Insignificance

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Adaptation: Terry Johnson (based on his play)
Stars: Michael Emil (The Professor), Theresa Russell (The Actress), Tony Curtis (The Senator), Gary Busey (The Ballplayer), Will Sampson (Elevator Attendant), Patrick Kilpatrick (Driver)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1985
Country: U.K.
Insignificance Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
InsignificanceSet in the late hours of a single night in 1953, when the threat of atomic destruction was paramount, the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee was at a full boil, and Marilyn Monroe was entering the pantheon of sex symbols by standing over a subway grate, Nicolas Roeg’s Insigifnicance is an intriguing, but ultimately slight “what if” fantasy involving four of the major cultural figures of Eisenhower-era America: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio. None of these characters are explicitly named in the film, but their personas are clear, as is their general and collection representation of the pillars of American culture: science and technology, entertainment, politics, and sports. What might happen if these symbols (and they are symbols, hardly characters) actually converged?

The majority of the action is set in a New York hotel suite inhabited by the Professor (Michael Emil), who, garbed in loose trousers and a Princeton letter sweatshirt, is hard at work finalizing a complex series of mathematical equations that will, he hopes, define the shape of the universe. His intellectual activities are rudely interrupted by the Senator (Tony Curtis) who, full of whiskey, reminds the Professor that he is due to testify before HUAC in the morning, where he should denounce communism and maybe drop a few names along the way. The Professor refuses, the Senator threatens, and soon the Actress (Theresa Russell), who we earlier saw filming the infamous subway grate sequence on location, is knocking on his door. Why, exactly, she seeks out the Professor is a bit of a mystery, except that she urgently wants to connect with him in some way, which first involves her proving to him that she understands the theory of relativity by demonstrating its major principles with flashlights, a toy train, and balloons. The Actress’s presence soon draws the arrival of the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), her angry and estranged husband who immediately assumes that the Professor is another psychiatrist who is trying to seduce his wife.

Amusing as the film sometimes is, screenwriter Terry Johnson, who adapted his own stageplay, never quite transcends the story’s admittedly clever premise. There are some amusing role reversals and tense confrontations that reflect on the essential conflicts in the American psyche, especially in the 1950s, but the characters remain archetypes mired in a limited historical imagination and left to the mercy of the film’s uneven performances. Michael Emil, who is primarily a stage actor, comes off best as the Einstein character primarily because he doesn’t try to play up the Scientist’s mannerisms; rather, he finds a consistently deft balance between the character’s immense intelligence and his constant confusion about the human behavior with which he is constantly confronted. Tony Curtis unsurprisingly plays the Joe McCarthy character, surely one of the most reviled political figures of the 20th century, as a sweaty, drunken, impotent bully; he all but leaves an oily smear on the screen every time he walks by the camera. Gary Busey has some good moments as the insecure, anger-prone Ballplayer, but he never makes a real impact, perhaps because DiMaggio doesn’t have much of a cultural imprint off the baseball diamond. Which brings us to Theresa Russell, whose performance as the Marilyn Monroe figure is maddeningly uneven. When she stops trying to imitate Monroe’s breathy on-screen voice, she succeeds in conveying a woman trapped in her own celebrity and unable to escape. Unfortunately, much of the time she seems like she’s doing an overly mannered impersonation rather than playing a character, and it constantly rips us out of the moment and also counteracts the film’s thematic intent of exposing the artifice of fame and celebrity by simply reinforcing the Monroe persona we have all seen on the movie screen.

Had Insignificance been directed by anyone other than Nicolas Roeg, the fiercely expressive auteur behind Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980), it likely would have remained fully mired in its stagebound roots, but Roeg finds consistently interesting ways of dragging the material into the cinematic realm. He achieves this partially via his signature blend of jagged cross-cut editing and unmarked flashbacks and flashforwards, most of which either reflect on the characters’ tortured pasts (the Actress being treated like a piece of meat by sexist casting agents, the Ballplayer being pushed to greatness by a relentless father, the Senator being molested by a priest) or their fears of the future, specifically the Professor’s concern about atomic Armageddon, something he, as the Senator reminds him, helped make possible. The fact that Roeg actually stages said Armageddon in the film’s final moments, giving us an impressive, impressionistic display of fiery destruction that exists only in the Professor’s mind, is either his bid to bind all of the film’s fears and dreads into one apocalyptic moment or a desperate attempt to grab our attention after nearly two hours of talk. Either way, it doesn’t fully work, nor does the film as a whole, leaving us with vague impressions, but not the sense of comical profundity that is clearly intended.

Insignificance Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Insignificance is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video interview with director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jerry Thomas
  • Video interview with editor Tony Lawson
  • “Making Insignificance,” a short documentary shot on the set of the film
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and a reprinted exchange between Roeg and screenwriter Terry Johnson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 14, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Making its Region 1 debut, Insignificance is presented in a 1080p high-definition transfer, approved by director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, that came from a 35mm interpositive (the liner notes say this was done at Midnight Transfer in London, suggesting that Criterion was not directly involved in the transfer or its digital restoration). The image looks great, although Insignificance is hardly Roeg’s most impressive film visually speaking. The image is clear and well-detailed, with a healthy level of grain and a slight softness that is typical of movies in the mid-1980s. Colors look fresh and accurate, from the generally subdued tones of the Professor’s hotel suite to the bright red nail polish on the Actress’s fingers and toes. The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix, transferred from the 35mm magnetic track and given additional digital cleanup by Criterion. The soundtrack is smooth and clean, with no audible hiss or artifacts.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion has recorded two new video interviews for this Blu-Ray release, one with long-time collaborators Roeg and Thomas (13 min.) and one with editor Tony Lawson (15 min.). Taken together, they provide quite a bit of insight into the film’s production and what they were trying to accomplish. Also included are the original theatrical trailer and “Making Insignificance,” a short 14-minute documentary shot on the set of the film that features interviews with the major cast members. The insert booklet features a new essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and an exchange between Roeg and screenwriter Terry Johnson that was first published in the August 1985 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)




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