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The Essentials: The Films Of Nicolas Roeg

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 23, 2011 at 4:06AM

You might say it’s a good month to be a fan of British cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg. Just last week the Criterion Collection released the director’s 1985 oddball picture, “Insignificance,” and this week, his landmark science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie is being given a limited U.S. theatrical re-release to mark its 35th anniversary.
11

“Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession" (1980)
A mutually self-destructive May-December romance between an older jealous psychiatrist who doesn't subscribe to the terms "normal" and "mad,” and a secretive and mercurial 25-year-old student is a recipe for disaster in Nicolas Roeg's 1980 sexual obsession psychodrama, "Bad Timing." Told in serrated, frenetic flashbacks (naturally) and starring Roeg's belle du jour Theresa Russell (they were involved romantically shortly thereafter and married in 1982) and Art Garfunkel, the elliptically, often jarringly communicated drama centers on the couple's quickly-growing damaged romance, his paranoia and jealousy, and her subsequent psychological breakdown and attempted suicide. Set in Vienna, Harvey Keitel also stars as an American detective trying to get to the bottom of her overdose while Denholm Elliot plays an old lover. As is often the case in Roeg films, conspicuous cinematic conventions steal most of the scenes -- agitated, clipped editing, conspicuous zooms and 4th-wall-breaking protagonists smiling at the camera psychotically, etc. Disturbing and rather cretinous in its excruciating ending, the film was originally rated X and then somehow was toned down to make an R-rating, but still cemented Roeg’s reputation as a Brit-perv on par with Ken Russell, only more tasteless. A fractured look at the collision of love, sex, obsession, control and the desire to belong, as the films central mystery unfolds, it all begins to border on melodrama, but Roeg’s dyslexic narrative leaves you ultimately shocked and senseless. [B+]

“Eureka" (1983)
Towards the beginning of “Eureka,” Roeg’s manic excoriation of the corrupting nature of capitalism and mankind’s essential rapacity towards nature, society and each other, frustrated prospector Jack McCann (a mad-eyed Gene Hackman) staggering around the Yukon encounters a grinning vagrant. “What are you smiling at?” Hackman shoots at him. The bum rasps, “The end!” and then proceeds to blow his brains out. It’s a neat parallel for what the film would come to represent in Roeg’s own legacy – a self-sabotaging endeavor that all but ended his career in America, and a curio that has remained largely dormant since its release and subsequent burial in 1983. Its stature has grown over the years, with some taking Hackman’s McCann as a precursor to Daniel Planview in “There Will Be Blood,” and it remains a tough, infrequently brilliant picture. Its quicksilver plotting affords far too much time to a drippy romance between Theresa Russell and her tempestuous beau (Rutger Hauer) instead of Hackman’s rumpled quasi-Midas who wallows in material wealth and spiritual impoverishment. And although Paul Mayersberg’s script is frequently absurd and overly literal (“I don’t want your gold! I want flesh!”), eventually descending into out-and-out dull courtroom farce, it proved that Roeg could still film an old geezer getting flambéed by a blowtorch or a loco pansexual voodoo orgy like nobody’s business. The British filmmakers that have since cited the director as a formative influence – Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan – seem laughably pedestrian by contrast. [B]

Insignificance" (1985)
In the Nabokov story “Signs and Symbols” (so good they should put it in the water), the protagonist suffers from “referential mania”: he sees significance in everything. Thinking about 1985's "Insignificance" -- its title is just the first riddle -- we know how he feels: every object, person and event seems to refer to something else within the film, and to things without. Watches, blood, Hiroshima, shoes, lookalikes, relativity and the relationship between baseball and gum -- the film layers theme upon motif to such a pitch of semantic hullaballoo that the climactic holocaust is kind of a relief (also it allows us an unforgettable image of a twirling Marilyn with her skirt on fire.) The plot: unnamed versions of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe di Maggio and Sen. Joe McCarthy collide over the course of a single night in a strange mix of psychological/political commentary and fan fiction. Adapted for screen by the original play’s writer Terry Johnson, the film is talky and at times the performances feel telegraphed: The Actress is played by Roeg's then-wife Theresa Russell with a breathy capriciousness that, initially at least, borders on caricature. But these are deliberate choices; the staginess makes the moments of ‘pure’ cinema -- like the quick edits to surreal scenes remembered or imagined -- all the more effective, even as the soundtrack veers wildly from apropos to anachronistic. It's a fascinating house of mirrors reflecting infinite distortions of the nature of identity, fame, intelligence, the (im)possibility of human connection and either the utter significance, or the complete insignificance, of everything. Out as of last week on the Criterion label, this is a film we love, even if thinking about it makes us feel like The Actress when she looks at the stars: small and lonely. Oh, and kind of stupid, too. [A-]

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, Nicolas Roeg


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