Inserts is one of the best movies about pornography and Clark Gable you’ll ever see. Taking his 1973-made American Graffiti image and smashing it is Richard Dreyfuss, pre-Jaws, pre-Close Encounters, as Boy Wonder, a once genius Hollywood director in the pre-sound era, now relegated to shooting low-budget porn in his crumbling mansion.
Bob Hoskins, always great to watch on-screen (side question: what’s your favorite Hoskins role? Mine has to be a tie between Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday), matches up well with Dreyfuss as Big Mac, the low-level financier. Jessica Harper as Cathy Cake rounds out the major cast, in what is ostensibly a two-act chamber drama. Clark Gable is a constant presence in Inserts, but never seen on-screen. Instead he’s the “new kid” in town who still believes in Boy Wonder and is eager to work with the once-great director.
The tagline for Inserts, “A degenerate film with dignity,” is a great piece of true-to-form advertising. Featuring its share of nudity and raw language, the film is more like a less glamorized Singin’ in the Rain in its backdrop of the 1927 silent-to-sound transition. It’s implied more than once that Boy Wonder coulda been great, if only he coulda mastered those damn talkies.
Taking a cue from Warren Beaty’s Clyde in Arthur Penn’s influential 1967 film, Boy Wonder is also impotent in a thinly disguised metaphor for his inability to work within a studio system and his current status as troubled, maverick outsider.
Directorially, Inserts is remarkable for John Byrum’s ability to keep his camera interesting with minimal characters and essentially one large room. Presented in real time, it’s fairly remarkable how many significant character changes there are without any time cuts. To make a dramatic character arc believably take place in an actual 90 minutes is no easy task.
Given the title, there is an ironic lack of inserts shots in Inserts. Instead, Byrum chooses to keep his camera fairly wide, and go to medium-shot for the shot-reverse-shots. There’s really only one true extreme close-up that I can remember – well used in how memorable it is.
Here’s a look at a scene from the end of the first act. Be aware, there’s a small bit of NUDITY here. The scene begins pretty basically. Boy Wonder’s two regulars, Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) and Rex (Stephen Davies) sit on the bed in a two-shot, while we look over Boy Wonder’s shoulder as he shoots them in the foreground:
The reverse shot of Boy Wonder, almost entirely hidden by the camera:
Back to the couple on the bed, now in black-and-white, to be read as the camera’s POV:
Byrum basically plays this sequence – the beginning of what is close the first snuff film – with these three shots only for a good minute. Aside from playing with color and black-and-white – to blur the line between Boy Wonder’s eyes and the camera’s eye – not much changes, until things start to get a little crazy and Boy Wonder’s camera slowly zooms in:
Boy Wonder yells off-screen. He’s in his element. He’s directing. And here’s that ECU I mentioned earlier. It immediately throws us into his mania and his world. It’s a beautifully timed cut, made all the more effective by basically making the camera a part of his face:
Byrum continues to put a solid scene together by opening up the space. He cuts to a wide overhead (with a strategically placed lamp, just like in those immediately pre-MPAA flicks). The shot doesn’t really bring us out of Boy Wonder’s world, but instead imbues his world with a sense of the truly cinematic. The angle here is almost pulled from a Busby Berkeley musical. The stress is on the spectacle of it all:
And another cut, keeping things wide, brings us slightly back to the reality – that we’re really just in a room, watching a low-budget porno:
A great scene that throws the audience between true POV and inflected POV, the cinematic versus the low-budget, and into the obsession of a washed-up has-been.