Essayist and film critic Chuck Stephens aptly calls British director Nicolas Roeg a “Cine-Cubist” in his new essay on Insignificance for the Criterion Collection, which just released Roeg’s hard-to-find 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play.
As a filmmaker, Roeg is fascinated by his characters’ relationship with themselves, art and the world. Don't look for fundamental truth in his movies. Instead you will find overwhelming moods of isolation and the growing certainty that as the world changes, nobody knows or cares. In Bad Timing, Art Garfunkel’s dispassionate voyeur obsessively recounts his affair with Theresa Russell through a series of fractured flashbacks. In Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s grief for their dead daughter leads them to see Venice in a new disturbing light.
Insignificance is a chamber drama that almost immediately teases the viewer with the idea that one of its four central protagonists is actively conjuring the rest of the world outside his hotel room. That God-like character is Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), who throughout the film is referred to as “The Professor.” Similarly, Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) is called “The Actress,” Joseph McCarthy (a scene-stealing Tony Curtis) is referred to as “The Senator” and Joe DiMaggio (a young Gary Busey) is “The Ballplayer.”
In Insignificance’s first scene, The Professor peers into his dense logarithmic equations as Roeg cuts to The Actress filming the famous street vent scene from Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Two men operating the fan lifting The Actress’s skirt try to catch a glimpse of her panties. When the big moment comes and goes, one of the men exclaims that the sight that greeted him was like “the face of God.” Roeg then cheekily cross-cuts to The Professor and laughs bemusedly at his work, as if through his computations he could see what was going on without actually having been physically present.
The four main celebrity protagonists in Insignificance meet with each other and talk about everything including philosophy, the theory of relativity and sex. They're all depicted as lonely celebrities. But Roeg and Johnson suggest that all four characters are public icons who are trapped by their own celeb status. Just as David Bowie’s celebrity alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth can’t see himself as an alien anymore, so too is The Ballplayer incapable of seeing himself beyond the way he’s presented in trading cards.
Insignificance’s protagonists are all extraordinarily sensitive to their perceived responsibilities to the world at large. They also fear being unable to see and/or control their self-image. The Actress taunts the Senator by pouting, “I think you’re very vague,” which may not sound like much of a putdown, but in Roeg’s world, it’s a searing insult.