“Where’s the cumshot?”
A group of modern day (well, modern day for 1975) yahoos sit in front of a projector, watching an old 16mm stag loop. They sell ‘em a dollar a foot on Hollywood Boulevard, we’re told. They’re the detritus of another era, and the rowdy crowd hoots and hollers through a silent, black and white porno where a man brutalizes a woman, a porno filled with jarring jump cuts and intense insert shots.
That’s the pre-credits moment of Inserts, John Byrum’s 1975 film about the fading of the old silent Hollywood, the dissolution of creativity, the industry’s habits of preying on women and many more dark, unpleasant things. The film - shot in real time, in one location, with only five actors - tells the story of the making of that stag loop, and the story of a million pulverized dreams in Hollywood.
Richard Dreyfuss is the Boy Wonder, not 30 but already washed up. He’s too artistic and difficult and the talkie revolution is passing him by. He’s drunk, never leaving his decaying mansion. He can’t get it up anymore, not sexually or cinematically. Outside is the constant sound of construction, as they’re destroying his whole neighborhood to put in a freeway. The future is coming from every direction and the Boy Wonder cannot handle it.
He’s been reduced to making porn. He makes them on a threadbare set in the corner of his living room, and today he’s hired Harlene (Alien’s Veronica Cartwright), an ex-silent star who has fallen into heroin and being fucked onscreen. The male lead in this scene is Rex The Wonder Dog (not an actual dog, but rather Stephen Davies), who is trying to transition into the talkies. He’s also maybe gone gay.
The scene is a rape scene, and it’s vicious. Rex fucks Harlene hard, pulling her off the bed and slamming her back down, smacking her, choking her. Boy Wonder is there, shoving his camera in for the close-up, going hand held, shouting “FUCK HER!” until the film runs out. But Rex keeps pounding and choking, and the pretend rape gets real. So real that Boy Wonder is forced to smash a wine bottle over the guy’s head.
Enter Big Mac, Bob Hoskins. A seedy porn producer/gangster he has a starlet on his arm and a bunch of smack in his pocket. He gives Harlene dope and she promptly ODs and dies. Mac and Rex take her corpse to be dumped, leaving Boy Wonder alone with the new girl, Cathy Cake, played by Jessica Harper. Boy Wonder tries to get the inserts he needs to finish the loop - tights shots of tits - and ends up falling for the ingenue, and finally gets a hard on. But when they fuck she thinks it’s just for the camera, and when she realizes the magazine wasn’t even loaded she’s upset, violated - and Big Mac, who is grooming her, is even angrier.
Inserts is filled with long sequences of two characters verbally sparring. Byrum wrote the film himself, and he fills his character’s mouths with snappy patter and degenerate wisdom; twenty minutes of film can go by with just Dreyfuss going back and forth with someone. The single location, the reliance on dialogue and the real time aspect all make Inserts feel like a filmed stage play - artfully filmed with a sallow, sepiated tint - but a stage play all the same. That means the film is sometimes slow, stopping to let Boy Wonder pontificate. But once you sink into that rhythm the film becomes a hypnotic march towards doom.
Dreyfuss is exceptional as the imploding Boy Wonder. He’s unshaved and unkempt and he’s snarky and nasty and yet, under it all, you can see that this is a guy who cares. He hears that Josef von Sternberg is talking shit on him, and he gets mad. And he’s got enough of a rep that the new kid in town, Clark Gable, wants to meet him, to maybe work with. Boy Wonder, Gable thinks, is the only true genius of cinema. Dreyfuss plays that genius in a dirty bathrobe, a bottle of booze in one hand and a suffocating cloud of despair over his head.
His biggest and best scene is opposite Harper, as he first coaxes her to get naked and then finds himself seduced by her wit and intelligence. She’s not just an empty pretty girl, not just another talentless fucktoy that guys like Big Mac usually carry around - she has soul and depth. Harper is a waif here, thin and pale, all big eyes and luxurious hair. She has the face of an innocent but the mind of a fighter. Harper was always one of the most intelligent actresses of her generation, her eyes always alight with a fierce thoughtfulness. She’s magnetic here, splayed out topless in a bed under hot lights, exposed but not vulnerable.
There’s sex in Inserts - the movie got an X rating, and the balls and bush on display tell you why - but very little of it is sexy. The only moments that are sexy are between Harper and Dreyfuss, and that’s undercut with a total crushing sadness.
The title of Inserts is itself a double entendre, and the film’s metaphors are often as obvious as that - the ever growing sound of construction certainly ain’t subtle. But there’s a bravado here that cannot be denied. The movie’s wealth of iconic talent is almost accidental - it’s Harper’s first role and Hoskin’s first major movie. Dreyfuss was just coming off American Graffiti. Byrum, who had written Mahogany, made his directorial debut here, and clearly went for broke. The film is often lewd and filthy yet absolutely high-minded, occupying a tawdry spot in smart cinema that is rarely visited.
It took a long time for the movie to come out in the US; it wasn’t released until 1976, and even then about 17 minutes were cut in a vain attempt to get an R rating. The version you can see now is the complete, 117 minute British version; I don’t know what could have been cut to bring the movie down to 100 minutes, but I can only imagine that explains why the film was critically panned on release. The full version borders on brilliant, even as it is squalid and sometimes deeply unpleasant.
Most of all it’s honest. The opening sets such an incredible tone for everything to come: the young people laughing at this silly, stupid porno, one that we know came from such incredible sadness. And by the end of the movie we understand why there’s no cum shot.