Insignificance (1985)
Spine No. 566

The Film:

566_box_348x490_originalthe directing: Nicolas Roeg
the writing: Terry Johnson
the acting: Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Gary Busey & Tony Curtis
the time: 108 minutes

After reading the small snippet on the back of the DVD box, my excitement for Insignificance rose to another level. We’re talking skyscrapers and flying things. From the words I read it sounded like a film full of character interactions and titillating conversations, basically I was picturing the film that inspired Linklater’s Before series. If you know me, you know that’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on any film, let alone one no one’s remotely heard of at any point in their lives. Still, my resolve stood unwavering. But alas, hopes were crushed and hearts were broken.

Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance is set in 1950s bustling New York where people are always moving and fame runs the town. Yet this film focuses the majority of its attention on a single hotel room. More specifically, the four quite uncommon characters that occupy the room at any given point. The credits will portray these characters as The Actress, The Professor, The Ballplayer, and The Senator, but for all intents and purposes they really are Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy. You can see why my interests were peaked. But I am here to sway you from that oh so sweet temptation.

I love indie. I love art films. But there’s a certain point when a film is drowned in its own artist style for the sake of being artsy. I had many complaints with Insignificance, justified and not, a few sprouting up immediately and others coming as the film progressed. For starters, those character interactions that had my anticipation through the roof were far from appealing. DiMaggio and Monroe’s failed to get to the full three dimensions while McCarthy and Einstein’s just seemed like a way to overplay the hatred for the Senator and blatantly expose the Professor as a morally sound man.

Yet the interaction I was most looking forward to was the most shrouded in disappointment. Monroe and Einstein. The main focus of their conversation was two-fold, both of which bored me with their obvious nature. One, they talked a lot about relativity. Two, the conversation about relativity was a MacGuffin. It feels unforgivable to have two people of this magnitude talk about something so clearly overt as Einstein’s theory of relativity. Have them dive into the personal, what nobody knows, or at least what we can’t easily go find in a few seconds. I realize this was made in 1985, but have a little faith in your audience.

Touching upon the MacGuffin talk, it was abundantly clear Roeg’s goal was to humanize famous people, especially Monroe. He wanted to show that fame was merely a facade, so his solution was to take each character’s apparent stereotype and have them do the opposite. For example, Monroe’s been painted as a dumb blonde only good for her looks. So Roeg gives her intellect. He has her explain relativity, not so we understand it, but so that we know she does. Probably the easiest and most straightforward way a writer could write it in this context…

The film was a bore. It was trying to hard, but never got anywhere. I guess I could point to the acting as a saving grace, though some of it was a bit iffy at times as well. The guy who O.K.ed that script… Watch it or don’t watch, understand it or don’t, I’m just trying to save you some time.

The Bonus Features:

the booklet:

“Stargazing” by Chuck Stephens

Having disliked Insignificance, it is fairly understandable a slight bias might arise while diving into the booklet the Criterion Collection always graciously provides. Believe me there was one. Though that will not stop my fingers from adamantly typing the words like “fluffy” and “verbose” when it comes to Stephens’s essay. His verbiage crawled at such an absurd rate my mind mercifully meandered to more merited thoughts. For example, “What should I watch tonight? I kinda want to start a series, maybe something actiony. I have been into Sci-Fi lately though. Should I try to watch something I own or just use Netflix? Well if I use Netflix I might just start another show, then I won’t do anything for the next couple of days. I do own all the Bourne‘s…” And it goes on like that for a while. Overall, not a fan of the essay.

“Relatively Speaking: Terry Johnson and Nicolas Roeg on Insignificance

When Johnson talks we are given some thoughts on film versus theater and a few origin stories. When Roeg talks we get insight on stylistic choices and a good amount of patting himself on the back. The main focus of this “talk” spotlights on the characters representing Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, why they were used, their interactions, etc. Some of it reads as ramblings of a self-loving father bragging to his kids, but for the most part their words add to the “experience,” whatever that may be.

the interviews:

Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas (2010, 13 min.)

In this short interview, director Roeg and producer Thomas lightly touch upon a few different topics. The main one being the characters and their thematic addition to the film. Interesting thoughts to be sure, but in the end these filmmaker’s thoughts about said characters were just as simplistic as I feared. Roeg really carries the interview as he goes on to mention the transition from theater to film and the music. A fair interview, even if Thomas barely says a word.

Tony Lawson (2010, 15 min.)

It would be an awful hard sell to convince me that most of America cares what an editor has to say. Though I suppose if you’re buying a Criterion you more often than not do. This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve seen in a while. Lawson offers a myriad of information on Insignificance as well as former films, touching upon a variety of directors he’s worked with over the years. His words made me like the film a bit, we’re talking minuscule though.

the documentary:

Making “Insignificance” (14 min.)

That tiny bit of like I gained from Lawson’s interview was all lost after watching Making “Insignificance and all the mini-interviews it contained. This short documentary showed behind the scenes footage – something I always love – and small snippets of the actors’ thoughts. It is these thoughts that ruined my day. Apparently Insignificance is a comedy, which is comedic all in itself. But more frustrating were the actors’ philosophies behind their choices, they decided to go with the “just do it” acting style. Meryl Streep and Nike would be so proud. Aesthetically, the documentary is poorly shot with miserable audio for the most part. It is a “making of” doc, so in the end no one’s really counting.


OVERALL: Take a pass on Insignificance. Even if you’re a fan, there isn’t enough bonus material to justify the purchase. Find it for cheaper somewhere else. Can I just say how displeasing this series is to write when I don’t like the film, having to sit through all the bonus features after a dreadful experience is always humbling, for lack of a better word. Eh regardless, it is what it is.

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