David Bowie’s recent passing prompted tons of commentary on his unique contribution to pop culture. More than a rock star (he never won a music Grammy), and not quite a movie star, his variety of personae invited the public to observe the variability of our personal identities. His first film, The Man Who Fell to Earth established him as an actor (he studied acting before becoming a pop star) and as a shape-shifter. Not unlike how we saw him shape-shift in public and musical life. In it Bowie portrays an alien who crashes to earth alone, a stranger in a strange land. He soon finds ways to capitalize on his advanced knowledge and becomes an international economic power. But his character always seems out of sorts, not fully present even as he takes on human characteristics and relationships.
During the film Bowie gets homesick and remembers his wife and kids and we see footage of their hollow faces and chapped skin. Their world had dried up, gotten too hot and they sent Newton (Bowie) out to our water planet on a scouting mission. We never really learn what he intended to do, because while using his special knowledge and powers to build the world’s greatest corporation, the authorities catch on and he gets locked in to earth.
Released in 1974, it predicted the global warming, we’re grappling with now. Directed by Nicholas Roeg with many hard camera angles and cuts and populated by sharp-edged, one-dimensional characters, the message is clear: We’re too dumb to do what’s good for us. That contrasts with 2015’s trite, all-American solution, to earth’s drying up, Interstellar—planets are disposable, build a new on.
The Man Who Fell to Earth uncovered the emotional nuance of losing or leaving one’s home and its preciousness— where ever it is. Bowie played the role so well, as in most of his personae, one can barely distinguish the character from him. In the film he slips into various guises, never ages, but ultimately falls into futility, wry cynicism, and drunkenness. He fell to earth and found out we too were barren, but we hadn’t realized.
Bowie is famous for his variety of roles played out in music and movies. So good at it he convinced most of us that those roles were actually him. The popular perception was that he had changed and become the Diamond Dog, or the Thin White Duke, and the alienated Brit in Berlin, and finally just disappearing until his recent album was released two days before his death. Bowie kept us guessing all the time, but we put on him more than he really was, or perhaps he revealed something inside all of us that we didn’t know existed. I attended his show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA during the Diamond Dogs tour. And like most concerts it started late. Eventually, from stage left, he floats down in some kind of a crane in full space costume, and if I’m remembering correctly singing ‘Uncle Tom to ground control.’ So, Bowie. He proceeded to blow our minds with staging that referenced the dystopian novel 1984 (mind the actual date loomed ominously in the near future in those days).
Thinking about Bowie and the film, my recent trip to south-western New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument came to mind. Driving through the gates I felt like I had fallen to another world. Whiter than Vail in a good snow blizzard, even the road was whited out. Wary of striking out into the desert alone, I stopped and had a beer since it was in season according to a sign.
Hot and tired after driving for five hours through some of the most empty land in New Mexico, and eating an astro burger in the military-oriented town near the park. Sipping on the beer, I decided to stay close to the car and shade in this heat and did a few sand slides utilizing the technique I picked up in 2014 in Swakapmund, Namibia. Big fun, but not so much fun to climb the hill in the heat. I later learned that a German couple and their son died not far from the road the month I was there. I guess Germans aren’t used to such heat, and the precautions required thereby.
Unexpected, unusual, and uncomplicated, White Sands feels like another dimension. Totally unlike any other place I’ve seen, expect for the red sands of Namibia. I felt Bowie-esque, alone, a stranger in a strange land. But that’s what I travel for, the thrill of discovery of unique, beautiful, mind-blowing, heart-opening, experiences.