Skip to main content

If you say you understand relativity, then I believe you understand relativity.

Insignificance 
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Something of a high concept doodle, based on Terry Johnson's play, a "What if?" confection in which leading lights of their particular fields converging on a 1954 New York hotel. Johnson's intent was to draw attention to the disparity between these figures' public personas and their actual selves; Roeg's attraction to the material was on a more general level, a personal realisation that "Good God, nobody knows a damn thing about anyone". I'm not sure how successfully Insignificance actually gets to grips with that idea, and I'm not sure, despite the bits and pieces of expansion Roeg nurtures, that it ever really becomes more than a (very well filmed) play. Nevertheless, by virtue of the director's imprimatur, the picture still evidences the fascinating thematic and textural qualities explored throughout his career.



The Actress (Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe), the Professor (Michael Emil as Albert Einstein), the Ballplayer (Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio) and the Senator (Tony Curtis as Joe McCarthy) are in one respect straightforward archetypes (representing respectively sex, smarts, athleticism and power), but with just enough humorous subversion to justify the exercise. According to Variety, the characters "for legal reasons are not specifically named" but it's a cuter device not to anyway. Roeg employs flashbacks to illustrate their individual key fears, but it’s only really the unlikely relationship between Einstein and Monroe that ignites a spark in the writing, including the films most famous scene, where Marilyn illustrates the theory of relativity with the aid of a toy train and a balloon.


The Professor: In my lifetime of experiences, the Swiss authorities called me a German fascist, this regarding that I'm Jewish. But you delicately alluded to that a moment ago. And, in Germany, by the German fascists, because I was Jewish, I was called a Zionist conspirator. I come to democratic America, some small-minded people called me a German fascist and Zionist conspirator. And now I presume that you are suggesting that I'm a Soviet communist. Well listen, two weeks ago, two magazines at the same time variously called me a warmonger and a conscientious objector… in the review of the same speech… And… it's unbelievable.


Indeed, the performances of Emile and Russell are the most memorable, the former offering a witty, likeable, befuddled interpretation of Einstein, given a rush of giddy gusto by Marilyn's intrusion on his world. Einstein is haunted by the horror of Hiroshima and the culpability of his work and of science, which Marilyn coaxes out of him. One might regard it as an obvious and slightly trite choice, but it allows Roeg to break out his patented box of editing tricks, Einstein continually seeing an apocalyptically stopped clock, and the hotel room finally erupting in a nuclear inferno that, as Marilyn goes up with it, recalls the incineration of Gene Hackman in Roeg's prior film Eureka.


The Senator: That's astounding. I mean, you could be the spitting image.
The Actress: I know, if I were eight years younger and took better care of myself.

Russell – who has approached for the project before her then husband agreed to direct – doesn't offer a particularly indelible version of Marilyn, but slavishly attempting to copy her would rather defeat the point, which is that she does offer an affecting rendition of someone aware of the disparities between appearance and reality ("I mean, what the hell. It's not me you want, it's her" she says of McCarthy's attentions at one point). I've seen it said that she (or Johnson) gets the explanation for the theory of relativity wrong, but even that might fit with Einstein's example of the Moon being made of sand, not cheese ("I only said I knew because you knew" confesses Marilyn – "Knowledge isn't truth, it's just mindless agreement" comes the response). 


Busey's blockhead DiMagio is all but irrelevant, becoming jealous over his wife and forcing a confrontation in which he has to acknowledge it's over between them; by this point the "Have a couple of kids" solution to troubles has been viciously ended by McCarthy punching her in the stomach and causing a miscarriage. 


It's an interesting performance from Curtis, whom Roeg attested was great to work with, playing down the Machiavellian side for slightly banal manipulation amid the expected touchstones of delusional thinking ("The whole war was based on a Soviet plot") and the seedy cliché of the hypocritical politician (paying for a hooker dressed as Monroe). Does the picture ever shake off the broader perceptions of the characters to explore stronger truths? Not really. It flirts with them, but ultimately leaves them intact; when Einstein expresses his fears over (further) use of the bomb, Monroe naively responds that she doesn't think they will.


And where does Will Sampson's Cherokee elevator attendant stand in this, other than as an example of the "wise native"? It’s unclear, except in so much as to reveal, in a rooftop foray, that he continues to observe his tribal traditions even in the midst of an alien, hermetic environment. Perhaps everyone is, in fact, who they are assumed to be at first glance? Or perhaps Sampson is there to offer a counterpoint; he has no need for veneer or artificial personas.


Einstein's latest work is a set of calculations that come close to describing space-time. The senator is having none of it as "I've come to the conclusion that the shape of space-time is of no fucking importance. It's just paper". There is an after-taste of "It's just…" about Insignificance, that it's self-consciousness with regard to what it is and who its portraying is innately limiting, and that our responses to it will rely on how fascinating we find these archetypes in the first place. As a consequence, the film stands as little more than a curio. 


One might even see it as drawing a line under the recently deceased director's career, after a decade-and-a-half long run of classics (Eureka is at least half a classic); after that he would flirt with greatness again, but the difficulty of getting projects off the ground resulted in a tendency to unevenness. I lean to thinking that Roeg's pictures' mark of quality is how fully immersed in his vision one becomes, which I suppose in turn is an indicator of how complete they are unto themselves; in the case of Insignificance, one senses it has never fully decided to be a Nic Roeg film.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.