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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…