The Abstract Vision of Nicolas Roeg

A view into the dizzyingly vertiginous accomplishments of Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth".
Adam Nayman

Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is showing July 20 - August 19 and Don't Look Now (1973) is showing July 30 - August 29, 2018 in Germany in the series Double Feature: Nicolas Roeg.

Illustration by WBYK.

“[Nicolas] Roeg has more visual strategies than any other director I can think of,” wrote Pauline Kael in 1975, reviewing the director’s melancholic sci-fi allegory The Man Who Fell to Earth. She goes on to enumerate them while insisting that in the end they don’t add up to much, echoing the qualms she had with the similarly virtuosic Don’t Look Now two years earlier: “this is the fanciest, most carefully assembled enigma yet put on the screen.” In both reviews, Kael’s admiration for Roeg’s compositional sense (“he can charge a desolate landscape so that it seems ominously alive”) conflicts with suspicions that there’s less going on in his impeccably framed and edited images than meets the eye; “by the end, [his] effects grow off-puttingly abstract.”

Kael’s dismissals may seem like an odd starting point for this piece, especially since one of these two films—Don’t Look Now—ranks high among my all-time favorites. But however much I ultimately agree with these reviews, I respect them for how they attempt, whatever the outcome, to wrestle with an aesthetic predicated on a calculated form of disorientation—to nod to Roeg’s mastery of the medium while reckoning with the consequences of submitting too fully to his control. What was it about these movies that compelled Kael, an avowed advocate of the liberating possibilities of letting cinema massage the viewers’ subconscious “when the lights go down,” to watch with her eyes only half wide shut?

“‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘ but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.’” So begins the short story by Daphne Du Maurier that Roeg and his screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant reworked, with a fascinating mixture of faithfulness and freedom, for their 1973 movie version. The scene of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) receiving what seems to be the evil eye from vacationing sisters Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania) in a Venetian cafe is still in the film but it’s no longer the entry point into the story and the line has been excised; the substance of John’s remark plays out instead via the much celebrated prologue in which Roeg depicts—using what Kael perceptively described as “fast, splintered, almost subliminal imagery”—the death-by-drowning of the couple’s young daughter Christine. The lulling melody of Pino Donaggio’s piano score and pastoral English scenery draws us in; the increasingly accelerated, jigsaw-precise intercutting between characters, locations and objects lodge specific shapes, colors and compositions in the back of our mind even as we’re feeling the tragedy of the situation in the pit of our stomach. Don’t look now, but you’re already fully entranced.

This sensation of being held by a movie’s vision, of not being able to look away under any circumstances,  is one of Roeg’s specialties, what Kael correctly characterized as the “sexiness of passivity.” No less than its sublime opening sequence, Don’t Look Now’s eroticism—specifically the sex scene between John and Laura shortly after their encounter with the sisters and the pair’s subsequent suggestion to the latter that Christine’s spirit is near—has been well-chronicled over the years, but instead of disrupting or shifting the film’s tone or texture, the imagery of their coupling, which juxtaposes full-frontal love-making with its buttoned-up aftermath, simply extends the prologue’s mesmerizing aesthetic into a different context. Crucially, both scenes are ruled by expressions of hot, overpowering emotion: Sutherland’s soul-baring, open-mouthed shout of grief as John fishes his daughter out of the pond finds its echo in his facial expressions while entwined with Laura, recontextualizing footage that might otherwise play as chicly pornographic (right down the on-set rumors of unsimulated sex) as an authentically tender depiction of sex as a form of loving, mutual catharsis.  John and Laura’s electric ecstasy and cozy intimacy become combined on a molecular level, and Roeg’s main strategy among many throughout Don’t Look Now is to use editing to collapse the distance between past, present and future so that no one temporality is privileged or stable. The opening scene encodes aspects of the ending (a watery backdrop; a blood-red scheme; cracked glass)  just as surely as the final scenes call back—either via insert shots or rhymed compositions—to earlier events.

In place of Du Maurier’s harshly sardonic punchline (“what a bloody silly way to die,” thinks John as his throat is slashed by a serial killer he’s mistaken for Christine’s ghost) Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford permit their doomed hero (and the audience) the exquisite, excruciating privilege of watching his life flash before his eyes and realizing that he should have seen his end coming. (One movie that is rarely mentioned in analyses of Don’t Look Now is La jetée, but I’ve always thought of Marker’s “photo-roman” when watching Roeg’s film—both link mortality to moments of epiphanic self-actualization).  The wonderfully polyvalent phrase “don’t look now” thus refers in the end to John’s anxious, rational-minded rejection of the heightened form of perception granted him (in plot terms) by an inborn “second sight.”  Kael’s sarcastic too “fancily assembled enigma” suggests a similar refusal to see what the film is doing. For all its surface disorientation, Don’t Look Now is by the end fully unmysterious, reconciling the everyday and the uncanny in a way that locates reassurance and peace of mind even in violent, unfathomable tragedy.

Like Don’t Look Now’s flirtation with giallo tropes and occult mysticism (which it engages with more sparingly than the short story), The Man Who Fell To Earth is ostensibly a genre exercise: a science-fiction film about an extraterrestrial’s close encounters with humanity after arriving on Earth. It’s actually easier to contextualize Roeg’s film (adapted from a novel by Watler Tevis) in terms of the movies it influenced—from E.T. to The Brother From Another Planet to Under the Skin—than to seek out cinematic antecedents; at the time of its release, The Man Who Fell To Earth was received as strikingly original in the context of other science-fiction movies even if most critics—including Kael—pegged it as being a high modernist spin on the New Testament: an allegory of the Crucifixion, with Bowie’s sad-eyed, ambisexual alien standing in for Christ and the soulless conveniences of our material world (sex and drugs, though strangely not rock and roll) as the cross he hoists himself on.

I’ve always found this reading of The Man Who Fell to Earth simplistic, starting with the fact that its protagonist is named for a hero of empiricism rather than religious devotion. When asked his name after materializing in the middle of the New Mexico desert, Bowie introduces himself as “Thomas James Newton,” a moniker with its own obvious gravity. What goes up must come down, and Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (who would later write the script for the director’s insane, amazing Eureka) style the character’s arc as a long, slow descent—partially a fall from grace into temptation, but more generally a study of despair: a depressive epic.  At the film’s outset, Newton’s outward calm (wonderfully pantomimed by Bowie in a performance built more around gestures than vocal inflections) belies a sense of urgency tied to his family back home; it’s implied that drought has overrun his planet and he’s hoping to draw enough water from Earth’s oceans to combat the problem. But where in Don’t Look Now family ties bind the story’s emotional elements together (and send them splintering apart), The Man Who Fell to Earth has a numbed, anesthetized texture—not the beguilement of hearing a scary story but the floating, anxious indifference of being medicated and wheeled into the operating room for surgery. In, Don’t Look Now images surge forward in a torrent; in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the virtuosity has become parched. This contrast makes sense insofar as the former is set in watery Venice—an aquatic labyrinth of canals—and ruled by motifs of drowning, while its follow-up thematizes drought. Here, Roeg’s style is not used to confer coherence on chaos but to apprehend the decadent emptiness that imposes itself on Newton—a case of spiritual thirst that goes unslaked.

While I wouldn’t call The Man Who Fell to Earth “off-puttingly abstract,” I’d agree with Kael—as well as other early dissenters like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert—that one byproduct of Roeg’s approach is that the viewer’s mind wanders. In many ways, it’s a far more “open” film than Don’t Look Now, allowing for us to make all sorts of subtextual connections: the parallels between Bowie’s rock-star celebrity and Newton’s growing notoriety (which spurs the attention of the CIA);  the topographical similarities between his blasted world and our own; the alien’s reliance on technology versus the filmmaker’s evident ambivalence about same. The indelible image of Bowie watching a half-dozen televisions at once in a  in a gin-addled stupor signifies beautifully in terms of Newton’s personal and cultural alienation—his attempt to understand his adopted environment through mass media—but it’s also a witty, suggestive emblem of Roeg’s kaleidoscopic M.O., except that here the character (and the audience’s) concentration is being dispersed instead of directed.  Kael’s observation that Roeg seems fixated on decay (apparent in the way he shoots Venice in Don’t Look Now) plays out explicitly in The Man Who Fell to Earth’s final scenes, which emphasize Newton’s isolation and ruin. Newton’s ultimate lack of understanding about the Earth and how to navigate it inverts John’s fate in Don’t Look Now. One man lives to regret his confusion while the other achieves perfect clarity just as it’s too late.

There is a school of thought that The Man Who Fell to Earth was Roeg’s last “major” film and that the increasingly isolated features that followed in the 1980s—Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, Eureka, Insignificance and Track 29—constitute an artistic decline: the auteur who fell to earth. This is highly debatable, and each of these films could just as easily be used to illustrate Kael’s comment about visual strategies (including the superficially stagebound Insignificance, which is quite brilliantly crafted despite its claustrophobic set-up). It’s not wrong, however, to see the dizzyingly vertiginous accomplishments of Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth as twin peaks all the same.  

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