The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The year is 1954: a fabulous bit of film history is about to unfurl. Grips are busy piloting their klieg lights into position, groupies crane and gawk from behind cordons of cops, and in a moment, a blindingly blonde actress in a billowing, Dior-like dress will sear herself into the retinas of midcentury modernity by flashing her limitless gams beneath a marquee touting Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s an instantly familiar scene, and yet, for all the loving meticulousness with which this iconic episode from Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch has been re-created, something is amiss. This is clearly no making-of documentary or behind-the-scenes featurette. For one thing, the montage is far too dizzying, too elliptically ultramodern, and that actor attempting to simulate Tom Ewell can’t begin to touch the hangdog everyman mug that made the original such a cherished fifties star. Watch carefully enough, too, and you’ll catch a glimpse of something truly otherworldly: a light-speed cameo by the force behind this patently plastic yet magically uncanny moment, visionary English filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, quietly conferring with his camera operator and looking entirely as if he belonged there, in among that famous Hollywood crew . . . if only the year weren’t actually 1985.
A small, seemingly insignificant touch, that fleeting appearance, but in the bent and bedazzling space-time continuum of Roeg’s midcareer, Möbius-strip masterpiece Insignificance, nothing is insignificant. And all things are relative . . . and intimately related: the golden age of the candy-colored Hollywood comedy, the grim realities of life (and cinema) under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s new world order, delightful derrieres, distant constellations, baseball legends, legendary bastards, monstrous memories and magical might-have-beens—all the twinkling lights of the twentieth century’s cultural cosmos gathered together, if only for an evening, or the duration of a movie, in a single sphere of light. Intricately atomized and painstakingly reassembled from award-winning English dramatist Terry Johnson’s 1981 chamber play—in which a glamorous and celebrated actress we all know, if not by name, as Marilyn Monroe spends a dog of a New York City night in a hotel room with a scientific genius and Nobel Prize–winning Princeton professor we all know, if not by name, as Albert Einstein—Roeg’s Insignificance attempts to describe the shape of what at first glance seems a particularly familiar universe: the limelit heights of modern celebrity, where only the most famous people are recognizable, even if we barely know them, or they seem only barely to know themselves. Of course, it’s what’s beneath those glossy surfaces, historically speaking, that Roeg—following, and cosmically elaborating upon, Johnson’s firmament—is actually concerned with, and in a political moment marked primarily by the ascendancy of a movie star to the office of the United States president and a global return to the barely suppressed nuclear anxieties of a quarter of a century before, how better to burrow inside the hollow and oppressively apocalyptic present than by borrowing from the most familiar (and familiarly empty) signs of the cold war’s not too distant past?
Pondering the imponderables through a garishly colored repackaging of things we’ve all seen before—the proto-postmodern, remake-mad 1980s trope du jour—Insignificance discovers the iconic Actress (Theresa Russell) and the atom-age Professor (Michael Emil, little-seen outside the films of his brother, longtime Los Angeles independent Henry Jaglom) anew, revealing both as not only blinded by their own star power but also hounded by private demons that threaten to become century- and world-devouring demiurges, haunted by their own inescapable public images and the mortifying vestiges of pasts that all too stubbornly return. For the Actress, it’s the impossible balancing act of marriage, miscarriage, and career, as embodied in the outsize form of her devoted if dim-witted and soon-to-be-ex husband, the Ballplayer (Gary Busey, pinch-hitting for Monroe’s second husband, New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio). For the Professor, it’s the price one pays for pushing the limits of knowledge and attempting to unlock the mysteries of the infinite, in the form of the vicious and reptilian U.S. Senator (Tony Curtis, exuding Joseph McCarthy’s venality through a sheen of flop sweat), whose insistence that the physicist testify in front of a congressional committee on a small-minded political witch hunt is ultimately dwarfed by the scientist’s rather larger sense of personal responsibility . . . for having unleashed the science that led to the atomic bomb. Hiroshima, HUAC, Reaganoia, 1945, 1954, 1985: Insignificance explores and explodes each of these episodes and eras of the American century, not to obliterate them (much as it might like to) but to piece them back, kaleidoscopically, together, right before our eyes.
This sparkling accomplishment seems all the more remarkable for having arrived at the end of a period of disappointment and downturn in Roeg’s extraordinary career. He had come up through the 1950s British film industry the old-fashioned way, as an ambitious screenwriter, a camera assistant (on, among other films, George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction) and second-unit cameraman (on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia), and eventually a cinematographer, on 1960s milestones as diverse and distinctive as Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, and Richard Lester’s Petulia. He’d long thrived on creative collaborations: even “his” first feature film, 1968’s ill-fated Performance—that epochal study of sixties psychedelic savagery and the Borgesian labyrinths of the Swinging London star soul—was in fact a two-hander, cowritten and codirected with the freak-scenester and brilliant Hollywood fringe dweller Donald Cammell. Roeg’s signature style nevertheless quickly emerged—scintillating cinematography, ultraelliptical editing, elusive visual metaphors, abstruse distensions of narrative time and cinematic space—and he went officially solo to become one of the key filmmakers of the seventies, starting with the outback vision quest Walkabout (1971) and the death-in-Venice psychothriller Don’t Look Now (1973), and climaxing in the game-changing masterworks The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980). With each of these films, Roeg was able to explore his personal obsessions with the hoariest of the twentieth century’s two-headed demons—fame and fate, Eros and Thanatos, experimentation and marketability, visionary consciousness and uncontrollable madness, yesterday and tomorrow, you and me—and in the process redefined the possibilities of modern cinema and expanded the vocabulary of film editing in ways that are still being explored today.
But as film culture slipped, along with everything else, into new dimensions of reactionary retrenchment as the 1980s unfolded, the movie Roeg thought would be his best hope to finally establish him within the mainstream, the deeply personal 1983 Eureka—a brutalizing journey into the greedy souls of men that follows Gene Hackman’s monomaniacal gold prospector from fabulous fortune to ferocious oblivion, anticipating There Will Be Blood as much as it harks back to Citizen Kane—got caught in the unraveling fortunes of United Artists, was never given a proper theatrical release, and was ignored and reviled by all but a few contemporary critics. Gone were the swinging sixties and freewheeling seventies that had nurtured Roeg’s consciousness-cracked-wide-open approach to making cinematic sense of the world, replaced by the Star Wars dreams of a new “Morning in America.” “It’s a very reactionary time,” the filmmaker told interviewer Harlan Kennedy in 1983, “socially, politically, and artistically. Especially in the movies. If the grammar of cinema is at all changed or dented, it’s resented far more than in other mediums.” Roeg turned briefly to rock videos and Coca-Cola commercials to fill the coffers, if not the moment’s moral void, until an idle night out at the theater changed the tide. Onstage, the ever astonishing Judy Davis was shape-shifting once again, this time into the buoyant, bubbleheaded role of the Actress in Johnson’s much talked-about new play. Roeg may have recognized many of his long-cultivated preoccupations as somehow already resident in Insignificance’s crisscrossing currents of celebrity and circumstance, its unavoidable collisions of ineffable beauty and irredeemable terror, of the Now and the Then. He must also have seen at a glance the possibilities the role of the Actress presented for Theresa Russell, his longtime muse and then partner in marriage. The characters Russell had created for Roeg’s films had already borne the weight of psychoanalysis and male brutality in Bad Timing, and the moral burden of entrepreneurial excess in Eureka; slipping into the Actress’s sensual white silk nothing of a summer dress would come as naturally to the sexually exuberant actress as bubbles do to a glass of champagne.
Spiraling out from the irresistible central conceit of Johnson’s play—a giddy Monroe breathlessly demonstrating the theory of relativity in Einstein’s hotel room, with only the aid of a few tin toys and her deliciously carbonated demeanor—Roeg encouraged the playwright, in adapting his work, to rethink it in wide-ranging cinematic terms. The constant ticking of an onstage clock became the recurrent image of the Professor’s wristwatch, forever frozen at 8:15 a.m. (the moment that the atomic device known as Little Boy was detonated over Hiroshima), sailing hither and thither through blackened space; an anecdote about a philosophizing Cherokee the Professor had once encountered became an opportunity for Native American actor Will Sampson (who’d enjoyed some minor celebrity of his own a decade earlier, as the granite-faced Chief Bromden in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to join the cast as a cryptic and bemused elevator operator who may or may not be the center of the universe and who spends his coffee breaks gazing out across the Manhattan skyline from the hotel rooftop, an emissary from a still more distant and nearly vanished temporal horizon. Johnson allowed the play’s microhistorical dimensions to swell as well, with each of the central characters now imbued with their own intimate flashbacks to primal scenes from both the near and distant past. The final product, scored to a mix of infectious and knowingly ersatz big band and glaringly anachronistic discotronic drum machines, is vintage Roeg, skipping across the surface of the story line with a metaphysical grace, folding memories into half-foreseen futures, using editing as a weapon to root out duplicity and lies, and reimagining Johnson’s raw material through the prism of relativity itself.
This willingness to shatter and reassemble the world, one of Roeg’s most celebrated mannerisms, finds a particular visual correlative in that aesthetic atomization of early twentieth-century image culture called cubism, which provides—almost by virtue of its absence—two of Insignificance’s structuring visual metaphors. The first of these is cubist pioneer Pablo Picasso’s immediately postcubist move to (re)unify the fields in his almost preclassically serene 1921 painting Woman and Child on the Seashore, which presides pacifically over the hotel room in which most of the film takes place. The second is postpop photographer-collagist-painter David Hockney’s neocubist, faux-1954 calendar portrait of the naked Actress—a Polaroid collage of Russell, stretched out Hefner-ready on a sea of satin, a pinup in a hundred pieces, a centerfold sent through a centrifuge—at once signaling and exemplifying the terrors, aesthetic and otherwise, visited upon women’s bodies and images throughout the century just past. For a cine-cubist like Roeg, two entirely disparate spatial and temporal dimensions are never more than a splice apart, and in Insignificance, the past is always present, and never goes away. Perhaps this, too, is what makes the Actress a perfect Roegian heroine: her much-exposed and famously exploited psyche already splintered into jagged, mingled shards of kittenish innocence, movie business cunning, overwhelming erotic appeal, and abject inner terror, Monroe was postcubism’s quintessential glittering star. Both sexually available and intellectually absent, she was every man’s fantasy of every gorgeous woman’s every gorgeous angle, all perfectly pieced together and seen prismatically all at once—a facet of her persona that Constance Bennett certainly fathomed when she famously cracked of her figure (if not her fate), “There’s a broad with her future behind her.”
“I wish they’d switch me off,” sighs the Actress with a millennial pout, gazing down from a skyscraper overlooking the pink neon squiggle—visual synecdoche for the five-story-high billboard of her image looming over Fifty-third Street—that illuminates the New York night like a giant pair of phosphorescent lips. “I prefer to look up,” remarks the Professor, at her side, directing the starlet’s gaze back to the heavens. “They make me feel small and lonely,” the Actress exhales. “All who look up feel small and lonely,” replies the Professor. But while foolish it almost certainly would be to take issue with the wisdom of even a close facsimile of Albert Einstein, perhaps we might, for a moment and the sake of argument, pause to disagree. Perhaps, as the gloriously scattered celestial dust of Roeg’s cinema often seems to suggest, it’s all in the way one gazes at the stars, the way we recognize our relation to those glimmering beacons in the cosmic darkness, or those sinuous chimeras on the silver screen. “Our memory and the movies keep movie stars alive for us,” wrote Roeg late in 2010, in a meditation on star power and loving obituary for his friend and Insignificance star Tony Curtis. That may be what keeps this movie from a quarter of a century ago, set in and around another movie made another quarter century before that, so bewitching—and still as brilliant as a projector’s beam or the blast of an atom bomb. Insignificance is a movie filled with stardust, borne forever on the sparkling tides of star time.
Chuck Stephens lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.