Rethinking American Dream Thorough Four Films: The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
In the last article on Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River (2014), I have settled with the concept advanced by both Gosling and David Bowie: In order to go on in the world without any false hope of retaining/attaining a messianic redemption, we must find strength in the love and care which one feels for our precious ones. To find a reason and motivation to go on without any metaphysical notion which promises eternal salvation means that one must find the source of strength amongst finite subjects whom one intimately knows and loves (for philosophers: I am not endorsing Harry Frankfurt’s notion of ‘love’. In order to avoid what I think is a rather solipsistic notion of ‘love’ advocated by Frankfurt, we need to appreciate the Hegelian dialectic, yet I digress. For our current purpose, we are not getting into how our love should be exercised; in this article, I am focusing on the possibility of having this feeling in the first place). The obvious problem with this solution is: It is not easy to develop and maintain relationships that are genuinely meaningful. Not only can human relationships be shifty and/or fragile in general, in this age of instant/constant connectivity, we must survive all too invasive distractions before dreaming of having a genuine human interaction which, if one applies oneself, might grow into something true. Moreover, even if one is fortunate enough to establish such a relationship with someone, there is another problem with this solution: Since one locates the source of one’s strength in finite subjects, in the event of severance, one effectively loses the reason to go on. As life on Earth becomes increasingly precarious due to the constant outbreak of violence and disasters, one must be aware of this possibility, despite that nothing can prepare us to cope with such a loss. And the more we are made aware of the precariousness of life on Earth, the less convincing our current solution becomes. Then, we must face the following question: What must we do when we are denied having a meaningful relationship? Before answering it, we must assess how it feels to live with alienation due to such a loss.
To see just how difficult it is to cope with the severance from loved ones, and the resulting alienation and despair, there is no better place to start than Nicolas Roeg’s cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). This rather spotty film, both aesthetically and technically, attains cult status due to the involvement of David Bowie. He not only played the main protagonist, Thomas Jerome Newton, but inspired the entire project to the degree that the film became an experimental documentary about David Bowie in 1976 under the pretence of a SCI-FI film. All of this is obvious, yet I shall take a moment to briefly touch on this subject by recalling that Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s first breakout persona, was an alien who came to the Earth with a lofty goal, only to be corrupted by his involvement with Rock’n Roll and the resulting stardom. Like Ziggy, Newton comes to Earth, more specifically to the United States, in a mission to bring water back to his thirsty home planet and save his family, only to be prevented from achieving his goal by the American government. As the result of his failure, his family perishes from an extreme drought. It appears that no one from this advanced civilisation survives this extreme weather, leaving Newton as a sole survivor, a captive in an alien Form of Life. Whilst Roeg’s feature film bears distinct characteristics from the 1970s, such as indulgent sexual expressions, a paranoid tendency of conspiracy theorists, and a casual approach to stylistic experiments, the core of the story brought on by Bowie endures the test of time, since it expresses the existential challenge of life in the time of great chaos and spiritual degeneration brought on by our modern human condition.
Unlike in Brooklyn, the America represented in this film is not the Promised Land where one can expect to attain everything the American Dream promises: a fresh start; freedom from traditions; rooms for enterprising thinking; reward for hard-work; and genuine human relation in an egalitarian utopia. Instead, The Man Who Fell to Earth presents a distinctly dark and sinister side of the industrial empire. Newton is prevented from saving his family due to interference from the American government who sees Newton’s scientific patents as matter of national security: as Newton’s true identity becomes known to them, secret agents murder his right-hand man, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), seize Newton’s assets, and subject him to confinement and brutal medical experiments. It is the sort of picture fostered by paranoiac conspiracy theorists who believe the might of the American government to be absolute. Yet, there is another factor which works against Newton: even before his mission is terminated, Newton’s well-being is already severely undermined. Through the companionship of Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), he is exposed to the silently destructive side of American life: hard drinking; binge watching TV; and sex without intimacy. He is already so damaged that he cannot find anything better to do than drown himself in alcohol and despair even after his liberation from captivity. And thus, in this story, America is a dystopian prison cell from which one can hardly escape without sustaining irreparable damages. Incidentally, this is the same America from which Bowie was struggling to extract himself. After seeing some success on the American music charts, Bowie moved to Los Angeles. It became apparent that the move was a disaster; LA alienated him to the extent that he lost all sense of reality, and the life of a Rock star in the USA accelerated his descent into addiction and paranoia. By the time Roeg started filming, Bowie was barely holding onto his sanity, as he admits later.
The great irony here is that the United States of America, the new champion of industrial materialism (to understand the use of this term clearly, please read my review of The Big Short), was started mainly as a British colony, the nation that started the global domination of Industrial Materialism in motion via its celebrated legacy of the Industrial Revolution and its global colonial empire. Despite its origin as the land of Native Americans and strong French influences in the early days, it retains a distinct family resemblance to its former ‘mother land’, due to the initial dominance of English settlers. In this sense, a Brit is in a similar position to that of Dr. Frankenstein; he cannot recognise humanity in his creation, yet it is far more powerful than the inventor himself. He must look in despair, rather than in contempt, for what he perceives as the monstrosity is precisely the realisation of his own vision; whilst the consequences may be unintended, the characteristics of this creature are the logical extension of his world-view. Interestingly, for Bowie, the New World was the Promised Land of his childhood; it is the land he dreamed to be in, and it is the place he later returns and settles permanently. In early days, he was keenly in tune with the American music scene, and artists such as Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground stimulated his ground breaking creative endeavours. Whilst America acts as a catalyst in his life-threatening crisis of the mid 1970s, in his later career, his time in the United States appears to be generally a stabilising experience. For example, his album Reality (2002) is a contemplation of the world after 9/11, and, in his own words, draw inspiration from the immediacy of the streets of New York City. Whilst he continued to remain eclectic both in his styles and inspirations, he was in a position to withstand the challenges of living as an alien subject in the empire. Then, it is natural to question: How did he overcome the crisis of his life and then chose to live as an alien again in the United States, of all places?
In order to answer this question, first we need to cast our eyes back to the crisis again. When he was Thin White Duke, Bowie, like Newton, felt absolutely alone. He was estranged from his family and friends, and barely sane. His life was taken over by loneliness and addiction, and the trouble with his manager added to the mistrust and paranoia. Whilst we don’t know whether he contemplated suicide at some point during his crisis, the severity of addiction, and the poignancy expressed in some of the songs from this period, clearly indicate just how dire the situation was for him. As his dangerous balancing act added to the fascination for his music and character, he was just barely holding on. Now, I must be clear: I have no inkling whatsoever about what separates the ones who survive and the ones who do not. It is a mystery and it will remain that way, for there are simply too many variables to explain everything away with a few neatly formulated theories. And thus, instead of trying to offer one explanation or another, I shall simply point to one factor which might prove to be not only interesting, but also useful.
There is one crucial difference between Bowie and some of the notable artists from his contemporaries who commit suicide. For instance, in the case of Ian Curtis (Joy Division), his commitment with the moment is absolute, and frightening. In contrast, Bowie expresses himself through certain characters and intricate conceptual expositions. Whilst his expressions do not necessarily lose intensity or poignancy, there were always complex layers of intellectual and artistic conceptualisation existing between the man and his expression, no matter how moving his performance was. As he was on the razor’s edge, his intellect offered a protective buffer, however slim it was at certain times. This is a crucial factor not only for Bowie, but for anyone who struggles to find a reason to go on in this world; intellect reaches toward the world around us, for it is expansive by its nature. When intellect is at work, it separates us, however temporarily, from our emotions by shifting our attention from them, thereby providing a sort of protective shield to us. In addition, intellect tends to put things in perspective, since it strives toward objectivity and moves away from subjectivity. This feature is particularly helpful in testing situations; we tend to experience emotions with lesser intensity when we can discursively make sense of the situation. Whilst Curtis never lacked intellectual curiosities, the manner in which he pursued his chosen subjects is notable: according to his widow, Deborah, he spent most of his spare time by studying human sufferings through his reading of history (Touching From a Distance, 1995). It is apparent what his pursuit did to his art: he was so involved with the subject of his study, that is, human suffering, that he literally transformed the stage into an ‘atrocity museum’ where he would have a fit, collapse, and be torn apart. This is exactly the state Austrian poet Georg Trakl aimed at, and expressed through his poetry with both alarming and admiring consistency. Whilst we must acknowledge this quality as a rare and precious gift, for the sake of artists’ well-being, this is probably the most undesirable of characteristics. With absolute merging of the world and the self, one would effectively lose grip of both: when one loses an objective look of the world as it is absorbed into the subjective experience, the self dissolves into an unrecognisable chaos of sensations. Whether one finds it fascinating or suspicious depending on one’s idea of creativity, Bowie’s intellect did not work in this way; he was intensely engaged with whatever he chose to do, yet there was always the presence of mind in his undertakings. Even in his most severe form of paranoia, he was still striving to make sense of the world and his place in it, and he had found a creative outlet through the subjects he chose to examine, understand, and express.
Whilst his intellect may have pushed him to dangerous places, it is clear that the manner in which he engaged intellectually with the world not only helped his creative endeavours, but also ensured certain gain of time. His quest to make sense of the world and his own trials led him out of the United States to West Berlin, the city which represents the promise and the betrayal of the Enlightenment. It is clear that his stay in Berlin had a transformative effect, both creatively and philosophically; not only did he break new ground with his ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the history and the culture represented by the city helped him to overcome his distorted world-view; in time he came to situate his work and his existence in a proper philosophical context, and was able to clearly and concisely express his own insight (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TajCh41y17I). Whether you will agree with his view or not is not really the point; it is important to note that the use and the engagement of intellect do have a positive effect on one’s well-being. As the cases of Curtis and Kurt Cobain might suggest, when one lacks a precious relationship from which one might draw strength, it is not enough to devote oneself to a special vocation for which one feels passionate enough to sacrifice everything. The question is not whether one has such a vocation or not; it is rather how one engages with it. And it is beyond doubt that the proper use of intellect is crucial for us to face many challenges, due to its ability to introduce a certain objectivity to the way we engage with the world which should prevent us from plunging into the depth of paranoia. Bowie represents an exemplary case of intellect serving a therapeutic function. In the aforementioned interview, it is striking to see him speaking of his alienation and isolation with what appears as a certain degree of cheerfulness. It is clear that he made peace with his alienation, and chose to live through it by taking up residence in the nation which isolated him in the past, rather than going back to London where he could exploit his status as a kind of national treasure. Whilst it was a good move which stimulated his creativity, it was also an important decision philosophically: by finalising the acceptance of one’s alienation by making it ‘official’, one can discard delusional notions such as the Promised Land and ‘belonging’ to a certain Form of Life. By rejecting to be loyal to a certain Form of Life for the sake of safeguarding one’s place in it, one creates an option for oneself to remain critically objective. This rejection to give an oath to any collective functions also enables us to shift our focus on immediate and personal relationships, and thus, we are no longer swayed by vague and incoherent notions such as nationalism/patriotism. By accepting one’s status as an alien, one can cultivate an unassuming attitude toward each individual whom one encounters. Whilst this attitude would not demolish categories such as nationality, gender, class, and race, it opens enough room for us to engage tête-à-tête, an engagement which, if both interlocutors are committed and intelligent, could be the start of a genuine dialectic.
Does it mean that the proper engagement with intellect is going to substitute for the lack of precious ones in life? Hardly. In fact, it does not even guarantee our survival; it certainly does not make one’s life meaningful on its own. My current assessment is that, given the failure of all messianic notions, political or otherwise, we must look for modest aims, and thus, the suggestion by Bowie and Gosling, namely, finding the source of strength in precious and personal relationships (without, of course, endorsing some sort of nepotism) is probably the only plausible way for us to go on in this world. The obvious caveat to this position is: it is common to suffer the lack of such a relationship, and moreover, even if one successfully establishes and sustains such relationships, given the precariousness of life on Earth, the threat of severance cannot be ignored. One may be forced to go down the route taken by Newton and drown oneself in despair and grief in the event of catastrophe. The resulting alienation should induce a powerful paranoia in the sufferer who eventually loses all contact with the world as a consequence. What the proper use of intellect promises to us is the time we gain from it. Intellect gives us a buffer from the onslaught of the raging affections and opens up a space for us to work things out. In addition, it strives for objectivity, and thus helps troubled individuals to contextualise one’s struggle. Whilst these characteristics of intellect aren’t enough to make life worth living on their own, they do prevent us from plunging straight into the abyss of despair. Whether the time gained may be enough for us to find reasons to go on or not depends on many variables, yet it does open a possibility for us to hang on in the mean time. In this sense, the life of David Bowie should make a compelling case for the cultivation of intellect. Whilst Thin White Duke continues to fascinate us by enacting our existential angst and despair, Bowie himself overcame them, and went on to build a meaningful life which benefited not only himself, but also the people around him. He not only drew strength from the precious ones around him, but also was able to give back to them. Again, intellect alone does not make a life meaningful. It does not guarantee one’s survival of crippling alienation and crushing loss, yet the time gained by the proper use of intellect offers a possibility to overcome them. And we have Bowie to thank for exemplifying what one’s intellect might enable for one’s search not for the meaning of life, but for a meaningful life.
This article is originally published in the blog post called The Promised Land in the section, Shadowplay, at: grotron.ink