It’s almost ironic that Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch was auctioned for almost $6 million the same week that The Criterion Collection released the DVD of Insignificance. Nicolas Roeg’s masterwork not only features Monroe, or someone who looks like her, as one of its main characters, it also represents the endurance of popular culture icons as the world once again becomes paranoid about its own demise.
Based on an eponymous play by Terry Johnson, the film takes place in 1954 and most of the plot unfolds inside a New York City hotel room where four characters will converge at one point or another. They’re just referred to as the Actress (Theresa Russell), the Professor (Michael Emil), the Senator (Tony Curtis) and the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), but due to their appearances we assume they are Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio, respectively.
From the get-go the film clarifies to us that what we’re about to see never happened, what it fails to reveal, however, is the purpose of this historical fantasia. Soon enough it becomes clear that the film’s purpose was never even to tell a story but to challenge our perceptions and make us reexamine the way in which we see things. Even if the name Marilyn Monroe is never uttered in the movie, the first time we see the Actress, she’s shooting a scene where she stands over a subway grate just as the train passes by, letting lose steam that lifts her white dress showing her legs and underwear (“I saw the face of god” says one of the wind machine operators who looks up the Actress’ skirt.) This must be Marilyn Monroe! If not why are people cheering the shooting and why is there a Tom Ewell lookalike there too?
Of course she is Marilyn Monroe, but also she’s not. Roeg establishes that people who are influenced by the media will immediately know who he’s trying to represent, but what about those, few as they may be, who have never seen a picture of Marilyn Monroe? What will this film represent to them? As the characters meet, the film subtly plays with their well known back stories. We see how the Actress longs to be a mother (an ominous Picasso painting seen throughout the film reflects both this yearning and also the film’s own cubist structure) but has had enough of her brute husband: the Ballplayer. Throughout the film she is pursued by him as he demands her attention and threatens the men who get near her. “If I wanna see my wife, I go to the movies” he says, “if I wanna see you in your underwear I go to the corner like all the other guys”.
Little does the Ballplayer know that all his wife really wants that night is knowledge. She meets the Professor exclaiming, “You know everything there is to know about everything!” She, of course, has no idea that deep inside the Professor’s head lie the ghosts of the people he thinks he helped murder by inventing the atomic bomb. In fact the characters know less about each other than what the audience thinks they know about the characters. In an especially poignant scene, the Senator, who has been trying to obtain a Communist confession out of the Professor, runs into the Actress, mistakes her for a prostitute and beats her.
In this game of are they or aren’t they, Insignificance has its cake and eats it too, as it uses biographical facts we know about the people it’s representing (Monroe’s origins, McCarthy’s sexual efficiency, DiMaggio’s jealousy) but also evades any actual fact-making by never acknowledging their names. All of them worry about fame, politics, apocalypse by way of nuclear war and the idea of Hollywood. Roeg, then, flawlessly created a film that worked as a document of American fears in 1954 and in 1985 when the film was released. It’s chilling to see it’s message is also appropriate for our times, especially when it comes to recognition by insignificant achievements. “You’re famous, we have an awful lot in common” says the Actress to the Professor.
Insignificance is filled with symbols that might take more than a screening or two to fully grasp. Fortunately, this DVD edition includes a fascinating interview with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, who point out interesting tidbits about the production and the meaning of some scenes. A short vintage documentary is also included, in which Busey appropriately reveals the three things you need to make it in Hollywood; one of them is knowing how to “fall in slow motion”.
If society has changed so little, Roeg’s film more than ever acquires a rich significance. In its constant search for humanity within the mysterious world of fame. The director’s balancing act between constructing archetypes and actual human beings is remarkable, and the ensemble does a great job of embodying both the iconic and the human about their characters (Curtis is a joy to behold as the destructive Senator).
The film’s melancholy and fear is best summed up in an exchange between the Professor and the Actress. As she points out her image in a huge billboard outside the hotel, the wise man says “I prefer to look up” as he points to the stars. “They make me feel sad and lonely” replies the Actress. “All who look up feel small and lonely” he says. A movie star talking about feeling lonely with other stars? It’s absolutely no coincidence.