The whole idea of celebrity is a fascinating concept. Throughout history, we have elevated, idealized, and even demonized certain individuals based on a variety of factors, usually concerning some form of talent, beauty, intellect, or crime. Oftentimes we romanticize these people by projecting our own hopes and dreams onto them, and by doing so we transform them into something much more than mere flesh and bone. They become ideas, symbols, and indelible images. The realities of who they might have become reshaped and reformed by society's own interpretation and perception, casting them into roles they may or may not have actually chosen for themselves. Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film 'Insignificance' attempts to examine this complicated phenomenon all while set to the backdrop of Cold-War era doom and the unknowable mysteries of time itself. The results are artful but uneven, with several scenes that rise above an overarching malaise of missed opportunity.
Adapted from a play of the same name written by Terry Johnson, the plot revolves around four nameless individuals credited only as the Professor (Michael Emil), the Actress (Theresa Russell), the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), and the Senator (Tony Curtis). Though not specifically identified, each character is meant to serve as a stand in for the likes of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy. In classic stage play fashion, these varied personalities end up interacting with one another over the course of one night in a single hotel room.
While the premise itself is wonderful, and certainly holds the potential for some amazing content, the script as a whole is actually one of the weaker aspects of the film. Most of the dialogue seems to be barely scratching the surface, and few observations cut deep enough to elicit true insight. Still, certain scenes and pairings between the characters do effectively peel back the surface of these icons. Watching these personalities interact can be interesting and there is just something wonderfully bizarre and mesmerizing about seeing Marilyn Monroe use toy trains and balloons to explain the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein. Though few other scenes reach the creative heights of that particular exchange, it may be worth the price of admission alone.
The performances themselves are also a bit of a mixed bag. While he is mostly good and certainly looks the part, at times Michael Emil seems to be uncomfortable in the role of Einstein, bringing an occasionally labored approach to his dialogue that goes beyond his intended awkward persona. As Marilyn Monroe, Theresa Russell is both impressive and disappointing, alternating between a strong, honest interpretation, and a sometimes ineffective caricature. Some of her scenes are true standouts, but others fall completely flat. Surprisingly, Gary Busey is actually the most consistent here. His turn as the Ballplayer features a nice level of sympathetic frustration and his constant search for his own baseball card among packets of gum says a lot, through something so small. Tony Curtis is also strong as the McCarthy stand in, bringing some nice complexity to the character. His scenes with Russell work particularly well considering the actor's actual history with Monroe, and while there does seem to be a little acknowledging wink to the audience, Curtis wisely doesn't overplay this connection.
What really ends up saving this film is Nicolas Roeg's impressive direction. Adapting a stage play can be a challenging endeavor for any filmmaker. One has to find the right balance between staying true to the original material while still opening up the plot in a cinematic way. Through frequent flashbacks and sometimes surreal imagery, Roeg expands upon the deeper themes of the text in a visually powerful manner.
As the dialogue and actions unfold, little bits of who these people were, little moments that shaped them, are blended into the narrative. Sometimes the editing style just sort of folds these brief flashbacks into the proceedings, and other times the memories come more forcefully into play, almost intruding on the present, informing the character's actions and speech. Dreamlike imagery is also weaved into the tapestry, giving form to the character's darkest fears and regrets while forging potent symbols and metaphors for atomic guilt and miscarried tragedy. The idea of time plays a large role in the conversations and the editing style places some creative emphasis on this idea, featuring inventive uses of slow motion and cross cutting between events both in the present and in the past. The final scene is a literal explosion of all these varied stylistic techniques and really is one of the most technically impressive sequences I've seen in quite some time.
By throwing some of 1950s America's most famous and infamous personalities into one room, 'Insignificance' attempts to shine a spotlight on the unknowable. Can these larger than life characters really be more than simple archetypes, or are they forever doomed to adapt to the broad roles society has thrust on them? Does our life's work really define us, or are we more than the mere sum of our actions? Does simply knowing something actually allow us to understand it, or is true meaning far more elusive? Does any of it even matter, or are we all just insignificant? All these interesting questions are raised, but the film's actual examination of the concepts isn't nearly as compelling as one might hope. Though some might be put off by the stylistic choices, for me, the movie is strongest when playing at its most abstract. The visual creativity Roeg infuses into the proceedings is almost enough to make up for the film's other shortcomings. Almost, but not quite. Still, successful or unsuccessful, masterpiece or misfire, the movie attempts to demonstrate, it's all relative anyway.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Insignificance' in their standard clear case packaging with spine number 566. The BD-50 region A disc comes housed with a nice booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and a conversation between Roeg and Terry Johnson.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The results are rather strong, and at times actually quite impressive.
The print is in wonderful shape, with no real signs of damage. A moderate layer of natural grain is present throughout, giving the movie a very pleasing, textured quality. Fine detail is great and the sometimes creative lighting choices form some nice instances of depth. Colors are rich without being overly vibrant, evoking a classic period mood. Black levels are a bit on the gray side in some early sequences but become nice and inky soon after. Contrast is a bit subdued, but gives a nice natural look to the picture.
While not impressive in the same manner that a newly minted summer blockbuster might be, 'Insignificance' is still rather striking at times, acting as a great testament to the strengths of a more overtly filmic transfer.
The audio is presented in an English LPCM mono track along with optional English subtitles. Though mostly dialogue driven, this is actually one of the more impressive and lively single channel audio tracks I've come across.
Speech is crisp and clear with a nice, full depth. What makes the track so great, however, is the creative and robust sound design. In tandem with his visual touches, the director has also infused the film with great effects and music choices. Though only one channel, there is a surprising level of distinction between all of the elements. Ticking clocks become an important motif and some of the classical music cues are brilliantly married to the images on screen. Dynamic range is strong, considering the inherent limitations, and all of the audio work carries a pleasing level of fidelity. The only real downside here is that balance can sometimes favor effects over speech, swallowing a few lines of dialogue.
Criterion has done a great job of staying true the movie's original elements with a respectful and extremely competent mono presentation.
In addition to the aforementioned booklet, the disc comes with a small but interesting collection of supplements. All of the features are presented in HD with Dolby Digital mono audio and no subtitle options.
'Insignificance' has a great premise, and while visually impressive, the script and performances never quite rise up to the filmmakers' ambitious goals. The video and audio presentations are both strong, showing off the movie's wonderful images and creative sound design. Supplements are sparse but mostly worth your time. While not totally successful, the disc is strong and the movie is still worth a look.