Strangers in Strange Lands 

bowie625.jpg

Aurora
Directed by Cristi Puiu
Opens June 29 at IFC Center

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg
June 24-July 7 at Film Forum

This fortnight, two headlong studies in displacement, detachment, damage: the long-in-the-making, concertedly long-in-the-watching new feature by the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and a 35th-anniversary revival of Nic Roeg's 1976 alien-out-of-water tragedy The Man Who Fell to Earth. In Aurora, Cristi Puiu plays a cracking-up engineer coping with some kind of domestic disorder and making hard-to-follow decisions that are echoed by Puiu's own remarkable choices as a filmmaker. The unnerving three-hour film, which has puzzled many and came partly out of exhaustive case-study research with prosecutors, chronicles a day and a half of puttering about, confrontation, withdrawal, woolgathering, through awkward exchanges, silences, stares, in largely static shots.

Intent and confused, played by Puiu with quiet enervation and then an aggrieved bumble, Viorel is the subject of an observational yet utterly interiorized movie, as he perplexes family, shopgirls, and police, dialing in from very far away, misleading in his ordinary, schlumpy appearance. It's not without the absurdist humor familiar from the new Romanian cinema, but unlike the Wisemanian irony about institutions in Lazarescu's breakdown, here it's more the scant sign of Viorel's well-being, a flicker of amusement at those around him that seems to go out. Interviewing a disarmingly insistent Puiu last fall, I couldn't help but feel that his new film—which went through four cinematographers (perhaps related to his insistence that his character's movements were not to be "anticipated"?)—feels informed by the perhaps paralyzing pressure to take a fresh step after the movement-defining éclat of Lazarescu (2005). He does, and it's one dark journey.

A sexier sell, to the point of being overdetermined, is David Bowie the Alien, strung out on heaven's high and perhaps at times coke, in The Man Who Fell to Earth. On the cusp of the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie, virtually translucent and red-shock-haired, languidly drifts through Earth or lies about, a humanoid extraterrestrial whose initial goal seems to be make boatloads of cash off patents on his fancy imported technology (his lawyer: Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry). Roeg shoots spectacular landscapes outside (New Mexico white sands) and in (70s interior decorating), fracturing sound and vision, space and time, and splicing in fascinated Earthlings (American Graffiti Oscar nominee Candy Clark as bored Southern hotel help besotted with finally someone different; and Rip Torn as a suspicious, idly horny science professor).

Bowie has always resembled a being mid-transformation into someone or something else, here scripted as withering away through exposure to human sin, The Man, or love, or general intergalactic acrobatic dippiness. Roeg carries over the bad-trip shocks of Performance, of reality slipping away, although ironically Bowie's quiet Hughesian excess begins to resemble current practice (watching 10 video streams, corporate space travel). Though routinely seen as a mirror to America (a flip side to Stroszek?), it's more compelling for the near-classicism of its fallen-god sci-fi conceit, curdled just enough by Bowie's not yet shopworn oddity, making for a key work in a decade when the genre spanned arty deep-dish, futureshock dystopian, and Spielberg-Lucas pop-apotheosis treatments.

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