There can’t be many filmmakers with as ignominious an ending to their careers. Now over 80 years old, Nicolas Roeg is still directing but his oeuvre from the last 10 years sounds closer to 80s Skin-emax than great cinema. Compare his early run of gems (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing), with his recent output (Full Body Massage, Samson and Delilah, The Sound of Claudia Schiffer, Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball). It’s a bit disheartening.
Insignificance comes smack in the middle. It’s not a great film, and it finds the director, already nearly 60 at the time, beginning his downslide. Nonetheless, there are elements of the film that make it more than just watchable. At times we see flashes of that old Roeg cinematographic/directorial brilliance.
Based off of a play by Terry Johnson, the film finds four characters who look and act a lot like Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey as “The Ballplayer”), Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell as “The Actress”), Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis as “The Senator”) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil as “The Professor”) crossing paths over the course of one night in New York City.
It’s a film about hysteria big and small, fear of the bomb, and the bright lights of celebrity. That hysteria ranges from everything from fear of infidelity to nuclear holocaust.
Using archetypes allows Roeg to jump right into the action, eschewing character introduction. We find The Actress in the midst of shooting an iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch. The Ballplayer is watching a game at the bar and chasing after The Actress. The Senator is confronting The Professor about a series of unnamed “hearings” and The Professor is trying to protect his work – a huge amount of mathematical and scientific scribblings.
In true Roeg fashion the structure is non-linear. Not so much as his groundbreaking, flash-forward collaboration with Richard Lester, Petulia, but still, the flashbacks slowly reveal sources of guilt for each character: The Senator’s Catholic guilt, The Actress’ sexual guilt, The Ballplayer’s ambitious guilt, and of course, The Professor’s violent, bomb-driven guilt.
In some ways these flashbacks harken to the title of the film. These icons were all insignificant once. And the end of the film, a gorgeous, slow-motion explosion sequence, renders them insignificant still. There are, in fact, acts of insignificance throughout: The Professor tosses his life’s work out the window. The Ballplayer’s life is made up of the number of baseball cards he’s been on.
Aside from an over-the-top performance by Russell and an unfortunate 80s synth-soundtrack, the film is a solid rumination. It’s not quiet thinking either. In the end, as The Professor and The Actress talk in his hotel room after the night of histrionics has come to a close the explosion sequence begins. This is a spellbinding moment. The room is torn to shreds. Glass, walls, papers, fly everywhere. In extreme slow-motion The Actress’ face begins to glow and blur. And then it’s all over. It never happened. Everything is back to normal and The Actress leaves. The credits roll.
It’s not a fantasy or a nightmare sequence. It’s the inevitable collision of all of the ideas of the film. Celebrity, power, violence and guilt are all expressed, and more importantly, blown up, in that explosion. Roeg isn’t saying that the bomb is more powerful than anything (if he were all wouldn’t return to normal right away). He’s not saying that another explosion is imminent (well, he kind of is, but that’s not the ultimate message). What he is saying is that perhaps these events and people – a famous Einstein-ian equation, a Communist witch-hunt, a 56 game hitting streak, and the female face of America – aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. That human interaction is still simply human interaction – whether you’re Joe DiMaggio or Joe Shmoe.
He also kills Marilyn Monroe in a way far more appropriate to her celebrity than her actual, insignificant death. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. The explosion sequence puts Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe in the midst of a fiery death worthy of James Dean (historicizing and mythologizing them), while also simply, for that moment, killing them just as any human being in the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atrocities.
It’s worth noting that there is one flashback that is quite ambiguous. Shots of a hand reaching out from under wreckage. Blood. By making only these flashbacks wider-scale (the others flashbacks all feature younger versions of the four in personal moments) Roeg attributes this “memory” to everyone. We can at the very least assume it’s the aftermath of some war (or bomb). By not always placing it in direct correlation with any one character it becomes a kind of collective consciousness and a collective guilt.