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    The Definition of Insanity

    Act, like nothing's wrong

    An actor's comically absurd struggles reveal the humanity behind the hopelessness of creative life in "The Definition of Insantiy."


    They say write what you know. And if what you know is a life of absurdity and frustration, that's the story you write. And if the reason for your frustration is that you're an unemployed New York actor, well, you're in luck — you can play yourself in the movie.

    Written and directed by: Robert Margolis, Frank Matter.
    Cast: Robert Margolis, Kelli Barnett, Frank Krias, Derek Johnson, Amanda Kay, Peter Bogdanovich, Dylan Margolis, David Maquiling, Jonas Mekas, John Greiner, Dawn Marie Anderson, Bruce Levy.
    Cinematography: Frank Matter.
    Edited by: Robert Margolis, Frank Matter.

    Related links: Official site
    Swiss-American Film Festival 2004
    • Overview
    • The Fallen (new version of Letters from the Dead)
    • Strong Shoulders
    • Official site
    Brooklyn International Film Festival 2005
    • The Real Dirt on Farrmer John
    • Nightingale in a Music Box
    • Official site
    "The Definition of Insanity" is the grimly funny story of one such talent, and the fact that lesser-known actor Robert Margolis co-wrote, co-directed and starred in this faux-documentary suggests that you almost don't need to use the word "faux." If it isn't his real life, it must be darned close.

    The camera follows Margolis from the doomed audition to the two-faced producer's meeting to the door-slammed-in-the-face agent's office to the just-scraping-by home, and amid this whirlwind of fruitless activity, he stops only long enough to smile and say he can feel success around the corner. It's always just one call-back away. This explains the title — everyone's thumbnail definition of insanity is when you keep making the same mistake and expect the outcome to be different.

    There's a certain unspoken dishonor attached to being an unsuccessful artist. In the movie, the Margolis family has long since tired of shelling out hundred-dollar bills in return for fanciful daydreams. I'm probably going to get this part! I think I might have an agent! The movie's going to have a budget, maybe a couple million dollars! The play is going off-Broadway! Every tale of success just out of reach is met with rolled eyes, pursed lips and clenched wallets. Margolis's parents urge him to get a real job, and his wife has already moved on mentally, if not yet physically, from the relationship.

    The Definition of Insanity  
    There are a lot of funny, if subtle and dark, moments in the movie — many of them signaled by cameos by actual show-biz luminaries. (Watch for art-film impresario Jonas Mekas, "Last Picture Show" director Peter Bogdanovich, indie filmmaker David Maquiling in a very funny bit, and agent Bruce Levy.) But it's also about something quite serious — what happens to people who devote their lives to the arts. It's kind of like watching a reality TV show, except instead of putting himself at the mercy of an egotistical MBA-firing multimillionaire in return for nationwide fame and fortune, our man humiliates himself before loved ones in hopes of borrowing rent money and genuflects before agents who already have hundreds of other brilliant would-be actors on their rosters.

    Should we care about the private struggle of one little guy in one little film? Yes, and here's why. The hope and heartbreak of a thousand unknown actors, the shards of their shattered dreams, the curling edges of their hopeful headshots, the tip money they spend on coaches and dramaturges — these are the raw material that goes into building one Streep or De Niro. There would be no bright, shining stars to worship if not for the striving of many more whose dedication — whose very willingness to believe in a dream — has been rewarded with nothing more extravagant than a best-supporting-actor award from the Syracuse Film Festival and a complimentary review of a little-noticed film on a web site such as this one.

    The poet Marge Piercy writes:
    Talent is what they say
    you have after the novel
    is published and favorably
    reviewed. Beforehand what
    you have is a tedious
    delusion, a hobby like knitting.
    "The Definition of Insanity" is another way of saying the same thing. It's an appreciation of the unknown artist and the sometimes-excellent work he or she creates. In one scene that feels like reality, Margolis's character says haltingly: "My being an actor — it's like being born — I hate to say anything — it's like being born with a limp. I mean, it's just something I live with. It's who I am. It's what I do — I have to do it. Basically, I'm following the American dream."

    This is a dream so far from what normal people describe as the "American dream" — the three-car garage, the PlayStation and the trip to Disney World — that most people would consider the comparison seriously unhinged. But it's also the way I've heard other artists describe what they do — they can't imagine not doing it because their art is indistinguishable from who they are. They don't create their art — their art creates them.

    Margolis's film is an offbeat, not very commercial piece of work. But it has a basic sense of humanity at its heart. By turning the camera on himself — probably a not-very-fictional caricature of himself — he's actually made a movie, candid and gently self-deprecating, about the people we rely on never to achieve fame and success.

    OCTOBER 16, 2005

    Reader comments on The Definition of Insanity:

  • Impressions of the film and director   from Joyce Kaffel, Nov 25, 2005
  • Re: Impressions of the film and director   from Meredith Lee, Nov 26, 2005

  • Post a comment on "The Definition of Insanity"