New York

“Insignificance,” directed by Nicolas Roeg

The current spate of kid movies and grotesque patriotics has been momentarily interrupted by a film in which Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein meet in a hotel room. Most movies use the cartoon stereotype as a reductivist device, removing the rich pleats of meaning and consolidating all information into the economy of myth. Nicholas Roeg’s Insignificance (1985) unfolds these singular mythologies and exposes the stuff that comprises our notions of history, nationalism, and biography. The film combines the solidity of act with the diffusion of fiction and turns the singularity of “significance” into the multiplicities of the “insignificant,” dancing around the surety of knowledge, beneath the repressions of surveillance, and within the envelope of the ideological.

The film opens with the image of an actress (Theresa Russell), unnamed yet undoubtedly cast as Marilyn Monroe, straddling a sidewalk grate, her dress billowing around her like a lily pad on acid. Two film technicians crouching beneath the grate operate a fan that allows MM’s buttocks to scrape the crepe of her dress. Staring upward, riveted by the sight of Marilyn’s sex, the fan operator numbly declares that he has “just seen the face of God.” The making of this image, the logo of The Seven Year Itch (directed by Billy Wilder in 1955), attracts a restless crowd whose noisy ruckus wafts up the canyon of 57th Street and hovers around a window that frames the figure of Einstein (Michael Emil). It’s not long before “the face of God” meets up with “Einstein’s brain,” and together they make for a rigidly cuddly duo, acting out their expected mythologies with the finesse of angels with dirty faces. Roeg unplugs the halo that crowns the heroic and suggests that these twin shrines of body and brain suffer not only the strains of objectification but also the demands of the academies (of art and of science) that impatiently await their production. Marilyn is a math whiz held hostage by her body in a culture that prefers her southern lips to her northern ones and demands only her silence, while Einstein’s brain has become the ultimate in fetishized machinery. It is the ’50s, and the itch that America has been scratching in public for at least seven years helps to alleviate that which it fears most: the Commie boogeyman. Einstein’s dread of atomic annihilation, combined with his feelings of guilt and hopes for peace, has aroused the government’s suspicions. A senator (Tony Curtis), a political hack from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, relentlessly stalks him, subpoenas him, and tries to shake him down for “a yes, a denouncement, and a few names.” Explaining to an incredulous Einstein that “Dachau is the same as what we’re talking about now,” his tactics abound with intimidation and simple thuggery. Although this is supposed to be 1954, he seems, unfortunately, very much a man of the ’80s. Marilyn’s husband, a quasi-DiMaggio jock (Gary Busey), swerves from brute to sensitive slugger and serves to further delineate her sexuality and to emphasize the tribulations of the public family.

Although The Blonde and The Brain dominate its decor, Insignificance is truly a one-room, four-character movie. At its best, the room buckles with wit, a kind of woozily critical brand of monkey-shine that shocks you with its sharpness. “You honestly believe I understand rel-a-tiv-i-ty,” sighs Marilyn breathlessly as she then proceeds to indulge in a dazzling explanation of the famous theory: a motley crew of objects ranging from Jane Eyre, balloons, toy trains, flashlights, to The Brothers Karamazov wrangle with each other to produce a narrative of wacky clarity and stunning visual counterpoint. At the film’s conclusion, Marilyn basks in self-satisfaction as an astonished Einstein congratulates her. This scene segues to a shot of Marilyn as a child in an orphanage, slowly raising her clothes to reveal her sex to a group of awed young boys. This analogic cutting marks most of Roeg’s films, in which bad words detonate firestorms, pleasure prefaces starry night skies, and wealth introduces rivers of liquid gold.

Aside from its visual style, the film is emboldened by its script. Written by Terry Johnson, Insignificance was originally a London stage production—which should come as no surprise. Hollywood’s inability to encourage or tolerate film projects that display any literary acuity has forced many directors to take their cues from the theater. The adapted screenplay supplies the film’s candor and articulateness and illustrates the power of its ideas: that a room in the Roosevelt Hotel in 1954 can serve as a microcosm of current events and popular mythology; that it is possible for a film to address the very repression that has helped twist Hollywood into the pretzel of corporate control and compliance, which it too frequently is today; and that power, sexuality, and money can rub together to produce a firestorm of atomic proportions. When the senator tries to confiscate a pile of precious equations, Einstein outwits him by throwing them out the window. So it rains relativity on the hot-dog stand below and produces an insignificant spectacle of spectacular significance: a special effect that would probably make Marilyn and Albert feel just fine.

Barbara Kruger