Insignificance: Criterion Collection
June 24, 2011
Filmmaker Nicolas Roeg was still licking his wounds from his previous effort, Eureka (1983), a deeply personal project that he hoped would break through to the mainstream but was given a limited theatrical release from then struggling United Artists. To pay the bills, he made music videos and commercials. One night he caught a performance of English playwright Terry Johnson’s 1981 play Insignificance. Roeg found its themes in sync with his own preoccupations and convinced Johnson to adapt his own work, reimagining it in cinematic terms. The result is a curious oddity in Roeg’s career – a film that examines the 1950’s through the prism of the 1980’s.
Roeg immediately establishes the artifice of cinema in the opening scene where he and his camera crew are preparing to shoot a scene in front of a cinema showing Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The year is 1954 and the Professor (Emil) is a man who looks very much like famous scientist Albert Einstein. He is working on complex equations in his hotel room. Outside the window on the street, the Actress (Russell), who looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, cheekily recreates the famous street vent scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955). The Senator (Curtis), a politician who evokes Joseph McCarthy, is hanging out in a nearby bar. He comes up to the Professor’s hotel room and tries to convince him to help speak out against what he perceives as the threat of Communism, arguing that it is as worthy a cause as battling Nazi Germany in World War II, flashbacks of which haunt the scientist’s dreams.
After the Senator leaves, the Professor is visited by the Actress who complains about her fame and being objectified in the film she’s currently making while also demonstrating her knowledge of the Theory of Relativity. They are about to have sex when the Ballplayer (Busey) interrupts them. He’s the Actress’ husband and is obviously meant to evoke Joe DiMaggio, who was married to Monroe in real life.
Roeg does his best to avoid the staginess of adapting a play into a film but Johnson’s dialogue still feels stage-bound. One has to admire the attempt to deconstruct these American icons and what they represent: science, politics, entertainment and sports. However, it’s done in a way that relies too much on pretentious film theory. Film is a visual medium and Insignificance (1985) might have been more successful if it showed us rather than told us.
“Making Insignificance” is a promotional featurette made at the time of the film’s release with interview soundbites with the cast. They talk about their characters and praise working with Roeg. There are all kinds of on the set footage or the director at work with the actors.
Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas are interviewed. They talk about the significance of the characters and the actors that played them. Naturally, they talk about the play and adapting it into a film.
There is an interview with editor Tony Lawson who talks about some of the great directors he’s worked with over his career: Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and, of course, Roeg. He talks about their approaches to editing with an emphasis, as you would imagine, on Roeg.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.