Monday, September 19, 2011

AstroGnostic: The Man Who Fell to Earth

At the height of his first wave of success in the 1970s David Bowie signed to star in Nic Roeg's adaption of the seminal 60s sci-fi novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'm not sure what I think about the movie itself, but it seems to be an unacknowledged landmark in the ongoing AstroGnostic revelation. As well as a film rife with signifiers that resonate much more strongly than what Roeg put onscreen.

In fact, the idea for this piece here really came from thinking about the Templars and how they ended up a lot like Thomas Jerome Newton at the end of Earth. Like Newton, the Templars --as well as the other crusading orders-- failed in their mission, in this case to return the "Holy Land" to Christian control. It's interesting to note how Earth all kicks off in the desert, and that Newton himself came from a dying desert world.

It's also interesting how Newton's business empire was taken over by the US Gov't at the same time he too was subjected to Medieval torture during the inquisition to determine his alien origin. As with the Templars, Newton's phenomenal success in business -- electronics, in this case -- put him on the Inquisitors' radar.

If indeed the Templars were being used to rebuild the ancient Phoenician empire -- a task in which they also failed at-- there's another parallel to Newton's task of saving his homeworld. Newton's failure was fueled by his addiction to liquor and television, the Templars' failure was fueled by their addiction to money and worldly success.

The parallels only go so far- Newton is a cosmic naif, an innocent haunted by the onrushing fate of his family and his people who is destroyed by the vulgarity of 70s America, and the Templars were brilliant yet marauding cut-throats whose every move seemed shrouded in deception and double-meaning.

But did Bowie himself sense the connection? Just before entering his own decade-long fall to Earth, Bowie released "Loving the Alien," as a single, whose lyrics not only namecheck the Templars but seem to be more about Templar mythology than about, you know, aliens.

The video pictures Bowie in several guises, one minute wielding a Templar shield and lance and the next as a English gentleman marrying a Muslim princess in a post-industrial wasteland, a tidy foreshadowing of Bowie's own marriage to Iman, the Somali-born 80s supermodel, during the lowest ebb of his career.

Bowie probably knows more about Gnosticism and aliens and the rest of it than all of us. In the 70s he was literally superhuman, sustaining himself on cocaine, milk and the occasional raw egg while blasting out one classic LP after another, bedding thousands of groupies and touring the world tirelessly with his enormous occult library in tow and spending his spare time scanning the skies for UFOs. But Earth seem to trigger something deep inside the Great White Duke, or maybe it was the New Mexico desert.

After Earth's release, Bowie found himself in Berlin in thrall of a glamorous cabaret drag queen named Romy Haag, whom he met after his triumphant appearance in the divided city. When he wasn't writing and producing seminal albums for Iggy Pop, Bowie's day job saw him holed up in the studio with nascent super-producer Brian Eno, making records which the critics and his record company hated but would eventually be copied by everyone from Duran Duran to Depeche Mode. 

Which is to say Bowie single-handedly invented New Wave and Synth Pop within the space of a year. Throw in Post-Punk for good measure.

In other words, if anyone was an alien on Earth it was David Bowie in the 70s.

Roeg's path to Earth would be a lot different. It would start with Performance, a film he co-directed with the late Donald Cammell, who played Osiris in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising. Jagger had expunged Anger from the Stones' orbit by this time, but that occultic fog lingered around the set, probably emanating from Cammell, a close Anger associate.

After Performance, Roeg would make Walkabout, featuring a young Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run, American Werewolf in London). This was a Gnostic parable in and of itself, with two English schoolkids stranded in the unforgiving Australian outback (the desert again) after their father shoots himself during a picnic after trying to kill them (shades of Chronos).

The kids fall from the lap of comfort and security of their station and class into the brittle wasteland, then to a lush oasis before they are brought back to their world by a curious young Aborigine. Which itself is another fall, from the Edenic garden to the sterile, workaday world of modern Australia.

Note that Bowie would reverse the plot of Walkabout in his video for "Let's Dance" in 1983.

In between Walkabout and Earth, Roeg filmed the occult thriller Don't Look Now in Venice (where else?), bringing us back to the Templar world, or at least its frontiers. Like those two, Don't Look Now relies on unorthodox editing and storytelling techniques, bringing Roeg a lot of admirers in film schools (Steven Soderbergh and Chris Nolan are two notable Roeg acolytes), but perhaps fewer at the box office. The film would inspire controversy when rumors had it that the sex between stars Donald Sutherland and Julia Christie was of the un-simulated variety.

After prowling the moldy alleyways of Venice, Roeg returned to the desert where he was probably bemused by Bowie's incessant UFO sightings. Bowie's life mirrored Newton's in many ways, a preternatural genius whose addictions were killing him and/or driving him insane. Vibes were so heavy in Los Angeles (drugs, corruption, witchery) that cold war Berlin seemed like a better deal.

More inadvertent prophecy? Los Angeles is quickly becoming an economic wasteland, as California's runaway deficits and the ongoing deflation of Hollywood hegemony are sinking the city into depression. After Berlin's postwar fall, it seems to be in the ascendant, as Germany's refusal to see its citizens as disposable serfs (or 21st Century Americans, if you prefer) is helping drive its astonishing industrial ascent.

If The Man Who Fell to Earth inspired an identity crisis in its star-- one that had to be tended to immediately-- it signaled a fall from grace for its auteur. Never a hitmaker, Roeg's films hit the skids with the critics as well. The only post-Earth film to receive significant attention was his adaption of Roald Dahl's book The Witches in 1990. Roeg is almost universally hailed as a genius, but genius doesn't mean box office in this fallen world.

Ask Roeg's old partner Donald Cammell, who'd also work with Julie Christie in his 1977 adaption of Dean Koontz' The Demon Seed, a Transhumanist Rosemary's Baby with a priapic A.I. in place of Ol' Scratch. Cammell's last film would be Wild Side, which starred Anne "Call Me Celestia" Heche and Twin Peaks femme fatale Joan Chen. The death-fixated Cammell shot himself soonafter, slowly dying in his young wife's arms.

Cammell was not only a close friend of Kenneth Anger he claimed to have been bounced on the knee of none other than Aleister Crowley, a friend of Cammell's family. Cammell was another prodigy of unearthly talent- before taking up directing, he was an in-demand portrait painter, boasting old master chops while still a teenager.

Like Jack Parsons before him, Cammell be drawn like a moth to Crowley's black flame and like Parsons his life and his genius would be extinguished at too young an age. Something of a repeating pattern with the Great Beast 666.

Bowie too would fly too close to the black flame during the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth, and his own Crowley flirtations threatened to drive him out of his coke-addled brain. The title track on Station to Station would have Bowie finally placing himself in Crowley's uniform, quoting the Beast's pornographic poem "White Stains" and crooning about the Sephiroth.

Unlike Cammell and Parsons, Bowie pulled himself away from Crowley's orbit and survived, helped in no small part by the musical ministrations of Fripp and Eno and the tender mercies of Romy Haag.

Bowie as Yaltabaoth, Saklas, and Sammael,
contemplating the Serpent Christ

Eno would return to rescue Bowie again after the Thin White Duke's soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia convinced the producer that Bowie was serious about music again. 1. Outside (1995) returned Bowie to his Berlin headspace and also to the stars. "Hallo Spaceboy" joined the swollen ranks of Bowie's love songs to elusive aliens, but this one was colored by a Gnostic pessimism, a justifiable suspicion that this chaotic world won't tolerate angels or prodigies.

1.Outside was a concept album, loosely telling the story of a detective investigating the ritual murder of a young girl by a pair of renegade performance artists(anticipating Pseudo-Occult Media by several years). Bowie was swept up by millennium fever and saw Y2K in distinctly apocalyptic terms. Sounding uncomfortably like '76-vintage Bowie, he claimed that 1.Outside was meant to tap into that fever:
Oh, I've got the fondest hopes for the fin de siecle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There's a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it's gonna be a colossal madness at the end of this century.
He was a little ahead of his time, yet again. Bowie's first post-9/11 release Heathen boasted images of defaced religious icons in the booklet and lyrics which many interpreted as responses to the fall of the WTC towers. 

However, Bowie revealed that they were written and in some cases recorded prior to the events. As he did in the past, Bowie followed on the success of Heathen with a hasty follow-up Reality, but experienced an onstage cardiac event that sent him into retirement, ostensibly.

The Starman is mortal after all. It happens to the best of us.

POSTSCRIPT: Thomas Jerome Newton was not of this world but just imagine for a moment that perhaps we aren't either. Not who we really are, underneath it all. We are all blank slates at birth and the original sin is the world's-- the systems that we inherit against our will-- not our own.

If anything is ever going to change for the better, I think alienation is a good place to start. There's a lot worth being alienated from. You don't have to be ashamed of feeling alienated by a world filled with evil, stupidity, greed and injustice. We've all fallen into the world as it is but if our children's children are to be free, maybe imagining a different world-- a world in which we would feel at home-- is a good place to start.