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Criterion releases INSIGNIFICANCE

Director Nicolas Roeg has an erratic track record, to say the least, occasionally turning to commercial work after some of his more outlandish ideas didn’t exactly turn into box office hits. He started out strong with the haunting 1971 masterpiece WALKABOUT, followed by the equally haunting murder mystery DON’T LOOK NOW (featuring one of cinema’s greatest sex scenes) and the confounding, sci-fi David Bowie vehicle THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. These films made it clear that for Roeg, ideas came first and the story came second. Certainly this is true for INSIGNIFICANCE, his 1985 swan song of sorts, unless of course you count his adaptation of THE WITCHES (1990) based on the Roald Dahl story of the same name.

Based on a play by Terry Johnson, INSIGNIFICANCE follows four personas – The Professor (Michael Emil), The Actress (Theresa Russell), The Senator (Tony Curtis) and The Ballplayer (Gary Busey) – as they converge in the same hotel room over the course of a night. These personas are stand-ins for four famous people: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio. Even though they’re never referred to by name we know who they are. The Professor sports an electrified shock of hair and does math problems all night. The Actress poses over a grate in the sidewalk and gets wind blown up her white dress. This idea of celebrity, and, more specifically, our perception of it, is Roeg’s favorite chess piece and he plays it confidently, imagining interactions between people who never met or who’s fame had died long before.

The plot, if there is one, first follows McCarthy as he enters Einstein’s hotel room and tries to bully him into testifying and turning in names. After he leaves Monroe shows up. She wants to explain the theory of relativity to Einstein and seduce him too, at which point DiMaggio comes knocking and wants to know what his wife is doing with a man he can only assume is her Jewish psychiatrist. The four characters cycle in and out, often partaking in conversations so ludicrous and longwinded it’s difficult to resist skipping ahead to the next chapter. Where is all of this going, I wanted to know. I admit it – I had had enough art, I wanted a payoff.

There’s not so much a payoff as there is an end to the conversation, but as much as I like sussing out theories and ideas, Roeg leaps too frantically from one to the next. There’s not only fame and the juxtaposition of our perception of a person and the person him/herself, but also McCarthyism, the red scare, theories of the universe, Hiroshima and the atomic bomb, marriage, sexual exploitation, even flashes of Dachau and the Nazis. Simply put, it’s too many ideas for one film. It was hard enough for me to get past the nauseatingly bad, breathy Monroe voice that Russell affects (I still can’t decide whether it’s bad on purpose or just bad), but I’m hardly as charmed as Einstein is at her childlike sense of wonder of the vast mysteries of the universe and her coquettish attempts to explain them.

“It’s something I’ll have to tackle again, from another angle – ” Roeg said, “the fact that INSIGNIFICANCE is persistently talked of as a meeting between Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, because it’s the easiest thing to say…If, on the other hand, we had started with invented characters, we’d have had to spend an hour filling in all kinds of background. With those two perceived images, it’s totally accepted.” Putting a busty blonde actress in a white dress in front of the camera and then getting miffed that audiences associate her with Marilyn Monroe seems like a pretty silly quibble to me. Two of the actors do manage to transcend the fame of their characters; Tony Curtis is downright repulsive as the sweaty, lascivious McCarthy, who at one point punches Monroe in the gut. Gary Busey, too, doesn’t just mimic DiMaggio, he creates his own version of him, giving probably the best performance in the film. Equally delightful are some behind-the-scenes tidbits on the DVD of Busey walking around set, doling out his characteristically oddball Busey-isms in a large white shirt with the word “Relax” written across the front.

INSIGNIFICANCE is out now from Criterion.