Losing My Wings

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Talent agent Maggie Abbott introduced her client, the singer David Bowie, to film director Nicolas Roeg and producer Si Litvinoff, thinking he might secure a role in their new movie, an adaption of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth.  The movie would tell the story of an alien that travels to earth to retrieve water for his planet, which is experiencing a severe drought. Instead of bringing water home to his planet, the alien remains on earth, seduced by the pleasures of money, alcohol, and television. Roeg and Litvinoff had seen Bowie in the unreleased 1975 documentary, Cracked Actor, and thought he would perfectly play the part of the alien in their upcoming film. According to Bowie’s biographer, Paul Trynka, the pair were especially impressed by how Bowie “seemed totally isolated, disconnected from the world  -- alien.” Trynka 229.

Eventually released in 1976, the film opens with a sequence of shots, showing the alien’s space ship hurtling through space and crashing in a New Mexico lake. The film then captures Bowie as he walks over a sandy hill and through an abandoned mine, watched, from afar, by a sinister presence. Bowie then makes his way to the town of Haneyville, where he waits until an antique shop opens so he can sell a gold ring for money. The opening sequence ends as Bowie lies down on a bench, with his long body extended past the bench so his head dangles over the end of the bench, resembling the hanged man from a pack of Tarot cards. The film suggests that Bowie's character is a fallen angel in two senses of the word: in a literal sense, as the alien plummets from the heavens to the Earth in a space ship and in Michel Serres' sense, as the alien chooses to pursue earthly pleasures rather than his assigned mission.

The sequence of an alien falling to earth, was emblematic of Bowie’s career at the time as well. Bowie’s incredible creative period of the early 1970s had entered into a more sinister phase, the Thin White Duke phase of his career, where Bowie indulged his addiction to cocaine and became increasingly fascinated by occult magic and the iconography of Nazi Germany. Bowie’s body also registered his fall, as Maggie Abbott described Bowie’s appearance as “ghastly”, his “hip bones jutted through the jump suit he was wearing, his skin was white, and his teeth grey.” Trynka  230. Bowie’s gaunt frame and white skin only emphasized his alien appearance in the film. Bowie's character was resigned to this world but had not come from it. 

Four years later, Bowie, would reprise his Major Tom character on the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in the song, “Ashes to Ashes”. Although thought of as one of the pop songs with highest number of double meanings, it is pretty clear that like the alien in the film and Bowie in real life, Major Tom had come crashing to earth as well. 

     “Do you remember a guy that's been
     In such an early song?
     I've heard a rumor from Ground Control
     Oh no, don't say it's true

     . . . . .

     Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
     We know Major Tom's a junkie
     Strung out in heaven's high
     Hitting an all-time low.”

In the 1983 video of the song, it is the solarized landscape of the video that now looks alien, while Bowie now appears as the a sad clown Pierrot, an avatar of the burgeoning New Romantic movement (which included performers such as Duran Duran, Boy George, Steven Strange, and Spandau Ballet, among others). No longer the alien, Bowie remarked to writer Jean Rook of the Daily Express in 1976, "I'm Pierrot. I'm Everyman."

Or perhaps we should say that an angel does not need wings; angels haunt our memories allowing us to reflect on all we have traversed. They are produced through the ascent and the fall knowledge and provide a wizened perspective of growth and change. Michel Serres recognizes this as he writes that "The 'no' is not opposed to the 'yes', but collaborates with it in order to construct a system that is more refined." Or as David Bowie more simply observed,  "Ziggy was putting over the bizarre in our time. Now Bowie's putting over the sadness." 


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