Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writer: Terry Johnson
Cinematographer: Peter Hannan
Producer: Alexander Stuart and Jeremy Thomas
by Jon Cvack
I was looking through a list of the best chamber drama films (I can’t seem to find the link) and came across this one, which was ranked far higher in the subgenre's pantheon than is deserving. I’ve been working on a similar story setting and I was wondering how many films I’ve missed. Insignificance sounded weird - something about characters per the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Joe Dimaggio, Joe McCarthy, and Albert Einstein, who aren’t actually those characters, all meeting in a hotel room was enough to pique my interest.
The beginning starts out exciting, flashing across the many departments of a film set, clearly, but not specifically The Seven Year Itch, as Monroe is about to step above the train tunnel vent. This is edited against Einstein in his room doing math; Senator Joe McCarthy drinking in a bar before walking around town; Monroe later being driven around the city and buying toys; Joe Dimaggio at a different bar (or maybe the same as before), with some famous piece of Marilyn Monroe Art on the wall next to him. Soon they all end up at a hotel.
The first meeting involves McCarthy, who I didn’t even know was McCarthy until I paused the movie halfway through and looked it up on Wikipedia. I’m more embarrassed that I didn’t know it was Tony Curtis. He accuses Einstein of communistic ties, threatening to destroy the single copy of his work on the General Theory of Relativity, written in notes scattered across Einstein’s apartment. McCarthy then leaves, Monroe enters and explains his theories out loud, using the toys she purchased to demonstrate ideas on the speed of light and time travel. She’s about to sleep with Einstein for a reason I don’t understand and then Dimaggio comes to the motel and the two start fighting. The next day McCarthy wakes up Monroe, with Dimaggio gone and McCarthy thinking Monroe is a prostitute. He then punches her in the stomach and tosses Einstein’s papers out the window. Einstein returns and laughs about the papers, pulls out a watch, revealing it's 8:15; the time the Atom Bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and the entire hotel room explodes, as though straight out of Sarah's hallucination in Terminator 2, except a longer sequence.
Here was a film I couldn’t wait to return to Roger Ebert for, a bit nervous that maybe I completely lost the point and was due for some embarrassing insight. Sure enough Ebert sums it up perfectly, “I am not quite sure, however, what the point of the movie is.” Neither am I. Allowing myself to speculate, I think there’s clearly an idealization of the past. A fascinating bit of trivia involved Theresa Russell who was reluctant to take on the role on account of much the image had been hijacked with popular culture, with Madonna embracing the persona right around the time of release. Even with that fear in mind, and although doing a pretty good job, there’s something about the dress and high pitched ditzy voice that just don’t feel genuine (even Michelle Williams had a tough time pulling it off in My Week with Marilyn). Still, by placing Russell into the epitome of Monroe-vian stereotypes, embracing the sexuality as much as the personality, we see a time when a woman like this was worshipped that cannot exist today - or even in the year 1950, as television was starting to make its splash and the movie screen was beginning to deal with significant competition.
The same goes for Einstein, who leaves us wondering when the next great mathematician will come along to make discoveries that will inspire a generation. And yet we remember that his involvement led to splitting the atom, and given what he provided, it’s strange that McCarthy would accuse him of communistic affiliations, or that Joe Dimaggio was there at all, though I guess he too is a piece of the past that many want to return to - not that there haven’t been great or greater ball players since. Then the world blows up. The end of a generation or something, or maybe the end of those idealized 1950s when everything seemed easier and better, caught by Happy Days whose run would extend midway through the 80s. While before it was all about sex, math, and baseball, now it’s about weapons that can destroy the entire world, and the parodying of those figures we once held in such high esteem, who serve as no more than symbols now. I could keep going, stretching what I think it all meant, I just don’t think any of it is all that interesting or adding up to anything special. It was a film that you knew would be slow to finish within the first ten minutes. It was such a great set up - imagining these characters all together, talking. Instead it dove in the opposite direction, avoiding substance in favor of abstraction, getting lost in it’s own exploration, never really returning back to anything.
BELOW: A very long apocalyptic sequence
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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