Insignificance (US - BD RA)
Jonathan visits Monroe and Einstein in the 1950's by way of Nicolas Roeg..
On a night like any other, four unnamed individuals who closely resemble Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) meet in a hotel room under various circumstances. Adapted from a Terry Johnson play written for the stage, this intersection of 1950s icons is a tour de force of writing and captivating performances, accentuated by Nicolas Roeg's unique verve and hypnotic visual style. This is not a history lesson. Instead, Johnson and Roeg use our preconceived notions of these iconic figures to explore ideas about Cold War America, the nature of celebrity, and a whole lot more.
While the film deliberately chooses to avoid using their names, I will refer to the characters as the celebrities they represent for the sake of clarity. Theresa Russell's performance as Marilyn Monroe is the centrepiece of the film. Insignificance opens with a film crew shooting the famous skirt billowing scene from Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch, which is perhaps the most recognizable image of the star. The movie maintains her larger-than-life personality, but gives her dreams of motherhood and everyday insecurities to humanize the character. Her internal conflict between her personal life and her Hollywood image is made very clear. At first, her exceedingly dainty mannerisms annoyed me, but it’s quickly obvious that this exaggeration is intentional and it grew on me as the movie progressed.
By removing the characters from their natural environment and historical context, Johnson has the freedom to play with our common perceptions of them. In one particularly fun scene, Monroe uses a few toys and her trademark demureness to demonstrate her understanding of the Theory of Relativity to Einstein. Seeing her long to impress the Princeton professor as he watches, delighted by her interest in science, immediately made me think of these historical people in a way I never have. It also sets the stage for much of the films thematic ideas. Another great scene that takes place in an elevator adds a majestic twist of Native American spirituality to the mix. Busey plays DiMaggio as the brash but ultimately caring husband of Monroe. He struggles to understand her and lacks the intelligence to continually impress her in her current state of mind. Drinking on his own in a bar, he notices a fractured centrefold of his wife on display nearby. He studies it, as if trying to understand her fragmented personality, but ultimately tears it down and rips it to pieces in a moment of symbolism that perfectly sums up his conflict.
Tony Curtis, in an inspired casting choice as Joseph McCarthy, has much less screen time than the other characters but makes up for it with astounding presence. Curtis worked closely with the real Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and his presence adds even more intrigue to the metaphysical nature of the film. This is not the same McCarthy that fuelled rumours of Communist spies in the senate. Here we have a much older man who takes his integrity very seriously; sometimes to the point of violent backlash. Cold War fears hold a strong presence throughout the film. Albert Einstein's watch, stuck at 8:15 AM (the detonation time of the “Little Boy” nuclear weapon), constantly haunting him with reminders of the aftermath in Hiroshima. The title of the film can have many meanings. During my initial viewing, I attributed it to the fear of a nuclear apocalypse and how insubstantial these figures and their actions would be if America's greatest fears became reality. In the supplemental booklet, Roeg states in an interview that the title came from his realization that "society has very little sense of a mystical movement of things." He continues on to say that "nothing has more significance than anything else."
Stylistically, Roeg employs a variety of techniques that have suited his early work well. This film would have been interesting as a straightforward stage adaptation, but Roeg uses the freedom of film production and his uncanny talent for hyper-modern editing to keep it brimming with energy. He possesses a keen eye for movement and uses camera zooms to underscore important details. Sometimes it appears as though we're viewing the image through a prism for dreamy effect. Using brief flashbacks, he can almost instantly add considerable depth to a character. They are done so suddenly, and are so clearly established, that the viewer's comprehension of what is happening almost feels instinctual. The finale, which I'll refrain from going into specific detail on, is a mind-blowing example of his masterful visual style.
This is an ambitious film that I greatly admire. What I could find of its critical reception was surprisingly lukewarm. You could fill a book trying to cover the various themes and ideas at work in Insignificance if you felt inclined to. If you understood the importance of every scene on your first viewing, then you're a lot smarter than me. There is a ton of thought-provoking symbolism and conflicts that I didn't even begin to touch on in this review, and I greatly look forward to revisiting the film to see what new thoughts and realizations arise. Those who are familiar with Nicolas Roeg's early body of work will recognize his distinct visuals, but like many of his movies this one stands on its own as a wonderfully unique piece of cinema that shouldn't be missed by serious film fanatics.
Criterion does an amazing job with this 1080p transfer, which was approved by director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas. According to the provided booklet, the 1:78.1 presentation is the film's original aspect ratio, and the transfer was created from a 35 mm interpositive. The level of overall detail is high given the film's age. Colours hold up well in the warmly lit hotel scenes. A lovely fine grain is present in every scene, and there are no traces of digital manipulation or apparent compression artefacts. I noticed some very small instances of dirt and debris from the film print, but nothing that should bother a reasonable viewer. I wasn't around in 1985 and haven't seen this film in any other digital form, but I can't imagine it ever looking better than this.
This disc packs a hefty uncompressed LPCM 1.0 English audio track. Voices are clear in this dialogue driven film, and Roeg's interesting musical choices and the haunting dreamy instrumentals both sound crisp. Though many companies choose to remaster their old movies in surround sound, Criterion's interests clearly lie in preserving them film's original presentation. I personally agree with their decision, as I often find the extra channels unnecessary for older films, especially dramas that are entirely character driven. As a result of this adherence, the audio track is much less dynamic and immersive than many mainstream movies on Blu-rays, but you can take comfort in the fact that this is the original audio as it's meant to be heard.
Criterion includes their usual supplemental booklet in the Blu-ray case. Inside of this one you'll find a wonderful essay called "Stargazing", by Chuck Stephens. His love for the film really shows in his writing, and he makes some very astute observations that would've never occurred to me. Following his piece is an interview with Nicolas Roeg and Terry Johnson that was originally printed in the August 1985 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. It's an insightful article with plenty of information about the film and the creator's thoughts on it.
Aside from a theatrical trailer, the disc includes a short on-set documentary and interview footage from Roeg, Johnson, and editor Tony Lawson. No subtitles are provided for the extras.
Making Insignificance (14:09, HD): Though presented in 1080i, this is a collection of old footage that does not take advantage of high definition. It’s a mixture of footage from the set and brief snippets of the actors talking about their characters. It's short and not particularly informative about the making of the film, but it’s nice to hear some thoughts from the actors.
Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas (12:47, HD): This is an interview where Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas talk about the movie's origin, share their thoughts on the characters in the film, and talk briefly about some music and production choices.
Tony Lawson (15:07, HD): Editing is a big part of Nicolas Roeg's films, so it only makes sense that his editor Tony Lawson ( Barry Lyndon, Straw Dogs) should get his own extra feature. He begins the interview by talking about his interactions with different directors and how they affected his editing process. When he gets around to Nicolas Roeg, he shares some general thoughts on Roeg as a filmmaker, and how the footage he shoots differs from other directors. For the second half of the feature, he gives his take on some of the symbolism in Insignificance. He has some valuable insights that neither the filmmakers nor actors shared.
Insignificance is unlike any film I've ever seen. It's ambitious, smart, and challenging in a way that's all too rare in modern cinema. Criterion does a wonderful job in the AV department, and fans of the film should find the supplemental materials enlightening. I highly recommend this release to fans of Nicolas Roeg's work, the Criterion Collection, or anybody in the mood for something unusual and refreshingly witty.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 14th June 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 1.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Making "Insignificance", Interview with Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas, Tony Lawson, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 108 minutes