Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Inserts (1974)

At first glance, it's hard to tell why anyone, let alone rising stars Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, and Jessica Harper, wanted to make this film. After all, it's an NC-17, low budget, one-room piece about the porn industry in the 1920's. It requires its actors to be unclothed for much of the proceedings and to recite naughty terms for various body parts to the point of desensitization. The title comes from the practice of filming the close-up bits that go in between the action to suitably titillate the audience. So by common sense, this seems like it should be a prurient, dirty little film of little redeeming value. In actuality, it is a concise treatment of the film industry; a snapshot from one dusty corner that captures the whole.

At the center of the films success is Richard Dreyfuss, a post-American Graffiti pre-Jaws imp with rheumy eyes, stubble, and a nasally cackle I've always found weirdly endearing. As the Boy Wonder, we are given to understand that a brilliant career has been squandered, "realized at an early age," as he says, and he now spends his days in the living room of his mansion: drinking, making porn, and not having sex. He is a casualty of the get-rich-quick days of early film, a "ghost story" to newcomers like Clark Gable (a ghost himself, as he only appears off-screen to offer a nebulous and rejected hope to the Boy Wonder). Although he has turned his back on both art and Hollywood, the Boy is hopelessly entangled in the process of film-making. He cannot escape; and indeed, most of his life (as we perceive it) is accompanied by the sound of a camera running even when he is nowhere near one. And despite this artistic torpor, he can't help but innovate within his chosen field. His financial backer is appalled to see him remove the camera from the tripod to obtain visceral shots of his actors engaged in coitus; the people who watch these movies are looking for one thing, and it's not art. The decline of both his fortunes and his libido are, through the course of the film, revealed to be rooted not in his own lack of ability (mentally or physically) but in something else. We are never privy to what happened to the Boy Wonder, but Dreyfuss' performance is laden with an inertia which precludes any chance of leaving the sordid yet comfortingly miserable existence he's made for himself.

The other characters are not silent about Hollywood, old or new, either. Veronica Cartwright plays the once-legit actress now reduced to heroin addiction and porn; the more pro-actively destructive twin to the Boy Wonder, who is in a process of fading rather than burning out. Bob Hoskins is the financially-minded producer who is conscious only of what he can package and sell to an undiscerning, undifferentiated public, whether it's smut or hamburgers. And Jessica Harper is the lean and hungry would-be star, who manipulates the Boy in her ambition to "make it" at whatever the cost. Her every thought is on show business--who's hot, and how she can be one of them. In fact, the only person in this little group who sees beyond his shallow ambitions is the Boy Wonder; and that's because he doesn't have any.

The movie drags a bit in the last half, where Harper and Dreyfuss trade manipulations, reluctance, and biting retorts without much sense of what their motivations are. But it's a lovely, theatrical script with one-liners galore that make the smutty content seem more than justified. Richard Dreyfuss, on screen all the time, gives a nuanced performance not without his characteristic flare-ups, and the two ladies give brave turns as rather uncharacteristically built objects of lust. Bob Hoskins' American accent is impeccable as always, and Rex the Wonder Dog (the hired meat) is as shallow and stiff as he needs to be. This slice-of-porn world is a perfect microcosm of the collaborative, hustling world of movie-making, and it has nudity. This movie should not have been overlooked all these years.

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