Weekend Watch: Inserts

James Oliver

James Oliver on John Byrum's 1975 film that was ahead of its time

26 October 2018 16:00

The glories of 1970s American cinema have been hymned so loudly, and with such regularity, that it’s easy to forget just how radical it really was, a brief period when the normally conservative world of commercial cinema relaxed just enough to allow the transgressive auteurs like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese to become genuinely mainstream figures.

Even in this climate, however, Inserts (John Byrum, 1975) was just a little bit too out there: its subject matter made it hard to get noticed, and it’s still waiting for the attention it deserves. But, as those who make up its loyal cult following will tell you, it’s one of the best films of its era, a calling-card movie every bit the equal of Mean Streets (1973) or Badlands (1973).

Technically speaking, it’s a British production, filmed in London with a British crew and funded by British financiers. You’d be hard pressed to detect that from the movie itself, though: only the presence of Bob Hoskins, in his first film role, suggests this is anything other than an all-American show.

It’s set in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, at the periphery of Hollywood in every sense. Richard Dreyfuss, in probably his best role, takes the lead as a one-time hot-shot known only as ‘The Boy Wonder’. That title was sincere once, when he was the best director in Tinseltown, but it’s definitely a joke now: he’s been all washed up since the coming of sound. These days, when he’s not drinking, or passed out because of his drinking, he works for Hoskins’ shady businessman Big Mac (the joke is deliberate: we’re invited to believe he will go on to invent fast food as we know it). The work is shooting ‘stag’ films (i.e. pornography) starring a former starlet called Harlene (Veronica Cartwright).

On the day we drop by, The Boy Wonder and Harlene (a chronic heroin addict) are working on a scene when Big Mac arrives. He’s brought with him a curious newcomer to LA, Miss Cake (Jessica Harper). Circumstances contrive to leave the (utterly impotent) has-been alone with the bright young thing, but she is no naïf; she’s soon calling the shots even more effectively than he used to.

‘Inserts’ (John Byrum, 1975)

We’re never told whether The Boy Wonder ever directed Norma Desmond, the fictional silent siren of Sunset Boulevard (1950), but it would only be fitting. They would certainly have much to talk about if ever they met: how easily genius is forgotten, how casually it is cast aside. But The Boy Wonder has fallen further, and harder.

Although Billy Wilder was criticised for airing Hollywood’s dirty linen with Sunset Boulevard, he was a model of restraint compared to writer-director John Byrum here: there have long been rumours that certain legitimate Hollywood players either made or even starred in stag films, but they remain categorically unproven (especially those about Walt Disney). The entertainment establishment would prefer them to stay that way.

Not that Inserts is a realistic depiction of that world. In contrast to other filmmakers of the 1970s, who rejected studio conventions in favour of greater verisimilitude, Byrum embraces then-unfashionable artifice. As the character names suggest, there’s a degree of abstraction here (the finest name belongs to The Boy Wonder’s prize stud, a dim young man called ‘Rex the Wonder Dog’, played by Stephen Davies). It might not even be real: it could just as easily be an alcoholic fantasia, a product of The Boy Wonder’s addled mind.

Certainly, Byrum very consciously shrinks his horizons: his film plays out on a single set in real time, like a play. For all the theatricality, though, this is a film steeped in cinema, and not simply because Byrum gives a textbook example of how to film in one room. It’s rooted in Hollywood lore for a start – The Boy Wonder isn’t based on a real person, but there are hints of King Vidor (a genuine prodigy) and he’s styled to look like Josef von Sternberg.

But it is also, very clearly, a film about film. The Boy Wonder only sees the world through a viewfinder, where he can create an order so singularly lacking from his own life. What so rattles him about Miss Cake is not only that she challenges his authority but that she demands a human connection, something that leaves him unexpectedly vulnerable.

This is not the stuff of easily-digestible movies, and audiences treated it accordingly. But it is a masterpiece nonetheless, further proof – as if we needed it – of the glories of 70s cinema.