Last week, Boing Boing presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series for several additional days. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. — Mark
Mind Blowing Movies: Inserts (1974)
[Video Link] Inserts could never be made today. It's too politically incorrect, and it would be difficult to find talented actors and actresses to essay its mentally and (in a sense) physically demanding roles. However, I've just finished watching Inserts for what must be the 30th time, and I'm as big a fan of this movie today as I was when I first discovered it in 1979. I'm only hoping that this review inspires you to go out and rent this R-rated classic so you can form your own opinions, rather than relying on either mine… or Leonard Maltin's ("Pretentious, unending nonsense… Dreadful") or Mick Martin's ("Dreary").
Inserts is the story of two afternoon hours in the life of The Boy Wonder (hereafter "The BW") (Dreyfuss), a former mainstream silent film director who's lost his nerve, and who, as the film opens (in the early 1930s), is reduced to making porno movies in his mansion. The Boy Wonder's "set" is in the corner of his spacious living room … but it may not be there for long. His neighborhood is undergoing urban renewal, as Los Angeles begins to build the first of its maze of freeways, and the roar of giant earth-moving machines can be heard continually from outside. It's obvious from his constant swigging of cognac that The BW has completely lost respect for himself, but his porn career provides a manageable balance between his fear of working in "the real movies" and his need to be behind the camera, directing something.
His star is Harlene (Cartwright), an ex-mainstream actress who used to "pork [Von Stroheim] plenty when he was straight." Now, she's a waitress by day and a cocaine addict in her off-hours… and The BW's sort-of girlfriend, even though, we soon find out, he's psychically impotent.
The Boy Wonder's backer is Big Mac (Hoskins), an obvious parody of the Louis B. Mayer/Jack Warner cliché. Mac is a stereotypical Hollywood producer with fingers in many pies. He already has plans to build a series of identical gas stations and hamburger joints along the new "fastways," expecting motorists to be so confused, they'll just drive up and throw their money out, not knowing whether they'll receive food or fuel. (Yes, I know you're groaning at the obvious McDonald's reference, but the characters themselves are oblivious to it. The milieu is the early '30s, and "fast food" is not yet a cultural icon.)
Next to arrive is Steven Davies as Rex "The Wonder Dog," a gravedigger by profession who picks up a few extra bucks as a porn stud once the digging's done. He's the lowbrow type who never quite understands what's asked of him, either on or off camera. For instance, when The Boy Wonder tries to set up a scene using Rex's ascot as a murder weapon, he instructs, "Why deliver a crude blow to her face when the means are at hand for you to render your vengeance through the very instrument of your anguish … the very vehicle of her ridicule?" — and he’s met with Rex's blank expression, till The BW finally explodes with, "The ascot, Rex; strangle her with the fucking ascot, you orangutan."
In the midst of filming Big Mac shows up with his girlfriend, Cathy Cake (Harper) — and the problems begin. For one thing, Mac's the paymaster, so he gives Rex his salary — and Harlene a good-sized bag of cocaine, which she hurries upstairs to use. (As she's leaving, after failing to find her "lucky necktie," The Boy Wonder says, "You know, Harlene, you don't need that stuff." "You don't need it," she replies. "I do. I ain't got your 'magination.")
Almost needless to say, Harlene dies of an overdose — this isn't a comedy — but after a short pause (BW: "Will you let me think!"), The Boy Wonder decides he can use her anyway. Rex refuses (Rex: "You want me to do it with a stiff?!"), and Mac talks Rex into helping him bury the body in an unmarked grave. Mac's a little hesitant about leaving The Boy Wonder and Cathy alone, but then he laughs and tells Rex, "Don't you know about this guy? He couldn't get his rope to rise with a magic flute."
Exit Mac, Rex and the corpse, leaving The Boy Wonder noodling at the piano, and Cathy looking not-exactly-innocent on the couch. She looks at him, he looks at her … and here's where the story really begins; a sort of drama which has been played out in the entertainment industry (and not just the adult part) since its beginnings. Their dialogue goes as follows:
Cathy: What did he mean by 'getting your rope to rise'? Do you do magic tricks?
BW: All but that one, Miss Cake.…
Cathy: Did you really want that boy Rex to do it with her when she was dead?
BW: Listen, Miss Cake…
Cathy: I think you meant it, all right. I bet you're not afraid of anything. Like what you were doing when we came in here. I never saw anything so intense in all my life. You didn't even know we were here. I bet you didn't even know what time it was. I bet you never think about things like that. I remember once when I was in college, I stayed up all night to write an essay. I didn't worry about what time it was once.
BW: Miss Cake, I'm going to have to ask you for silence now.…
Cathy: You're upset. She was a good friend of yours, wasn't she?
BW: Miss Cake…
Cathy: Why don't you call me Cathy?
Look, I know she was a good friend of yours and that you're upset. But I think maybe what's really bothering you is that you've got half a movie done and your leading lady is in the trunk of Big Mac's car. Isn't that really it? I mean, look, you can tell me, because I for one don't think you're out of your noodle particularly.
BW: That's a very kind thing for you to say.
Cathy: I don't know so much about your rope not rising and such either, because I've seen you work. I saw you when we came in. You may still be just a ghost story to this Clark Gable [who, though never seen, is periodically heard knocking on the mansion’s door], but I've seen you work. And while I was watching you, I thought about what he said about 'being good, but you could make him great.' Because, you know, I'm going to be in the movies. Big Mac's gonna put me in the movies.
BW: That's what he said.
Cathy: So he said. And he's going to, too; don't you worry about that.
BW: Do I look worried to you, Miss Cake?
Cathy: Don't get mad. I'm just trying to tell you, I think you're a genius. I've seen every movie you've ever made… like everybody else. And I want to be in the movies… like everybody else. Only I'm really going to be, because Big Mac thinks I'd be pretty hot stuff up there.
BW: So he said.
Cathy: So he said. Yeah, but the guy's a hamburger; you know it and I know it, so why should we kid ourselves?
BW: Why indeed?
Cathy: But he's not so dumb that he didn't offer you a six-picture contract when everybody else thought you were a ghost story. And you're not so dumb that you didn't take it — and I'm not so dumb as you think. So let's talk freely like two mature adults.
BW: By all means, let's. What's on your mind, toots?
Cathy: Well, I want you to make me great. I want you to teach me what are inserts…
BW: Watch your step, Miss Cake.
BW: Because you're making me like you a little bit too fast.
Cathy: Why don't you call me Cathy?
BW: Why don't you take off your blouse?
BW: Okay. Okay, Miss Cake. Let's see exactly how far down into it we can get.
Cathy: Into what?
BW: Into the valley of indecency.
Cathy: Well, that's a pretty crummy way of looking at it.
BW: The trick, Miss Cake, is not to look at it at all, but simply limp to the edge of patience and watch yourself fall.
Look up here, please. [He adjusts some lights.] Hot, Miss Cake. Hot work.
Cathy: I can take it.
BW: I'm sure you can. But the day will come, Miss Cake, when you can't.
Cathy: Not for me.
BW: Perhaps not. But if you're any good, it will. And then, Miss Cake, you will be faced with the penultimate decision: Do you do the intelligent thing and bow out gracefully, or do you continue, against all that is holy, and make up your mind to vanish once and for all into the mists of self?
Cathy: I'll go on, no matter what. I want to be in the movies. I want to be a star.
BW: Oh — you mean, you want to be both? Well, then, you'll be faced with the ultimate choice, won't you? You're going to have to pick someone to abuse. The person closest to you generally fits the bill, which, by then, Miss Cake, will be you…
Cathy: Do you mind my asking, what happened to you? I mean, what made you like this? You had a brilliant future.
BW: I fulfilled it, Miss Cake, at an early age. I'm The Boy Wonder; that's all that happened to me…
No, no, no — unwrap the meat.
Cathy: "The meat"?
[The BW tilts the camera down to her chest.]
Cathy: You're trying to offend me.
BW: On the contrary, Miss Cake, I never have to try this early in the game. Now, come on — get the goods out; declassé les décolleté.
Cathy: Well, first, tell me what are inserts?
BW: Inserts, Miss Cake, are close-ups; garish interludes in the progress of the whole. Now, unwrap the meat.
Cathy: If these inserts are so garish, why do you bother?
BW: Because keeping the whole in perspective is quite a taxing little horror, Miss Cake. Unwrap the meat.
Cathy: You unwrap it.
BW: Let's not play games, Miss Cake; what do you say?
Cathy: I say you ought to take some pictures of my face first. After all, that's what they'll be photographing in the real movies.
BW: Perhaps so. Perhaps so — but it's your meat they're going to be thinking about.…
Now, Miss Cake, here's the scene: You are being raped — raped and strangled with a silken ascot. I'd like you to think about that; think about that, and act accordingly. It's that simple.
Cathy: What do you mean, 'act'? The camera isn't even on my face.
BW: Miss Cake, anybody could do this part with the camera on their face; anybody. That's where the challenge comes in, you see. You are being asked to express yourself through your tits, you see.
The above dialogue is merely a taste of some of the fine interaction between Dreyfuss and Harper as she alternates coy innocence with seduction, and he finds himself drawn deeper into her game — and his "rope" regains the ability to "rise." Tough. Tender. Cynical. Insightful. Gritty. Inserts is all of these, plus it has a heavy undercurrent of social commentary, plus it gets further inside at least one unexplored corner of Hollywood — the early porn "industry" — than anyone has ever dared, before or since. How many actors and actresses, no matter what the genre, have already "picked someone to abuse"? And how many have made it obvious in the media that that person is themselves? Robert Downey, Jr. comes immediately to mind, as does John Belushi. How many actresses in the "real movies" must know, deep down inside, that what the audience is really interested in is their "meat"? Couldn't you name a dozen off the top of your head?
And speaking of acting, consider this later exchange, which occurs after The Boy Wonder has shot some insert footage of Cathy with her blouse off, but she balks at going further:
BW: Oh, look; you said you want to be brilliant.
Cathy: You said I hadn't reached my peak.
BW: You hadn't.
Cathy: I was good. I was damn good and you know it.
BW: But you said you wanted to be great.
Cathy: They would have said I was great in the real movies.
BW: But you and I know that you aren't, don't we? Don't we?
BW: And you and I know you didn't even know what tits were till I told you what they were, don't we?
BW: And we know it's not a very mature, adult way, for you to go all resentful now, before we know what else you've got, don't we?
BW: Sure. Now lay back down on the bed. [pause] And you'll know when to go resentful on me, because it will be the first idea that you get that I don't give you — and then you're going to hog it all for yourself.
Do you mind if I ask you a question, Miss Cake? This essay you stayed up all night to write, was it your own work?
Cathy: What are you talking about? Of course it was.
BW: You, Miss Cake, spent all night slaving over a composition of your own device? [laughs] Come on, Miss Cake —
Cathy: You don't believe me.
BW: Spending all of anything, Miss Cake, requires a bit of self-confidence.
Cathy: Okay; so maybe I did copy it out of a book. You think that makes me stupid or something?
BW: Not at all; merely a thief. Hey, look, the ability to steal from the thoughts of others is merely an indication of industry, Miss Cake. What passes for genius is when you have the ability to steal from your own.
Cathy: So —
BW: So if you want to reach your peak, you better be prepared to rob yourself blind…
Now, are you ready?
BW: Really? What are you going to do?
Cathy: Lie back on the bed.
BW: And do what?
Cathy: What I did before.
Cathy: Because the [camera] wind ran out.
Cathy: Because I did it well?
Cathy: Why then?
BW: Because I would have told you if I wanted you to do something different — and women, contrary to popular opinion, never know when to open their mouths, even to ask.
Inserts, despite its brushes with misogyny, is about filmmaking, about fear, about porn, about love, about art — and there are so many life lessons to be learned from this film that it should be required viewing in any college media course… and maybe a few Human Sexuality courses as well. True, in some ways, the film is too realistic for some tender psyches, and there are short stretches where the only purpose is mood-setting, that some would call "boring." Few movies, however, have engendered such strong emotions in their viewers; they either love it or hate it — but I have to wonder how much of the disparagement and defamation from which this film has suffered is due to its having succeeded in mirroring the real world… which, as most of us know, can be quite a taxing little horror.