(Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1985) 110 minutes


Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay: Terry Johnson,
  based on his own play
Cinematography: Peter Hannan
Editor: Tony Lawson
Music: Stanley Myers, Hans Zimmer
Michael Emil (The Professor)
Theresa Russell (The Actress)
Tony Curtis (The Senator)
Gary Busey (The Ballplayer)
Will Sampson (Elevator Attendant)
Patrick Kilpatrick (Driver)

Reviews and notes

1985 Cannes (Technical Grand Prize)

Four unnamed people who look and sound a lot like Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy converge in one New York City hotel room in this compelling, visually inventive adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play, from director Nicolas Roeg. With a combination of whimsy and dread, Roeg creates a fun-house-mirror image of fifties America in order to reflect on the nature of celebrity and lingering cold-war nuclear nightmares. Insignificance is a delirious, intelligent drama, featuring magnetic performances by Michael Emil as the Professor, Theresa Russell as the Actress, Gary Busey as the Ballplayer, and Tony Curtis as the Senator.

Roeg assembles an excellent cast of non-stars, confines them in anonymous hotel rooms, and lets them rip on all his favourite topics: life, love, fame, hate, jealousy, atomic firestorm and the whole damn thing. As usual with Roeg, the firmament is streaming with large ideas and awkward emotions, which grow larger and larger in significance, and most of which come together in a delightful scene when Marilyn (Russell) explains relativity to Einstein (Emil) with the aid of clockwork trains and balloons. Curtis is Senator McCarthy, still witch-hunting phantoms of his mind; Busey is the washed-up ballplayer, aching for Marilyn's return. It may be a chamber piece, but its circumference is vast.
– Chris Peachment, Time Out.

By inference if not by positive identification, Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance is a rondo for four stars from assorted galaxies, encompassing Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Senator McCarthy (Tony Curtis). At one point, trying to describe the shape of the universe for Marilyn's benefit in the kindergarten terms she had earlier used to propound the theory of relativity for him, Einstein suggests that she imagine taking a completely solid object and then turning it completely inside out upon itself forever. It's as good an image as any for the extraordinarily open-ended, ever-changing density of Roeg's movies in general, and Insignificance in particular, which rolls along gathering momentum like some enigmatic ball, seemingly going nowhere yet arriving everywhere as it explodes in a shower of illumination.

The time is 1954, a year in which Marilyn Monroe's career was beginning to crest, divorce from DiMaggio was in the offing, and the mixed blessings of her self-improvement programme via psychoanalysis and the Actors' Studio were already under way. So, in the delightful encounter imagined by Terry Johnson's play (performed at the Royal Court in 1982), Marilyn flees from the gawping spectators and lowbrow frustrations of filming the subway grating scene for The Seven Year Itch to drop in unannounced on a shyly startled Einstein in the hope of intellectual stimulation ('Gee,' she sighs contentedly after being lectured sternly on the dangers of merely pretending to understand, 'this is the best conversation I ever had'). But just as a despairingly jealous DiMaggio is on Marilyn's trail, so McCarthy is hounding Einstein to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and in a valiant attempt to rescue the manuscript of Einstein's latest opus from being impounded as subversive, Marilyn gets punched in the stomach by McCarthy, causing her to abort the baby that might have saved her marriage. Significant events that are insignificant, in that physically Marilyn could never have borne the child anyway, while Einstein himself cheerfully throws away the manuscript he has already destroyed four times. Relativity. At the end, absently watching Marilyn go through her lines for him - only she hasn't any - Einstein sees a nuclear holocaust - only there isn't one.

Faithfully filming this scenario adapted by Johnson himself, Roeg has completely transformed it by placing it under his familiar sign of time and the stars. The opening image, of a wristwatch spiralling in free-fall through space, has many ramifications: in its formal use as a device providing each of the four principals with childhood memories defining both the drives that turned them into stars and the inhibitions that burned them out; or in the more general symbolism of the timepiece stopped forever when a childhood experiment of Einstein's went wrong and which, for 'the Daddy of the H Bomb', signifies the guilty past horror of Nagasaki and the guilty future horror of what he has glimpsed of the precise nature of the universe.

More particularly, though, time hovers over the film in its apprehension of the mid-50s as a time of apprehension. Marilyn glitters as a bright star in the firmament, yet already one can glimpse the suicide that lies ahead through DiMaggio (over the hill as a baseball player and gloomily facing the ruin of his life), McCarthy (darkly contemplating the dying gasp of his witch-hunts) and Einstein (looking back on his achievement, two years before his death, with anguished apology). This time of Cold War darkness was perhaps finally understood - in the sense Einstein distinguishes from knowledge when he says, 'Knowledge is not truth, it is merely agreement' - during the protest years of the 60s. But what came of that understanding-cum-protest? Relativity again.

The stars hover over the film as resonantly as time, starting of course with the fact that each of the protagonists is a luminary in his or her chosen field. Then, too, there are the stars in the sky (which make Marilyn feel 'small and lonely and sad'), noted by the technician setting up the wind-machine under the grating for the Seven Year Itch scene when asked by his lascivious colleague, before the skirt-blowing has even started, what he sees: 'I see the stars,' he says wonderingly. 'You look at the stars and you feel like tomorrow you can do anything.' 'Philosophical bastard!' snarls the disappointed lecher, reducing those stars to jocular alignment to the various references to God (from the first technician's awed 'I saw the face of God!' when the skirt starts flying, to Marilyn's explanation of her ballplayer husband, 'He's God!' as he jealously tries to batter his way into Einstein's hotel room). Yet these references, taken together, do combine into a caveat against placing too much faith in the infallibility of human stars, who may profess to attain physical perfection or pure seduction (DiMaggio, Marilyn), to create a more perfect world or a more perfect understanding of it (McCarthy, Einstein), but who are nevertheless driven to measure their limitations against some probably non-existent God of their own.

The astral stars, meanwhile, are an unseen presence watching over this microcosm in which the four protagonists - less individuals, by virtue of their stardom, than endless reflections of humanity as they might be refracted by a mirror-maze - struggle to come to terms with their essential smallness and solitude. It is almost as though some aloof Olympian were making sport of human history - and delightfully funny much of it is, what with Einstein countering DiMaggio's boast of having featured in thirteen bubblegum-card series with his shy assertion that 'I was in Chewy Fruit's Great Scientific Achievements' - only to become suddenly touched by an awareness of the fragile vulnerability of these luminaries of human endeavour.

Confined to a terrestrial hive of narrowly connecting cells - barroom, hotel room, street corner with subway grating - these creatures scurry in a heartrendingly busy activity that resumes the history of human relationships as DiMaggio and Marilyn slug out a marital huis clos in which love is the loser, Einstein is too late vouchsafed a glimpse of paradise, and McCarthy burrows hopelessly on the fringes, locked out by the puritan intransigence that condemns him to remain a loner. An earthbound activity, switching from the horizontal to the vertical only once, when Einstein is carried up - though only to his floor in the hotel - by an enigmatic Cherokee elevator operator (Will Sampson) who himself continues upwards, emerges on the roof, and addresses the Manhattan skyline over which wolves chillingly howl with some ancestral tribal chant.

'I know you. You're a Cherokee,' the elevator man had told Einstein, in a double-edged reference to the Cherokee belief that wherever he is, there is the centre of the world, and to DiMaggio's observation that if Columbus hadn't discovered America 'we'd all be Indians'. Faux-naif like much else in the film (the disembodied voice chanting 'America 'tis of thee...' along with the howling wolves on the rooftop; the tuppence coloured images of cherry blossom time in Japan before Nagasaki), the thread of significance (or insignificance) here is wholly serious and has less to do with getting back to ancient wisdoms than with Einstein's complaint that people, though seeing themselves at the centre of the universe, 'won't take responsibility for their world, they want to put it on the shoulders of the few.'

The point is that, revered as the world's greatest repository of knowledge, Einstein knows that knowing is nothing: 'If I say I know, I stop thinking, but so long as I think, I come to understand, I might approach some truth.' And going on thinking, keeping his thoughts to himself, Einstein has approached that truth: the bleak paradox revealed in his final moments with Marilyn as she tries to reassure him that he is not responsible for what happened at Nagasaki. 'There's something worse,' he mutters: 'What could be worse?': 'I don't know ... and I must not think about it' - that understanding means that man must stop thinking. Another rogue Roeg like Eureka, and as likely to be subjected to critical crassness, Insignificance makes all the British cinema's much-vaunted Oscar winners pale into . . . well, insignificance.
- Tom Milne, Sight and Sound, Summer 1985.

Back to screening list

Home Page | Membership