Misunderstood on its initial 1976 theatrical rollout, when 20 minutes were excised, Nicolas Roeg’s kaleidoscope examination of alienation in modern society is most famous for marking David Bowie’s screen debut. Such circumstances make it a perfect addition for the Criterion Collection, which excels at drawing revitalized attention to underrated contemporary classics. While the full uncut version has had a previous domestic DVD release, the real coup here is David Bowie’s first DVD commentary — it’s only fitting that a film this complex should have a commentary to match. Even if it was actually recorded for laserdisc in 1992.
The commentary doesn’t sound dated in the slightest, which only underlines the pic’s timeless quality. Bowie and Roeg are conversational, relaxed and sharply intelligent. Foregoing the standard literal and factual descriptions of the production process, the pair instead delve into philosophical realms, glossing over how the film was made to focus on the abstract concepts it conveys. What individual scenes might represent isn’t discussed as much as he underlying ideas how they resonate in Roeg’s interpretation of the world.
Bowie gives a great monologue about the increasingly fragmentary nature of society and how we will have to adapt in order to process the increasing avalanche of information we’re subjected to, and one realizes he’s been pretty much dead on in his social analysis.
After such a rich first disc, the second pales somewhat, despite being executed to the usual high Criterion standard. There are production diaries and art plus conceptual sketches, both offered with appropriate audio commentary. Candid interviews with co-stars Rip Torn and Candy Clark show a great fondness for the pic. The highlight here, though, is a video interview with scribe Paul Mayersberg, a useful complement to the feature commentary that is also incredibly informative, offering a more literal deconstruction of the film, highlighting themes and motifs.
Criterion then goes one step further, examining the transition from the printed page to celluloid, by providing not only an audio interview with the novelist Walter Tevis but also a copy of his book on which the script was based. It’s overkill for all but the most ardent fan, but for them it reps invaluable insight.
The extras strike a delicate but firm balance between illuminating and suggesting different interpretations, without ever conclusively deciding on just one narrow interp of the film. Pic remains the classic “stranger in a strange land” fable told through a sci-fi Western noir lens; a multifaceted examination of American society and culture, modern technology, the role of big business and the individual’s capacity for love and betrayal.