Monday, September 2, 2013

Insignificance

The reviewers of 1985's INSIGNIFICANCE have been misleading me for years. They wrote of how four individuals very closely resembling Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio all meet in a NYC hotel one summer night.  As if they are all in the same space at the same time. They never are.  That director Nicholas Roeg set his film in a single room and merely shot a filmed play.  He did not.

The scenario always piqued my interest, but I was not sufficiently compelled to grab that VHS box all those years ago, the multitudes of times I passed it by. And I've always been fascinated by Roeg, whose unique films can hardly be called entertainments, but are always challenging, uncomfortable.  Few movies are as intriguing as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. The mixed reviews for INSIGNIFICANCE, which was recently restored by Criterion, didn't faze me either. Unanimous acclaim for Roeg would render suspicion.

It is the mid 1950s, Manhattan. A film crew is working into the night to print an image that would become iconic, of a certain blonde starlet as her skirt flies up over a subway grating. The techs underground are tired but thrilled. The starlet is troubled and races away with her driver. There's a big guy who stares after her.

Cut to a disheveled man (Michael Emil), pacing his hotel room which is strewn with pages of mathematical equations and music stands. He's preparing for a lecture. There are interruptions. First, a serious man in a fedora (Tony Curtis) who badgers him to participate in a witch hunt, to name certain people who are suspected Communists. Later, the starlet (Theresa Russell) appears at his door and will remain in his room until the next day, despite the man's efforts to shoo her on, as there's much work to do. At one point, she explains The Theory of Relativity as she understands it back to its author (in a gem of a scene). The big guy (Gary Busey) we saw earlier, who also whiles a few hours away in a bar, arrives later and tries to bring his wife home. He's a bit imposing, a lunkhead, but not without a little insight into things, himself.  Bubble-gum as it may be.

As with many of Roeg's other pictures, INSIGNIFICANCE is maddeningly uneven, provocative, messy, chaotic. Also, rarely dull and never predictable. And the director delights in keeping his audience off guard.  '80s music punctuates characters' entrances. There are disturbing flashbacks to each character's childhoods: the man who resembles McCarthy recalls abuse by a priest; Marilyn/Norma Jean is seen taunted in an orphanage, and so on. While INSIGNIFICANCE never explicitly identifies these celebrities, having their names spoken, the film elaborately makes their cases nonetheless.

What is INSIGNIFICANCE "about"? What do all of the images add up to? Are we just spending time with colorful icons, allowing the actors (all fine) to simply riff on the personas so well documented in the pages of Life magazine and elsewhere? Does Roeg want to make statements about celebrity, or the ideas we have about these individuals (rather than what they're really like)? Yes. They're played with the sort of behavior we might expect of them. Their demons are not hidden. The starlet, so desperate to have a child, is dealt a cruel blow. The scientist, haunted by the bomb he created, sees children on fire.  For awhile, the film seems to be pointing towards the scientist's realizations, as to what INSIGNIFICANCE's real purposes are. Watch out for that finale, in all its apocalyptic glory. It reminded me of Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT.

But then, a curious, abrupt freeze frame for a final scene. Maybe to underline the film's title?

What if Roeg had placed all four characters in the same room? Would the universe cease to exist, fold over itself, in a manner that could only be explained the scientist? Even for a director such as Roeg, comfortable with the unfathomable, even that might've been just too much.

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