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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

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…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.