Nicolas Roeg’s “Insignificance”

I can remember the rising arc of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg’s career as director — Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). I heard very little about him or his movies after that, though I was very taken with the 1990 adaptation of “The Witches” from Roal Dahl. Ihe directed an adaptation of Roal Dahl’s “Witches” in 1990 with Anjelica Huston that I adored. I saw none of the visual flair for which Roeg was famed during 1970s in the only other movie directed by Roeg I saw, the tv adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Elizabeth Taylor and Don Johnson. (1989). He went on to directed a few made-for-tv movies (including a 1993 not very good one of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Bob Hoskins). Already when he was shooting “Insignificance,” he had a promising future behind him, a verdict that gives me no pleasure, since a director aiming to make movies for adults and of a keen eye is not something of which we have too much.

He just died at the age of 90, which stimulated me to excavate reviews of his movies that I wrote in 2011. Here’s the first:

 

Titling something “Insignificance” pre-empts criticism that the product (play turned into a movie) is insignificant. Celebrity is not insignificant in our society — and more pervasive, it seems to me, now than in 1985 (when the movie was released) or 1954 (when it is set). Nuclear annihilation is also not an insignificant subject and nuclear weapons are more widely diffused now than in either then. And then there’s the discussion about epistemology (how do we know what we believe we know) and the shape of the universe…

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Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio has lost some of his iconic status, though still a legend and the holder of a record that seems like to continue to stand (hits in consecutive games). (Joe) McCarthy is still the byword for bullying investigations. Einstein remains an iconic for brains and Marilyn Monroe for being a movie star about whom men salivated… and for being a vulnerable woman who played dumb blondes but was not so dumb (whether canny or smart is the alternative remains open to question).

Except for Monroe and DiMaggio, who were married to each other for a while during the early 1950s, none of these characters met each other, let alone being together in a Manhattan hotel room on hot summer night in 1954.

One of the irritating aspects of the movie is that the models for the characters are screamingly obvious, but they are referred to as Ballplayer (Gary Busey), Senator (Tony Curtis), Actress (Theresa Russell), a preternaturally sweaty Senator (Tony Curtis), and Professor (Michael Emil). Actress is clad in the dress that blew up in “The Seven Year Itch.” Professor has Einstein’s wild hair, glasses, mustache, and a Princeton sweatshirt. Tony Curtis’s Senator looks more like Roy Cohn than like Cohn’s boss, and Busey neither looks nor sounds at all like DiMaggio (whose Mr. Coffee pitches I remember; I only saw him bat in old clips).

The characters are too tied to iconic models to exist as independent characters, yet all of them are unbelievable to me as versions of these icons (Emil’s Einstein being the easiest to accept, having the genial modesty of the original). Moreover, the script does not imagine anything very interesting for these imagined interactions.

There are some flashbacks and the opening scene is on location filming the subway vent skirt-raising, but most of the movie takes place in the hotel (Roosevelt, if I remember correctly) and most of that in one room with a reproduction of a neoclassical Picasso painting of a mother and a child. The last provides grist for the Ballplayer to talk about his wandering wife’s inability to have a baby.

Roeg manages to get not only recurrent blood (from the Actress) but images of nuclear annihilation into the movie. Both seem gratuitous to me, though Einstein was dismayed about atomic bombs.

Because I have no trouble remembering Tony Curtis with Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot” (apparently there are people who have never seen it, nor anything else with Marilyn Monroe in it!), Curtis’s character thinking the Actress is a look-alike takes on additional comedy, though his character lacks the gallantry of the one who was onscreen with the real Marilyn Monroe.

In an interview for the Criterion edition, director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas are unbearably smug about how clever they were and their movie was. They ramble on for 13 minutes and there is a 14-minute on-set featurette from the time (1985). There is also a trailer and a booklet with a fatuous essay about Roeg’s career and a more interesting 1985 exchange between Roeg and Terry Johnson who adapted her play for the screen and is articulate about the differences between stage-plays and screenplays. Roeg does not comment on his gratuitously showy editing (he was a cinematographer, not an editor, though as a director he seems to have been obsessed with making the editing jagged…): The zooms are particularly annoying IMHO. And for slow-mo explosions, Antonio had closed the book with “Zabriskie Point” IMO.

The (monaural) soundtrack is early (and unpromising!) Hans Zimmer, btw. And Russell was married to Roeg at the time.

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Though clearly not up to playing Marilyn Monroe, I don’t blame Russell (29 years younger than her then-husband who cast her in a series of movies), but something went badly wrong in Roeg’s artistic career. (I liked her as the title character in “Black Widow,” a 1987 movie made by another director whose career is puzzling, Bob Rafelson.) (More recently, she was in the ensemble in the 2005 miniseries “Empire Falls.”)

Johnson and Roeg mistake confusion for complexity. If they had a point, they failed to make it.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

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