The 1980s proved to be an interesting and difficult time for auteurs of the 1960s and 1970s. Directors like Copolla, Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, etc. offered works that were far from their classics of the previous decade, but many of these films have aged well and proven to be compelling entries within the respective ouvres of these directors precisely because they aren’t part of their canon. While British director Nicolas Roeg did not play a central part in New Hollywood in the same way as the directors I listed, his 1970s work was certainly part and parcel of this brief countercultural revolution in narrative storytelling. I see Roeg as something of a British equivalent to Hal Ashby: someone who made brilliant entry after brilliant entry throughout a single decade, only to fade out of the spotlight once the 1980s began. But unlike the late Ashby, Roeg has continued making films during these years, and The Criterion Collection has taken one of his most perplexing entries from the era of Reagan and Alf out of obscurity.
Insignificance (1985) is a strange film about a strange time. Based on the play by Terry Johnson, Insignificance stages an impossible meeting between iconoclastic minds as the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe (Roeg’s then-wife Teresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Sen. Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis) move in an out of a hotel room as they share a variety of 50s-topical dramatic scenarios.
Beyond the obvious thematic connection with the film’s title, it’s fitting that Insignificance would have faded into obscurity as it is a film about obscurity, an exploration of what isn’t publicly known about public figures. This isn’t to say that Insignificance is a biopic or even remotely based on a true story. No, Insignificance even rejects this convention as a means of getting to know the “reality” behind the artifice and construction of popular culture and its figures. Insignificance is at its core an exercise in the concepts explored by Richard Dyer in his book Heavenly Bodies, which poses the star image not as a person but a text heavy determined by the discursive elements enacted through a culture’s preoccupation with the star. The star persona is the dominant impression of the star, but then there is public fascination with the manufacturing of the star myth – in other words, the notion of who the “real” person is lying beyond the star her/himself. However, the notion of the “really” also has a constructed political economy to it that’s promoted and explored through biographies, interviews, etc. That’s why there’s an endless fascination with several stars: the notion that no matter how much we know, we never really “know” them.
Insignificance now resembles something like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) in its exploration of the star image. Unlike many movies about public figures which stage their private life as an “unveiling” of “the real” in opposition to the readily and publicly “known,” Insignificance relents that such an exercise is fruitless to begin with, not to mention no less “real” than the dominant image of the real person. Demystification can be a form of myth-making in of itself. By staging an impossible meeting between four iconic minds, Insignificance in effect does exactly what its title promises: it de-signifies the star image, taking it from its anticipated context and subverting it.
We may be introduced to Monroe in a staging of the famous upskirt moment from The Seven Year Itch (1957), but this moment is de-authenticated and deconstructed as we’re shown the complex process of staging a deliberately career-defining moment. Later, Monroe explicates the Theory of Relativity to Einstein using some balloons, flashlights, and model trains. Insignificance poses that neither of these manifestations of Monroe are more “authentic” than the other. That the film also co-stars Curtis – who famously co-starred with Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959) and whose character attempted to comically seduce Monroe’s – acting here as McCarthy trying to seduce Monroe further confounds the line between the authentic and the artificial in the construction of the star image.
In creating a fantastic scenario based on these star icons, Insignificance makes the case that the ubiquitous image of the public figure does not belong to the person who embodies them, but to the public, for by entering the public and articulating a constructed persona, the star has already entered the realm of fiction. It’s interesting then that the playwright of Insignificance chose four characters who have four very different roles in American culture as the story’s central star icons. The star does not only exist in the realm of sports and entertainment, but also politics and the academy. All play important roles in shaping culture and employing social rituals, but all are also celebrities in their own right, with their own constructed personae. Celebrity is not exclusive to the world of glamour and fame, but pertains to any individual with a public face. The public face creates an asymmetrical impression of social knowledge, or the notion that we “know” somebody who does not know us in return. Insignificance is based on what we “know” about public figures, and is consistent with the accepted public knowledge of these figures in this respect, but the mere fact that this is a work of fiction that is consistent with this public knowledge points to the degree that the public figure belongs to the collective imagination rather than to the individual her/himself. This isn’t a film in part about Marilyn Monroe, but “Marilyn Monroe.”
Finally, a rumination on the constructed nature of the star as it persists within various fields is a fitting entry for Roeg’s post-70s career. With Performance (1970), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), the height of Roeg’s career was framed by and centered with films featuring pop stars in their starring roles (Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Art Garfunkel respectively).
Roeg’s own career has proven the elasticity and transmutability of the star image by de- and re-contextualizing it. Jagger, Bowie, and Garfunkel are all cinematic versions of their musical selves, but these personae are not directly constant with their musical ones (unlike previous trends in music-film crossovers, Bowie and Garfunkel never sing in these films). The star icon, then, is never tied to one context, but can move between various media in their status as property of the public sphere and the public imagination.
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