Since his making his directorial debut with 1970’s Performance, a freewheeling patchwork of gangsterism and rock ’n’ roll starring Mick Jagger and co-directed by Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg has earned a reputation for editing his films into a fine hash. Modern classics like Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth have a radical, hiccupping rhythm that often defies conventional chronology in favor of fragments and associations. Based on Terry Johnson’s play, Roeg’s 1985 chamber piece Insignificance seemed likely to pen him in, given its stagebound story about four iconic figures—Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy—convening in a Manhattan hotel in 1954. But Roeg, playing elegantly with brief, echo-like flashbacks and fractured images, uses the opportunity to explore the distance between the outsized image and impact of these celebrities and the people themselves. Referred to simply as The Actress, The Professor, The Ballplayer, and The Senator, the four have to different degrees lost control of their identities, and are reeling from the consequences.
Still, a playful, witty, sophisticated spirit pervades much of Insignificance, especially in the early going, before the dawn breaks on one wild night. It opens with a piece of Hollywood history: Monroe (Theresa Russell) shooting the scene where she stands over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. (From the men operating the fan below: “Did you see anything?” “I saw the face of God.”) Meanwhile, Einstein (Michael Emil) puzzles over a pile of papers, which he moves around with his feet like a primate; a lonely DiMaggio (Gary Busey) drinks and fumes over Monroe’s exhibitionism; and McCarthy (Tony Curtis, the real-life Monroe’s co-star in Some Like It Hot) does some boozing of his own, explaining to a barfly the connection between a glass of water and Napoleon’s fecal matter. McCarthy eventually harasses Einstein over a scheduled appearance at a hearing, but the drama doesn’t really get going until Monroe visits Einstein’s room and the two are bewitched with each other.
Insignificance never gets better than a sequence where Monroe, still in her white ruffled dress, uses a series of props to demonstrate the theory of relativity before a delighted Einstein. The two make quite a pair: One the embodiment of beauty, the other the embodiment of intelligence, and both haunted by legacies that have gotten away from them. Einstein’s guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki becomes particularly imposing, culminating in an unforgettable climactic feint, but Insignificance gives an impression of all four figures that’s unified in theme and vividly sketched. Roeg and Johnson can’t know who their characters are—they’re as walled off by their public personas as the rest of us—but there’s truth in their fanciful fiction.
Key features: A lighter-than-usual package from Criterion, with a vintage 15-minute making-of featurette and new interviews with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas together, and another interview with editor Tony Lawson.