar, in case you haven't been eagle-eyed to catch it already.)

Friedkin. Pasolini. Fassbinder. All three factor into Russo's The Celluloid Closet, but only Friedkin gets more of a mention than The Man Who Fell To Earth does. Russo has frequently been criticized for not factoring the work of gay European auteurs into his thesis about the inadequacy of cinema to provide images of gay and lesbian characters that queer and queer-friendly audiences could be proud of. Such criticism seem oblivious to the fact that, as Michael Schiavi points out, The Celluloid Closet was in fact a reaction against a previous text about homosexual portrayals in cinema, Parket Tyler's Screening The Sexes, which looked more closely at examples from the avant-garde and the European "art cinema" tradition than it did the Hollywood Russo as more interested in for multiple reasons.

Friedkin, on the other hand, was discussed extensively by Russo, thanks to two particular films in his ouevre: The Boys In The Band and Cruising, which bookended the 1970s and in a way defined the decade vis-a-vis Hollywood's role in the national conversations about gays in that era, at least according to Russo's persuasive telling of it. For my part I've never seen The Boys In The Band and hope it's among the films the PFA brings as part of its Friedkin retro. I have seen the more controversial Cruising, and while it's probably my least favorite of the director's films, that doesn't make it not worth watching, or revisiting (it will be part of the PFA series in the fall, I'm told).

I'm getting around to the fact that the twin shadows of Russo and Cruising loom over the so-called "Cannes  of gay film festivals" (a title surely no less applicable even after last month's Cannes victory for a lesbian-themed film entitled Blue Is The Warmest Color), which begins tonight: Frameline. Russo because his always does; he was in 1986 the first recipient of the Frameline Award (this year going to Jamie Babbit) was the subject of last year's festival-opening documentary Vito, and because to this day there is probably no greater inspiration to LGBT filmmaking than the groundwork he laid with The Celluloid Closet. Vito's director Jeffrey Schwartz screens his new biographical doc I Am Divine (about the John Waters actor fetiche, naturally) at the Castro this Sunday afternoon.

Later that night the same venue will play host to Interior. Leather Bar., Travis Mathews & James Franco's exploration of the Cruising mythology, which apparently attempts to imagine what Friedkin's cutting-room floor may have gathered during the editing of that film to avoid an 'X' rating. And you thought Cruising was provocative?

I'll have more to say about Frameline over the next few days (here's my previous post from when the line-up was announced), but for now, I'm off to the PFA to see The Man Who Feel To Earth.

HOW: 35mm print of the full 140-minute version.

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