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Insignificance

(1985) *** 1/2 R
108 min. Island Films. Director: Nicolas Roeg. Cast: Gary Busey, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis.

/content/films/4073/1.jpgAmerica may not have invented celebrity, but it certainly perfected it. The American character is one of the subjects of Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film Insignificance, a film that starts from a Warholian place—the iconography of celebrity—and proceeds to the asymmetric, fragmented collage of Hockney (who contributed artwork to the production). Hockney's cracked kaleidoscopic view reflects Roeg's views of the absurdity of American history and our compulsion to destroy beauty.

Terry Johnson's play Insignificance criss-crosses the paths of characters he calls The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer and The Professor, but who plainly represent Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy. One can approach the characters as the actual people under imagined circumstances, or as our images of the actual people under imagined circumstances: there's little difference, anyway, as the film (also penned by Johnson) ultimately instructs us. Given the elusiveness of the identity of others and ourselves, the identity of celebrities proves particularly prone to obfuscation and obscurity. And maddening scrutiny: reflecting on the possibility of acually completing his work of discerning the shape of the universe, The Professor perishes the thought, saying, "I wouldn't survive the publicity."

Insignificance takes place in New York City over the course of one long morning, in the dark, wee hours, circa 1953. The Professor (Michael Emil) anticipates, when he wakes, speaking of peace to the UN General Assembly, but The Senator (Tony Curtis) insists that he is compelled to testify at a Congressional hearing, presumably that of HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Senator considers The Professor a big "get" to represent the field of science, but also because he belongs to a "special category...the movie-star type. The kind that mud sticks to." The Actress (Theresa Russell) and The Ballplayer (Gary Busey) also, of course, belong to that special category, and they're currently weathering a rough patch that they may not survive as a couple. The Actress has spent her evening almost literally getting smoke blown up her ass on what is unmistakeably the set of The Seven Year Itch. Having come straight from the set to The Professor's room, she is still dressed in her iconic white dress from the steam grate scene.

Johnson's script includes a bravura passage in which The Actress explains the general theory of relativity to The Professor (ingeniously using dime-store props). She's triumphant and he's tickled, but when she reveals that her explanation is not one of understanding but rote repetition, he must conclude that she has failed: "Knowledge isn't truth. It's just mindless agreement. You agree with me, I agree with someone else - we all have knowledge. We haven't come any closer to the truth. You can never understand anything by agreeing, by making definitions. Only by turning over the possibilities." The Actress nevertheless offers him a mythical "Gift of the Goddess": taken with his genius, she proposes they seize this one-of-a-kind opportunity for their bodies to meet like two ships in the night, but once he's convinced, it's too late: The Ballplayer arrives to play the part of the jealous husband.

Fervid in its ideas and mood (and also quite funny), Insignificance has been unjustly forgotten since its debut over twenty-five years ago. I'm usually allergic to this sort of thing, but Johnson gives the famous figures their due in a genuinely engaging "what if" convergence, pairing off the characters into fascinating duets. Unusually, the play's movement from stage to screen seems to have helped. What probably seemed precious (if witty) on stage gets liberated in Roeg's hands. Though a cursory examination reveals the film is technically quite "stagebound" (with action almost entirely limited to The Professor's hotel room), Roeg's vivacious filmmaking—particularly his dazzling use of montage—"opens" it up. In addition to a recreation of the set of The Seven Year Itch, Roeg inserts pithy, revealing memories of each character: The Actress' history of "Male Gaze" victimization, The Professor's encounters with the insanity of war, the birth of The Ballplayer's need to impress, and The Senator's telling, ironic formation as a choirboy.

An ominous sign is The Professor's fascination with Mozart's last symphony—"The Jupiter Symphony"—which sits on a music stand in The Professor's hotel room. A signifier both of man's striving to define the undefinable (the universe) in definable terms (notation, whether musical or scientific), it is also an ominous symbol of impending death, and The Professor's clearly justified fears about the implications of his atomic-age work. For its dive back into the 1950s, Insignificance is also very much a film about its moment: the widespread American fear of nukes haunts the picture and ultimately defines the film not as the dream it first appears to be, but rather as a nightmare (also providing a wake-up call: Will Sampson as The Indian, a character sadly absorbed into the concrete jungle). The meeting of two arguable monsters with two arguably innocent souls nearly comes to a draw, but Roeg finally, horrifyingly brings us to the "nuclear tipping point" at the dark center of society, if not nature and human nature.

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM Mono

Street date: 6/14/2011

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion gives Insignificance its Blu-ray debut in a terrific hi-def transfer. The film has been nicely cleaned up, but with no sign of digital tampering. Billed as "approved by director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas," the transfer features great detail and texture, without being unnaturally sharpened past its healthy film grain and sometime photographic softness. Color appears accurate, and contrast and black level are strong, though this isn't a film that yields a lot of dimensionality in hi-def. The LPCM 1.0 track presented here gets a similar clean-up, and it's certainly a clear and authentic presentation of the film's audio, if not the dynamic presentation home-theater buffs are going to salivate over.

The intriguing vintage featurette "Making Insignificance" (14:08, HD), shot on the film's set, includes making-of footage and interview clips of Gary Busey, Tony Curtis, Theresa Russell, Michael Emil and Will Sampson.

The 2010 video interview "Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas" (12:57, HD) is a bit disappointing, surprisingly: the pair don't offer much of interest (and the aging, British-accented Roeg isn't terribly easy to listen to), and the piece is padded with film clips. Still, it's a noble effort and worth a look.

The film's editor, "Tony Lawson" (15:07, HD), proves considerably more interesting in his 2010 chat with Criterion: in addition to discussing his work with Roeg, he makes comparative reference to his work with Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah and David Lean.

In addition to the "Trailer" (1:00, HD), we also get a 24-page full-color booklet with tech specs, credits, photos, film critic Chuck Stephens' essay "Stargazing," and "Relatively Speaking," a 1985 exchange between Terry Johnson and Nicolas Roeg.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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