Four unnamed people who look and sound a lot like Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy converge in one New York City hotel room in this compelling, visually inventive adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play, from director Nicolas Roeg. With a combination of whimsy and dread, Roeg creates a fun-house-mirror image of fifties America in order to reflect on the nature of celebrity and lingering cold-war nuclear nightmares. Insignificance is a delirious, intelligent drama, featuring magnetic performances by Michael Emil as the Professor, Theresa Russell as the Actress, Gary Busey as the Ballplayer, and Tony Curtis as the Senator.
Nicolas Roeg’s fairly obscure (to me at least) 1985 film Insignificance comes to Blu-ray from Criterion with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer in the director’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc.
The picture looks nice but for whatever reason I wasn’t all that impressed despite there being nothing fundamentally wrong with what we get. Colours look nice but never really pop, the film’s colour tones going for a more muted look. Blacks are strong but not all that pure, and the image is sharp with strong definition but the finer details still seem to get lost, though film grain is still there and fairly heavy at times. Source materials are in excellent condition, only a few minor blemishes remaining.
So despite the fact that it has nothing to be really concerned about, and the fact that the image still looks good, I still felt a little underwhelmed by it. But in the end it may simply come down to just the look of the film and how it was shot: despite some visual flourishes from Roeg, including inserts of flashbacks, the film does suffer from that stage play adaptation feel, where the film, for a majority of the time, feels trapped in one area. I’m not sure if maybe that influenced me in how I saw this digital transfer but going over it again it just really lacks that pop and depth I’ve come to expect from Criterion and their Blu-ray releases. I think, in the end, it really just comes off flat.
I found the mix of the Linear PCM 1.0 mono track included here a little maddening, primarily in terms of the presentation of dialogue. Dialogue is mostly discernable and easy to hear despite being weak and flat, but there are moments where I had to crank the volume in order to hear what was being said because it either became too muffled and low or was being drowned out somewhat by other factors, like music or sound effects.
The music (which is possibly the least flattering element to the film) sounds a little edgy as it strains to reach high notes and come off more powerful than the track will actually allow, and sound effects can have a hollow, artificial sound to them, with the “devastating” conclusion to the film losing a bit of its impact because of this weakness. Barely average, which is surprising considering the film isn’t that old.
I think the releases from Criterion for the Jeremy Thomas/HanWay films they’ve licenced have been pretty strong overall (Wings of Desire, The Hit, Paris, Texas, and The Last Emperor to name a few, despite the last title maybe being a little bloated), as have Criterion’s Roeg titles. Take those factors into account and the supplements found here only come off all the more disappointing and feel to be sort of an afterthought.
Making Insignificance is a 14-minute featurette made during filming, featuring interviews with the stars including Tony Curtis, Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Will Sampson, and Gary Busey, who is actually billed as “Gary Bussey”. Though it has some behind-the-scenes material it adds very little. Unfortunately it’s cut so quickly, with only blips of what look like to be interviews with the stars, who primarily talk about their characters, there isn’t much insight and their thoughts always get cut off, especially frustrating with Curtis since he seems to have the more interesting things to say. I assume this was included just to have interviews with the actors present on the disc but it does really come off as pointless. I’m guessing it would have been near impossible to get but I think a new interview with Gary Busey would have been more coherent and enlightening than whatever this is supposed to be.
Following this is a whopping 13-minute interview with Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas, who sit together at a table. It really just glazes over the surface of the film, with the two talking a little about the themes of celebrity, the nuclear threat, politics, and the advantage of working with iconic characters (you don’t have to build any back story.) They talk about the actors, specifically Curtis (who added that extra layer to the film since he was from the era the film takes place in and even worked with Monroe) and Will Sampson. There’s a little about the adaptation of the play and Thomas’ hands on approach to producing as well as Roeg’s willingness to take suggestions. Ultimately it’s not bad but it’s surprisingly fluffy. A little disappointing.
The final big supplements is a 15-minute interview with editor Tony Lawson who talks a little about Breathless and its editing, and even shares his memories from working with other directors (Kubrick, Peckinpah, Lean.) He then talks about Roeg’s style and the editing in his films which serve more than just being flashy visuals but really to give an idea as to what a character is thinking. Lawson not only talks about the editing in the film, and the difficulty of making a stage play adaptation not feel like a stage play, but also talks about the editing in Roeg’s Bad Timing, scenes of which are presented in high-def (so maybe that one might be coming to Blu-ray at some point.) Surprisingly this may be the most informative and interesting supplement on here.
The disc then closes with a 1-minute theatrical trailer.
The booklet then includes an essay about Roeg’s career and Insignificance written by Chuck Stephens. There’s then a reprinting of a 1985 interview with Roeg and playwright Terry Johnson (the play’s writer), who talk about the play, including how Johnson came up with the idea, the film adaptation, which was somewhat foreign to Johnson, and then just the state of the film industry at the time. A good read and the booklet overall is one of this edition’s strongest features.
But in the end it’s a disappointing set of supplements, altogether coming off quick and frivolous despite a few interesting facts.
For me this is one of the more disappointing editions I’ve come across lately from Criterion. Yes, despite my indifferent comments about it the image is fine, really, just lacking that extra oomph. But the audio is a mixed bag and the supplements are few and mediocre overall, making this release one I’m really just not at all excited about.