Gone Roeg

Darrell Hartman on Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg, Insignificance, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes.

PAST IS PRESENT in the cinema of Nicolas Roeg. To simply call those extratemporal sequences that punctuate his work “flashbacks” is to downplay the role that images of what came before play in his films. Such “digressive” framing devices are, in many ways, the emotional and visual keystones of Roeg’s work.

In his heyday, from the 1970s until the mid-’80s, Roeg was known as an envelope pusher. He employed nonlinear editing as part of an ambitious attempt to bridge space and time, cutting frames together with an eye toward enriching the interplay of associations in the viewer’s mind. Thus a gesture at the center of one scene is overtly replicated in the next one, or one character seemingly responds to another, even if the two actions or people are decades or time zones apart. One rarely engages fully with the sloppy top layers of a Roeg film (the characters, the story). The real action takes place on a slightly creepy subliminal level.

In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the humanoid, hyperevolved creature played by David Bowie says he’s interested in the “transference of energy.” Bowie’s Newton has come from a faraway place to build something that no one around him really understands. The parallels between Newton and Roeg, an Englishman making his first film in the US at the time, are obvious, especially when you consider that the film’s unhappy distributors went so far as to hand out leaflets at cinemas outlining the plot.

In a way, you can’t blame them. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a simple story, willfully scrambled into something much more complicated. In a nutshell: Newton migrates to our world to build a spaceship that will allow him to return to his home planet, which has run out of water, so that he can presumably bring his wife and children back to Earth. But he’s undone by alcohol, television, and the machinations of a suspicious government agency.

It’s not clear what Newton’s powers are, but he does at one point seem to peer through time. As he’s being chauffeured through the American West, a roadside meadow suddenly becomes populated with nineteenth-century settlers. They’re just as surprised to see Newton, speeding by in his limousine, as he is to see them. Where are we? In the present, looking into the past? Or in the past, experiencing a vision of the future, albeit one less terrifying than the bloody prefigurations of Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now? Forward, backward: The individual and collective unconscious stretches miles and miles in both directions.

Newton’s brief encounter with pioneers correlates to a scene in Roeg’s Insignificance (1985) in which an elevator operator of Cherokee descent hears his ancestors chanting as he contemplates the Manhattan skyline. The bellman is not a major character, but his minority, in multiple senses of the word, adds a layer of meaning to the film’s title, and his moment at the top of the city helps Insignificance (recently rereleased by Criterion on Blu-Ray and DVD) breathe.

The basic setup is the same as in the original play by Terry Johnson: Individuals resembling Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and (least likable of all) Senator Joe McCarthy rotate in and out of the same hotel room. It’s an exploration of celebrity based on the principle, as Roeg put it around the time of its making, that “nobody knows a damn thing about anyone.” (It’s worth noting that the film was released in a time when America was being led by a former movie star.)

Insignificance reanimates four icons of a ’50s cold-war American pop culture racked by nuclear fears, and then examines them as individuals: most vividly, “The Actress” (Theresa Russell), who inspires and feeds on the public’s desire, and “The Professor” (Michael Emil), plagued by guilt for his role in creating the atomic bomb. The film ends on Roeg’s graphic vision, which unfolds in slow motion, of America’s sweetheart being blown to bits the way the people of Hiroshima were. (More associations: Her charred corpse recalls that of Gene Hackman’s seemingly impervious treasure hunter in Eureka [1983].) Regardless of her symbolic power, Marilyn the person can be extinguished in a heartbeat. The Wild West, Hiroshima, the ’50s, the apocalypse—they’re not as far apart as you might think.

A new 35-mm print of The Man Who Fell to Earth runs June 24–July 7 at Film Forum in New York. Insignificance is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.