A certain motion picture has as its main characters Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy, Albert Einstein, and Marilyn Monroe. Sure, the script calls them the Ballplayer, the Senator, the Professor, and the Actress, but there’s no mistaking their real identities. Surely this already intrigues anyone interested in midcentury American culture, but what if I also mentioned that in the director’s chair sits Nicolas Roeg, whose richly askew visions for Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth so enriched the cinema of the seventies? Adapted from a stage play by Terry Johnson, 1985’s Insignificance has each of its iconic characters pass through a single New York City hotel room in 1954. Roughly halfway through the story, we get the scene above, an explanation of the theory of relativity: by the Actress to the Professor.
Marilyn Monroe’s interest in things Einsteinian seems at least somewhat grounded in reality; Johnson thought up the play after reading about an autographed photo of the physicist found among the late star’s possessions. Roeg felt a similarly strong reaction upon watching the stage production, seizing the material as an opportunity to explore the theme of how “nobody knows a damn thing about anyone.” This he especially illustrated in the distant marriage of the Actress and the Ballplayer, their real-life inspirations having been briefly married themselves. (In the role of the Actress Roeg cast Theresa Russell, his own then-wife.) Though not Roeg’s best-known film, Insignificance has nonetheless inspired a constant stream of academic and cinephilic discussion since its release, and it received a handsome Criterion Collection edition last year. And if I had my way, I’d encourage both film and physics teachers everywhere to fire it up on slow class days.