Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Insignificance (1985)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Written by Terry Johnson
Starring Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, Will Sampson

Today’s entry into our continuing series “Hey, did you know Nicolas Roeg made other movies after the 70’s ended?” brings us to what I would consider one of his more approachable efforts, 1985’s INSIGNIFICANCE. It’s a movie about love and science and fame and sex and art and politics and baseball and Armageddon, which now that I think about it actually kind of describes every Nic Roeg film. Except the baseball part, I guess, that might be new to this one. But unlike most of his other movies, it approaches those topics with generally comprehensible conversation and likable characters, instead of a bunch of weird inscrutable plot points and slow-motion montages of things blowing up. Although it has those, too.

The hook here is an imaginary meeting of four luminaries of the 1950's in a New York City hotel room one very late night. They’re unnamed, but are clearly direct representations of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy, all drawn together for different reasons but all eventually refracting off each others’ own particular power and vulnerabilities. Their encounter is purely fictional, but the movie isn’t shy about using it to examine both the big issues of the day and the smaller, more intimate moments between these sometimes larger-than-life characters. These are the most significant figures of the day, but their ubiquitous fame in some ways that makes them even harder to really know, and the film delights in finding a balance between their monumental cultural status and their more nuanced inner lives.

Now that's what I call education.
The script --adapted from a stage play of the same name by its original author-- has a vague whiff of the sort of stagy chattiness that we watch movies instead of plays in order to studiously avoid, but for the most part it’s actually pretty charming. It’s ambiguous without being obtuse, funny without being jokey, and seems disarmingly effortless despite the ambitious contrivance of the plot. Something for everyone. The highlight, though, is the film’s long middle act, where Monroe (Theresa Russell, from most of Roeg’s films but most known to you, personally, as Sandman’s wife from SPIDER MAN 3) cheerfully imposes herself on a pensive Einstein for a long discussion of physics, fame, power and maybe a little sex.

Russell doesn’t look much like Monroe, but she captures something perfectly true about the actress, breathlessly matching Monroe’s own near-parody of bubbly sexpot effusiveness mixed with just the faintest hint of something genuinely ethereal and perhaps a little tragic. Einstein is played by Michael Emil, “an actor and production manager,” (says his IMBD) so insignificant he doesn’t even have his own wikipedia page. This seems to be his only major film,* but he’s fucking fantastic here, finding a perfect bemused tone for the iconic physicist, who claims not to know who his famous visitor is but may be in desperate need of a distraction from the more dire matters currently weighing on his mind.

You know that old rule of cinema: if you see a post-cubist Picasso painting in the first act, it's gonna be a metaphor by the last act.
One of those matters is the spectre of bitter nationalism, represented here by a gleefully loathsome Tony Curtis as Joe McCarthy, who wants Einstein to testify before his House of Unamerican Activities Committee… or else.** To McCarthy, Einstein simply represents a voice of recognized popular authority, but of course Einstein has his own memories of governments singling out minority groups for special scrutiny. And from there, it’s a terrifyingly short mental journey to Einstein’s own unwanted progeny, the spectre of nuclear war. Even as he meticulously works through equations and chats up busty blonde actresses, the Professor’s mind can’t help but flit back to images of devastated Japanese cities and dreams of Nazis showing up at his door. Plus, now he had to worry that the Actress’ doofus ballplayer husband (Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio) thinks he’s a philandering shrink. It ain’t easy being genius.  

I haven't seen all his films, but I'd wager this is Tony Curtis' sweatiest role.

There’s a lightly magical quality here --as befits a movie about a fictional encounter between these iconic American figures-- but Roeg keeps these characters’ pain too close to the surface for this to sink into some kind of campy postmodern fairy tale. In a typically Roeg move, he frugally peppers the erudite talkiness of the present with silent glimmers of the past, flashbacks which draw interesting juxtapositions with the dialogue, suggesting layers of hidden meaning. In particular, we see heartbreaking flashes of Monroe’s lonely childhood and awkward coming to terms with her own sexual power.*** It skillfully --and with somewhat surprising sensitivity-- intimates both why Monroe is the way she is, and, curiously, what else she could have been had her life, perhaps, been different.

What’s cool about the whole enterprise is that every one of these people represents something abstract: Einstein, the capriciousness of science, DiMaggio, the deceptive simplicity of masculinity, McCarthy, the corruptive influence of Power, and, of course, Monroe, the feminine mystique. And the movie certainly traffics in these abstractions. But it never forgets that these are real people, too. Each of these characters is aware of their own legendary status, and to some degree both freed and held hostage by it. They’re the most well-known people in America, probably in the world, but to some extent they’re defined by the way a busy world sees them more than the way they really are. And who even knows what that would be? Like the collaged nude of his wife that DiMaggio sees in a bar, these people have all been broken into their individuals parts and reshaped into something superficially identical but fragmented, piecemeal. Relative.

Busey is skeptical about cubist pornography.

Relativity is key here, obviously; fame is all about perception, just like reality is, and just like reality, the most important thing is where you’re standing and how quickly you’re travelling. This is made explicit in the film’s best scene, where an energized Monroe uses toy trains and flashlights to correctly explain the theory of relativity back to Einstein. It’s a wonderful, unexpected moment for both characters, a great piece of energetic filmmaking, and a not-exactly-subtle but still appropriate metaphor for the whole experience of life and the universe. At its best, the movie embodies all these things, and balances them with an unusual grace.

Towards the end, things start to get a bit more melancholy and enigmatic, but by that time the film has earned it and it never feels like overreaching. In fact, it feels like a logical extension of these interactions between complex people, overwhelming abstractions, and a infinitely mysterious universe. Some things are too big and strange to be reduced to words, and fortunately this is where Roeg is able to step in and let his powerful style of impressionistic montage do the talking for him. Still, even here he never quite lets the film get completely away from his characters; even Marilyn Monroe may be insignificant before the totality of the cosmos and the grand laws which bind together (and can also rip apart) the universe… but that doesn’t mean that she’s not worth listening to, every once in a while. Physics, like fame itself, can be overwhelming and threaten to drown out the ever-so-significant minutiae of human experience. But at least in this film, Roeg manages to delicately --and even cheerfully-- balance the two of them with extraordinary verve. If you ask me, that’s an achievement impressive enough to earn him the right to be in my proposed 1980’s sequel, INSIGNIFICANCE II: INSIGNIFICANT OTHER, in which Nicolas Roeg, Madonna, Ted Kennedy, and the 1985 Chicago Bears have a fictional romance at Live Aid 1985. Featuring Sting as Ted Kennedy. Hollywood, you take it from here.

This is actually the perfect poster for this movie, although I can see why it would be kinda a hard sell.

*Looks like he was the lead in only two other movies, one of which was called “CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” so I don’t know what his deal is. IMDB claims that he is “ex-brother-in-law of Pete Townsend, so… good on him, I guess? He does play “Medical Examiner” in Larry Cohen’s Billy-Dee-Williams starring thriller DEADLY ILLUSION, so I better see that one, I guess. Oh, and he was sixth-billed in a bizarre-sounding G. Gordon Liddy-starring (?)  kiddie remake of REAR WINDOW (?!) called ADVENTURES IN SPYING in 1990. Jesus, was this guy born under a lucky sign or what?

**Apparently this never happened in real life, but one could easily imagine they would have come for him eventually.

***Wow, I just read up on this and I guess I didn’t know what a fucked up childhood Monroe had in real life. I kinda assumed some of this was fictionalized for the movie, I guess not.

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