The American Society of Cinematographers

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Insignificance (1985)
Blu-ray Edition
1.78:1 (High Definition 1080p)
LPCM Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Insignificance opens with a recreation of one of Hollywood cinema’s most enduring images, that of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up around her while she stands on a city street in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. It is the first, but far from the last, time in the film director Nicolas Roeg evokes emotions and meaning via a memory shared by an entire culture; and as is often the case with memories, there is usually something just slightly off about his recreations. After Roeg presents Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) on the set of Wilder’s classic film, he sends her running to a hotel in which she encounters three other legends: Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Sen. Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis) and Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey).

Although the four characters whose lives and fates intersect on this fictional night in 1954 are clearly intended to be Monroe, Einstein, McCarthy and DiMaggio, screenwriter Terry Johnson (adapting his own play) refers to them only as “the actress,” “the professor,” “the senator” and “the ballplayer.” It is an appropriate choice, for this is not a film about individuals; it is about our collective memories and impressions of them and the media clichés that have come to define them. It is a meditation on identity, celebrity and the strange ways in which fame not only shapes our perceptions of famous people, but also how it alters and confuses those people themselves. All of the characters in the movie are deeply haunted: the actress by her struggle to reconcile her career with her marriage (to the ballplayer); the professor by his role in the scientific community that created the nuclear bomb, and the senator by the tension between his own megalomaniacal ambition and his paralyzing self-doubt. These inner conflicts are then compounded by the demands of living life in the public eye, in ways that are both poignant and funny in Roeg’s and Johnson’s hands.

plays fast and loose with the facts as the characters interact, presenting an alternative view of history that, nevertheless, has as much validity as the real thing in terms of what it has to say about American society. Its view of a world in which a scientific genius, a Hollywood movie star, a corrupt politician and an athlete all carry more or less the same cultural weight is as relevant now as it was in 1985, when the movie was released, if not more so — today the scientific genius probably would not come close to the others in terms of fame. Yet Roeg’s and Johnson’s vision is larger than a quick summary of their themes suggests; over the course of 108 minutes, they manage to cram in explorations of everything from the theory of relativity to the challenges of domesticity and the mysteries of sexual attraction. It is a chaotic and cluttered movie, yet under Roeg’s firm directorial control it all feels unified: a film in which everything, from the micro (a woman crying alone on a bed) to the macro (the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima) is significant.       

Although Insignificance is based on a play, it is one of the least constrained theatrical adaptations ever put on film — it is “opened up” in the best way, as Roeg and cinematographer Peter Hannan expand on the core principles of the material through expressive editing and compositions. That the editing is unconventional and innovative will come as no surprise to fans of Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing and other Roeg films that follow an emotional continuity rather than a temporal one; here, Roeg and editor Tony Lawson make extensive use of flashbacks, dreams, and visions to create a powerfully subjective point of view split among all four main characters. The characters are people carrying the heavy burden of their memories and experiences, just as their real-life counterparts shoulder the weight of history to the extent they have ceased to become individuals and are instead icons fraught with meaning.

Hannan extends the theme through a palette that recreates 1954, less as it actually was than as how we remember it from pop culture artifacts like movies and advertising; everything is just slightly brighter than it should be, or pinker, or softer — this is the image of the 1950s America tried to sell itself, of prosperity and consumerism, while nuclear anxiety lurked just beneath the surface. The fact the movie was made in 1985, when the neuroses of the McCarthy era (particularly in regard to fears of communism and nuclear war) were given new life by Ronald Reagan, only adds validity to Roeg’s view of 20th-century history as a spiritually linked continuum: the creation of the bomb in the 1940s blurs into the communist witch hunts of the 1950s and then to Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric in the 1980s. The irony of a Hollywood actor in the White House in many ways gives Insignifance its final, extra-cinematic punch line.

Criterion’s newly restored digital transfer nicely presents Hannan’s candy-colored evocation of 1950s New York, with particularly strong reproduction of flesh tones (appropriate for this performance-driven film, so dependent on the faces of the actors for its meaning). Sharp detail abounds in both the image and the audio track, which preserves the film’s originals with clarity and robust dynamic range; the sound design is extremely layered and surprisingly sophisticated and powerful for a monaural mix. The disc contains a fine trio of supplements that elucidate the themes and approach of Insignificance. First, is “That’s Insignifcance,” a 14-minute featurette shot at the time of the film’s production that includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the actors. The Blu-ray also features two new interviews: a 13-minute piece with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas; and a 15-minute conversation with Lawson. Compared to some of Criterion’s more lavish packages, the supplementary section is a bit skimpy, but given the excellent transfer — not to mention the excellence of the film it showcases, it would be churlish to complain.
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