My first experience with Nicolas Roeg was when I was a young lad, and I briefly found myself, while on vacation, with HBO at my disposal. And some movie called Castaway was on. Let us never mind the details, but the everlasting impact of that film was that I would forever look askance at Oliver Reed, and I would love Amanda Donohoe to my dying day. (I love you, Amanda Donohoe.) The very tenuous relationship – tenuous because I can’t say I really liked Castaway, and I could hardly give Roeg credit for inventing Amanda Donohoe – would begin a sharp plummet almost immediately. The order is unclear to me now, but I imagine that my next Roeg films, which I wouldn’t bother to seek out until I was older, were probably Eureka and The Man Who Fell to Earth. In both cases, I was put off by what I regarded then, and still regard now, as a sort of cheap, juvenile surrealism, and while I share his interests in sex and death, I’ve never shared his, or anyone’s, come to that, Freudian combination of those existential tentpoles. Even so, Eureka, which I haven’t seen in ages, maintains a curious place in my mind years later. It’s in that place where I ask myself things like “Did I really see that movie?” It would be disingenuous for me to deny any attraction to Roeg’s work, in other words; it’s just that I’m so frequently reminded why that attraction usually ends in slaps to the face.
For the above, see also Ken Russell, who I find it impossible to separate from Roeg in my mind. I find the critical embracing of Russell entirely maddening and have to remind myself that it’s really no business of mine if that kind of scatology gets excused, or celebrated, as Chaucerian ribaldry because Russell pins it to lunatic historical biopics and literary adaptations, but elsewhere condemned for lowest common denominator pandering. Fine by me, I say (publicly, anyway). And besides, I like at least one Russell film – that would be Altered States, though that’s a case of Russell, to my mind, managing to not fuck it things up completely. In this sense, Roeg has it all over Russell, actually, because I can name three whole Roeg films that I like: the barely Roeg-like Dahl adaptation The Witches; the entirely Roeg-like Bad Timing, which I like because it opens with Tom Waits’s “Invitation of the Blues” and because of the counterintuitive use of the admittedly excellent Art Garfunkel as a twisted sex pest (to borrow from the British); and the unimpeachable masterpiece Don’t Look Now, which I first saw around the same time I was watching Eureka and The Man Who Fell to Earth. At the time, I didn’t like Don’t Look Now much either, but I’ve seen it since, and now I understand that Roeg can never be dead to me. So great, even perfect, a horror film is it that I consider it one of the small handful of modern (relatively speaking) works in the genre that is able to entirely encompass what horror is and should be. Unimpeachable, as I say.
Yeah, but still. I have reason to be thinking about Roeg because his long-unavailable 1985 film Insignificance will be released on DVD by Criterion on June 14th, which I’ve been privileged to check out a bit early. The film, based on a play by Terry Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on four characters – Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis). Although, of course, for whatever obscure reason they must never be named, and must be listed in the credits as The Professor, The Actress, The Ballplayer and The Senator. This is the sort of coyness I can’t abide, although in the long run it has essentially no impact on anything, which goes a long way towards explaining why I can’t abide it. In any case, it should be clear to those not yet initiated into the film that its subject is really America in the 1950s, or maybe the “1950s”. Also, fame, as Johnson explains in a conversation between he and Roeg, reprinted in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion disc, from the August 1985 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin:
It was always meant to be a play about the era, about fame. The fifties in America seemed to be a very good point to look at that. It’s more to do with what these people stood for, what we have invested them with, rather than what they were. I’ve made certain presumptions as to the possibilities of their true natures rather different from the ones that were projected.
I can’t say this comes across all that strongly – for instance, does it go against our mass projections of McCarthy to depict him as a bully and a thug? Does adding “pervert” really subvert anything? Or to portray Einstein as a shy genius, and DiMaggio as a likable galoot? – and when it does, we get nothing but easy reversals. Marilyn Monroe, you see, may not have been a simple ditzy sex bomb. She might have actually been pretty smart! The fictional Monroe’s crisis of loneliness as it pertains to her fame and the basic meaninglessness of it, and probably everything else (and here I’ll add that whatever my problems with this whole endeavor, Insignificance is a damn good title) forms the core of Johnson’s scenario. The stage roots of Insignificance are betrayed by the fact that the film’s action takes place primarily in Einstein’s hotel room, and the other three come and go to carry on long conversations with him, and occasionally each other, and Einstein and Monroe take up most of the film’s space and time. Monroe sees Einstein as something of a savior, though this is naïve of course, but the two of them manage long and, I guess, significant, or not, discussions about relativity and Einstein’s work on the Unified Field Theory. Meanwhile, McCarthy pops in occasionally to try to force Einstein to testify at the HUAC hearing, and DiMaggio shows up to be jealous that these two guys keep talking to his wife.
It all adds up to very little. As I’ve said, there is no subversion of these icons to be found, certainly not of the kind implied by Johnson, and relativity and the UFT exist in the film to remind us that those are, indeed, things. No matter how much time is given over to them, Insignificance finally feels like a film made by two men who want to tell us about the only two or three things they can remember about the 50s (though it doesn’t relate specifically to that decade, this shallowness finds its most concentrated form in the brief appearance of Will Sampson as The Indian, a Cherokee elevator operator – the sad and quietly dignified Native American is essential to convincing the viewer that a certain purity of spirit has been achieved). Roeg’s brand of pop surrealism (is what I guess you’d call it) does give the film some energy, and keeps it from feeling too stagebound, but in the way he seems to barely direct Emil, and overdirects Russell to the point of embarrassment, he manages to undercut most of what might be interesting about these portrayals. If Emil wasn’t dressed as Einstein for Halloween, he’d barely register, and if this version of Monroe is meant to be an upending of her popular façade, why then is Russell made to swoon and breathlessly giggle and speak as if she were doing voice work for a Monroe-based Jessica Rabbit-like cartoon character? This isn’t Monroe as we’ve never imagined her; this is Monroe as unflattering burlesque. Russell has maybe never been more gorgeous than she is here, but Roeg somehow manages to make her difficult to watch.
Contrast these performances with the important but less central work done by Busey and Curtis. Both are terrific, natural and entertaining and vibrant – they inhabit without having to imitate. They’re not given much to do or be, but they’re great, and Busey especially has a wonderful moment with Russell – and here Russell is allowed to pull back and is therefore also allowed to be very good for once in the film – in bed as they discuss the future of their marriage. It’s a sad and sweet little scene, cut off too soon by the disappointing decision to have DiMaggio fall asleep. Fall asleep quite suddenly, in fact, as though this level of genuine intimacy was getting in the way of the bellowing tone Roeg normally likes to shoot for. Anyway, the film as a whole is a depressing reminder of what Busey was once capable of.
But then there’s the ending. Einstein once famously said of the atom bomb “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” This forms the core of what I can only describe as Roeg’s astonishing and disturbing series of images that (nearly) closes out Insignificance. So jaw-dropping is his work in this sequence that Roeg’s sex/death obsession has never been more forgivable. It really is a “My God…” piece of filmmaking. Which he immediately blows to shit by showing us again that he has nothing at all to say about Marilyn Monroe. Although I guess what Russell does in the film’s final seconds can probably be described as being “the point” of Insignificance, and even sort of slyly sharp. But a moment that is “slyly sharp” is awfully weak tea compared to what immediately preceded it. For about two minutes there, Roeg revealed himself to be a genius. Then he quickly covered back up again.