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Savant Blu-ray (and DVD) Review

The Criterion Collection 566
1985 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date June 14, 2011 / 39.95
Starring Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, Will Sampson.
Peter Hannan
Film Editor Tony Lawson
Original Music Stanley Myers, Hans Zimmer
Written by Terry Johnson from his play.
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The fascinating Nicolas Roeg flourished in the 1970s, when the industry gave encouragement to directors exploring new avenues of expression. His style is unmistakable: the fragmented edits in pictures like Walkabout and Don't Look Now aren't simply flashbacks and flash-forwards, but observations freed from a single time reference. Roeg's marketability fluctuated as his focus transcended genre disciplines toward even greater abstraction: describing his 1980 Bad Timing as a murder mystery is neither accurate nor useful in understanding his approach to the possibilities of cinema.

Roeg found a perfect film project in the playful, eccentric Insignificance (1985). Adapted by Terry Johnson from his own play, the New York-set story imagines an Olympian gathering of four of the biggest cultural icons of the twentieth century, none of whom are identified by name. "The Actress" (Theresa Russell) finishes filming a scene for a Hollywood movie over a subway grating on 53rd Street, outside a theater playing The Creature from the Black Lagoon. She then smooth-talks her driver into taking her to the hotel where she knows "The Professor" (Michael Emil) is spending the night. Poring over reams of handwritten equations, The Professor is so intrigued by his visitor that he allows her to demonstrate the Specific Theory of Relativity on his hotel floor, with toys bought at a local five 'n' dime. The Professor has two more visitors this night. "The Senator" (Tony Curtis) uses cajolery and intimidation to coerce The Professor into testifying before Congress about Communist influence in the scientific community. And The Actress's husband, "The Ballplayer" (Gary Busey) arrives after having spent the night tracking down his wayward wife, who he hasn't seen in weeks. The Professor's chances of getting some sleep are all but nil.

Insignificance shows Nicolas Roeg at the top of his game, succeeding in a difficult balancing act. His precise imagery reveals the levels of Terry Johnson's play with unexpected ease. Going beyond the celebrity impersonation game, the film examines the notion of "superstar relativity": like The Professor's imaginary objects hurtling through space at the speed of light, these four personalities experience reality from four separate subjective viewpoints. The Senator is obsessed with exercising his virility and flaunting his political power, while The Ballplayer figures that his enviable record as the star of bubble gum cards entitles him to call the shots in his marriage. The Actress knows that her fate is to never stop moving; she reaches out to 'the smartest man she knows' for guidance. The Professor is so removed from pop culture that he doesn't know the identity of his sudden visitor. He teaches The Actress the difference between Knowledge and Truth, while she probes to find out what it is that intimidates him so. Unfortunately, The Actress is emotionally unable to commit to any effort for more than a few hours.

As history, the play is a complete invention. The author has fudged a number of timelines just to get his superstars in the same place at the same time. That's really not the issue, as Insignificance delves into what these personalities mean to us and what they meant to their time. The Actress realizes that she is the dream fantasy of millions of men, even as the little girl on the inside remains unfulfilled. The Ballplayer keeps referring to the "busted up" state of her uterus and the unlikelihood that she can have children. The Professor's pocket watch is forever frozen at 8:15, the time of the Hiroshima blast that he feels is ultimately his doing. His sober regard of this issue enables him to resist The Senator's petty bullying. But The Professor is also touched by The Actress's plea that he stop using words for once and instead respond to the world with his feelings. Her invitation to sleep with him is simultaneously infantile and maternal. Just as The Actress is about to disrobe for the astonished Professor, her husband comes pounding on the door. Literal-minded critics are thereby given leave to categorize Insignificance as a regulation-issue sex farce.

Viewers confused or discouraged by the time-tripping montage effects that form so much of the content of Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing will have no trouble understanding their use here. The Professor's handwritten notes rain down from his hotel window, to fall on a garden in Hiroshima nine years in the past. A flash of The Actress's skin summons rapid montages of her childhood as an orphan, who later learns to prevail at casting calls through the use of peroxide and the promise of sexual favors. An escape to The Professor's bathroom is an opportunity for the Actress to gather her thoughts. Like the film's 'exploded starlet pin-up calendar' by David Hockney, her isolation explodes into more splintered snatches of time, including a pointed flash-forward preview of a smear of blood on the bathroom mirror.

The Professor is not convinced by The Senator's admonition that nobody will start WWIII because doing so would wreck too many investments. The Actress concurs, telling her host that real estate is far too valuable to be blown up with bombs. All four of the celebrity icons are isolated in their own 'superstar relativity' bubbles, with The Professor is the loneliest of them all because he alone cares about finding The Truth. The Senator has no qualms about burning up The Professor's notes, and The Ballplayer doesn't know Freud from Floyd. The Actress responds with her heart, but she does admit that her theory against WWIII will fail, should someone invent a bomb that will "blow up people but not buildings". Insignificance saves its final Roeg time-warp montage for The Professor's morbid daydream of The Actress immolated by nuclear fire. Like the atomic particles in The Professor's theories, the fabled collision of these elemental icons must release some unknown burst of energy. Insignificance is a lyrical, cerebral "what if" story with a stealth apocalyptic theme.

As if wandering in from a Peter Weir movie, Will Sampson plays an Elevator Attendant who asks The Professor if he is a Cherokee. As a break from the action in the hotel rooms, we follow the Attendant to the hotel roof at dawn, where he chants as the sun rises over the landmark buildings. The Professor once heard another Cherokee say that members of his tribe believe themselves to be the center of the universe, a worldview that makes as much sense as worshipping bubble gum cards or the power of anti-Communist hysteria. Ever curious, The Professor would be delighted to learn something new about the workings of the cosmos, from any source.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Insignificance is a stunning transfer of this amusing, thoughtful visual feast from the cinematic imagination of Nicolas Roeg. The textures of Theresa Russell's dress, hair and skin ably conjure the fantasy illusion of Marilyn Monroe showing up at one's doorstep at 2am. The soundtrack swings with an interesting blend of jazz and 80s synth music, courtesy of Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer.

The transfer is approved by director Roeg and the extras benefit from his input as well as the film's producer Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson. Roeg and Thomas speak in a new video interview, and Lawson in a separate interview of his own. Making Insignificance is a short docu from the set with more input from the film's stars. The original trailer is included as well. Criterion's insert booklet contains an essay by Chuck Stephens and a discussion between Roeg and screenwriter Terry Johnson that originally appeared in The Monthly Film Bulletin. Criterion's presentation is also available in a DVD package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Insignificance Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: Monaural
Subtitles: English optional
Supplements: Two interviews, making-of interview featurette, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2011

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.

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