Braiding the sexual anxiety and temporal slipperiness of Nicholas Roeg’s masterpiece, Bad Timing, with the historical vibrancy of its messiness-as-style follow-up, Eureka, Insignificance represents the peak of Roeg’s meditative cultural dithering. The film imagines a single hot summer’s evening/early morning in a single hotel room in 1954 as a collision point of multiple, unnamed-but-dead-ringer Americana personages: the Actress (Roeg’s spouse Teresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe), the Professor (nonentity Michael Emil as Albert Einstein), the Ballplayer (a gloriously lumpy Gary Busey as Joe DiMaggio), and the Senator (Tony Curtis as a sniveling, impotent Joseph McCarthy). Unsurprisingly adapted from a stage play by Terry Johnson, but Roeg-ized with attention-drawing anachronisms and jump cuts, the script pulls from the fissured private lives of these icons to fashion a narrative more artifactual than factual. Drawn together out of disillusionment with the public eye, these characters are shadows glimpsed from the cannibalistic collective conscious—the stuff of tabloid endowed with the intelligence to rebel against their falsity. The result is a piquant alternate history of vague social damnation: an a-pop-calypse, a darkly talkative masturbatory fantasy that seems to have sprung from the perspiring forehead of Norman Mailer.
Both the Actress and the Professor are first established as fugitives, of sorts. With swivels and swift edits, Roeg recreates the shooting of the famous up-turned skirt scene in The Seven Year Itch. Meanwhile, the Professor is confronted by the Senator in the former’s hotel room, where he’s urged to testify in front of HUAC and “maybe just give up a few names.” (The Senator’s transparently manipulative rhetoric is a less self-aware and more colorful appropriation of Harvey Keitel’s interrogative mind games in Bad Timing; he makes a point of mentioning how municipal water sources likely have infinitesimal traces of Napoleon’s corpse, then attempts to conflate Soviet communism with Nazism’s evils.) As the Actress journeys, by deftly diverted cab, to visit the Professor soon after in the dead of night, Roeg employs his signature concept-crosscuts to suggest the shared superficiality of their experience: Grittily gripped balloons are juxtaposed with gently fingered stopwatches, and so forth. And until the Actress reaches the innards of the Professor’s hotel room, her eyes are kept out of view, either behind sunglasses or out of frame, as though refusing to reciprocate the refractive gaze of lust that follows her. We see only the “real” pageantry of her third eye, her beauty mark, daintily recreated to complete Roeg’s exaggerated facsimile.
What follows is a mash-up of 20th-century watersheds, each with corresponding flashbacks and flashforwards to suggest the molestation that brought them into life and/or later distorted their achievement. The Actress means to seduce the Professor’s brain by demonstrating, with flashlights and toy trains, the Theory of Relativity—which she does, dropping complex theorems with hilarious, gender role-exploding girlishness. But he’s ultimately content to toil on the fruition of his life’s work and then defenestrate it, having seen how others can interpret his benign musings on the shape of the universe into weapons. The Ballplayer, sniffing infidelity, intrudes on their evening just as the two are readying themselves for bed, and disrupts the dialectic with hilariously anguished brute force and some vague defense of common sense. (He challenges the Professor’s fame by citing his own inclusion on bubblegum cards, and later rejects astronomical mumbo-jumbo with a reference to Columbus’s mythic “round world” conviction; it’s like he studies Stan Freberg seriously for clues to what lies beyond his intellect.) And throughout the hotel traffic, clips are punched-in of the Actress as a brunette shyly stripping down to her bruised knees in summer camp; of Japanese innocents and nuclear waste; of stern paternal eyes and foul balls.
As with most of Roeg’s work, Insignificance features its share of clunkily modern winks. When the Ballplayer sucks down ale in a bar he gazes furiously at, and then tears up, an erotic calendar of his wife made by David Hockney. (Do we need reminders of the “jaggedness” of Marilyn’s eros?) A Cherokee bellhop mistakes the Professor’s nuanced view of time for shamanic power. And when the Senator and the Actress finally cross paths, he assumes she’s a prostitute with a striking and no doubt lucrative resemblance. But despite these hiccups, the finger-wagging meta-implication in the case of all four icons effectively scolds the American tradition of perverting beauty—the beauty of the cosmos, the beauty of woman, the beauty of kinesthetic man, and finally, the beauty of perversion itself. (The Senator’s alcoholic cartoonishness, given clipped desperation by Curtis, is a wimpy art form.)
The Professor claims that “Knowledge isn’t truth; it’s mindless agreement.” And so we know—we agree with—what Roeg and Johnson want us to: that Marilyn was too early sexualized, suffered obstetric distress, and was madly attracted to the safety of bookishness; that DiMaggio nursed Oedipal anxiety; that McCarthy was a drunk and a self-loather; and that Einstein was haunted by his endorsement of and theoretical contribution to the development of the atomic bomb. While likely accurate, Roeg magnifies these biographical factoids until they merge with their respective icon’s brand. When the Actress is delivered a blow to the stomach and bleeds, she proffers a performance. When the Professor mourns those dead by his mathematical fantasies, the grief becomes pathology. What were once the hidden truths of these figures are woven into the fabric of their mythology, observing our cultural shift from fetishizing spotlessness to fetishizing personal tragedy.
What Roeg further materializes for us, both in this and in several of his films, is that to ponder the essence and genesis of a thing is also to inadvertently author its eschatology. This leads to a patchy denouement: The Professor’s nightmares of Hiroshima wind up being interspersed, somewhat dumbly, with visions of a post-catastrophic America, and the final moments of Insignificance furnish an all-too-literal Armageddon. But the scorched, barren landscape we’re left with is also intended as a metaphor for the lack of universal, “wholesome” icons beyond the Cold War, and the resulting dearth of prey for pop’s icy clutches. (Aren’t all the best and most timeless icons fallen angels?) The Professor explains the shape of the universe as an object turning itself inside out eternally: Here, those objects are a stuck-out tongue, a cheeky beauty mark, a gin-rosy nose, a baseball hurtling toward space. They are totems the sources of which we couldn’t help but unravel, and now they double as the four horsemen-heralds of our cultural doom.
Insignificance may not represent Nicholas Roeg at his most visually competent (it's all cadence), but Peter Hannan, Bruce Robinson's occasional cinematographer, uses gritty urban browns and blacks to balance the implied glitter that chokes the Actress and the Ballplayer. And in flashbacks with more pronounced color, such as an odd, rural Japanese dream, we're nearly jolted from the film's dream state with verdant energy. Criterion's 1080p transfer is reliably clean and nuanced, and the most interesting revelation afforded by the clarity may be the fleshtones, or lack thereof: the Actress is peaked, the Senator is ruddy, the Professor is withered and tan, and the Ballplayer is…well, Gary Busey deserves his own Crayola. There's no "natural" human color we can compare these characters against, intensifying the unearthliness of Roeg's enterprise. The sound mix is solid, though that means we have to suffer through the bottom-shelf '80s pop track in the opening titles.
Two recent interviews—one with director Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, the other with editor Tony Lawson—attempt to make sense of the film's narrative and its comment on mass culture. They're fun but largely fail. And then there's a featurette that was produced concurrently with the movie by Roeg's son and others, and it gives each of the main actors a chance to wax philosophical about the script. Gary Busey's take: "The '50s? McCarthyism? Didn't know nuthin' about it. Torn-ay-das scare the shit outta me." Chuck Stephens deconstructs the shit outta the content in the booklet's critical essay.
Four proto-celebrities go Roeg, and Gary Busey enters the Criterion Collection for the second time. What's not to like?