Theresa Russell as The Actress and Michael Emil as The Professor from the… (Criterion Collection )
Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film "Insignificance," newly issued in standard and Blu-ray DVD editions by the Criterion Collection, has an irresistible premise that suggests a blind item from a parallel universe. Four characters identified only as the Actress, the Professor, the Ballplayer and the Senator — but instantly recognizable, thanks to some none too subtle identifying traits, as Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy — somehow converge in a Manhattan hotel room over the course of an eventful night in summer 1954.
As the film opens, the Actress (Roeg's then-wife, Theresa Russell) is shooting a scene that will soon be seared into the popular consciousness — standing under a theater marquee as the wind from a subway grate blows up her billowing white chiffon dress. Roeg stages this moment, from Billy Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch," as an inside-Hollywood set piece, with bustling crew and gaping onlookers, including the guy operating the wind machine below, who blissfully claims to have seen "the face of God."
Done for the night, the breathy Actress instructs her chauffeur to drop her off at the hotel, where the frizzy-haired Professor (Michael Emil), clad in a Princeton sweatshirt, has been pacing absently amid a sheaf of papers. She appears to be seeking the companionship of a fellow lonely celebrity. But what she wants most of all is to act out for the Professor the theory of relativity, which she does by crawling around the floor of his room, using a flashlight, a toy train and some tin soldiers as props.
The Professor, in town for a peace conference, is being harassed by the Senator (Tony Curtis), who wants him to testify before a house committee — and name some names while he's at it. The past-his-prime Ballplayer (Gary Busey), after a drunken rant at a bar, tracks down the Actress, hoping to save their floundering marriage.
Adapted from a 1981 play by Terry Johnson, "Insignificance" has some basis in fact. An angry DiMaggio, Monroe's second husband, did witness the famous skirt-blowing shoot, and their marriage did crumble around that time. Einstein was a vocal opponent of the McCarthy witch hunts. Monroe suffered miscarriages — a source of torment in the film — and is said to have had a thing for Einstein (if you believe Shelley Winters' autobiography).
But the film is ultimately less rooted in history than adrift in a fog of pop culture myth and iconography. It's a sly comment on the perversion — and the loss — of self that emerges from existing in the public sphere.
Cases of mistaken identity abound. The Professor claims at first not to recognize the Actress. The Ballplayer assumes the Professor is another one of his wife's shrinks turned lovers. The Senator thinks the Actress is a prostitute who happens to be the spitting image of a certain movie star. (Consenting to a sexual favor, she remarks: "It's not me you want, it's her.")
Despite its stage origins, "Insignificance" is hardly a static chamber piece — no surprise, given that Roeg's work has always been notable for its visual invention; he was an accomplished cinematographer in the '60s, working with the likes of David Lean and François Truffaut.
From his debut, "Performance," now a cult classic, through such '70s landmarks as "Don't Look Now" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth" to the deeply personal and underrated '80s films "Bad Timing" and "Eureka," Roeg developed a distinct expressionist vocabulary, premised on an editing style that fractures the action into a mosaic and creates unexpected rhymes.
Each of the characters in "Insignificance" is haunted by a primal trauma — in the Professor's case, the Hiroshima A-bomb — and these free-associative flashes (some of which turn out to be premonitions) recur throughout. (Incidentally Criterion is also issuing another classic of atomic cinema this month, the Robert Aldrich noir "Kiss Me Deadly.")
An evocation of the 1950s, "Insignificance" is also unmistakably a product of the 1980s, a period of renewed nuclear anxieties and heightened celebrity surrealism with the U.S. governed by a movie-star president. The mad swirl of the movie collapses past, present and future into an eternal now. The Professor's watch is permanently frozen at 8:15 — the moment the bomb dropped — and when he asks the Actress if it's early or late, she coyly responds, "It's relative."
The Professor reveals that his current project is to determine the shape of space-time — which, come to think of it, is not a bad way to sum up the goal of Nicolas Roeg's heady, hallucinatory cinema.