Tuesday, July 10, 2007
While attending New York University in the sixties, writer and director John Byrum got a job as an intern with Jim Henson and the Muppets. Byrum's rather odd filmography after that includes writing, among other things, the Diana Ross vehicle, MAHOGANY (1975), the Bill Murray version of THE RAZOR'S EDGE(1984) and the Gwyneth Paltrow film DUETS (2000). All three are seemingly just connected by perhaps how undervalued they are, with each possessing something a little more special than anyone realized at the time.
Byrum's works as a director have been even more sporadic, but no less interesting. These include the Nick Nolte film, HEART BEAT (1980), the aforementioned THE RAZOR'S EDGE and some television work including some ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episodes. THE RAZOR'S EDGE is a particularly interesting film that showed Byrum as being a talent that was unjustly ignored in a period of American cinema when artists daring like him were most needed. As great as THE RAZOR'S EDGE is, Byrum was never more interesting, or controversial, though than we he wrote and directed a strange and fascinating little film from 1974 called INSERTS.
INSERTS details the professional and moral decay of a once big time silent film Hollywood director in the twenties who has turned to making stag films in his secluded Hollywood mansion. Known only as "Boy Wonder" the part is played by a wonderfully burned out Richard Dreyfuss, who is in nearly every frame of the film. The small cast also includes Bob Hoskins as the benefactor Big Mac, Veronica Cartwright as the fallen actress Harlene, Stephen Davies as the dim witted actor Rex and a striking young Jessica Harper as Cathy Cake.
INSERTS feels very much like a stage play, with its one location and small cast but Byrum's direction never feels stagy to me. In its near two hour running time the film manages to remain interesting through the sheer power of the performances, acidic writing and its audacious manner. Watching INSERTS today, it is hard to believe that a major Hollywood company would have released such a bitter and explicit film like this one.
Dreyfuss' Boy Wonder simply can't accept change. He is part of that old silent film guard that checked out once the talkies checked in. For him, sound equals death where as the small group that surrounds didn't necessarily have anything against the change, they just couldn't hack it. One of the early tag lines for INSERTS was "A degenerate film with integrity!" and that isn't a bad way to sum it up as INSERTS is just that and it is still fairly shocking to this day.
I remember the first time I saw the film, on an old worn out VHS copy, and I was floored by how explicit a couple of the shots were. The film's original X has since changed into the more friendly sounding NC17, but whatever the rating, this film wears its adult badge proudly.
The film's striking look, a boldly successful combination of the old Hollywood with the new guard of the seventies, was achieved by Cinematographer Denys N. Coop. Coop had started out as a camera operator in the forties and worked on such projects as Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN and Otto Preminger's SAINT JOAN. He became an in demand cinematographer in the early sixties with some of his most notable titles being Basil Dearden's THE MIND BENDERS, Lindsay Anderson's THIS SPORTING LIFE and John Schlesinger's BILLY LIAR. Starting with Preminger's BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING in 1965 Coop became more associated with thrillers and shot both Roy Ward Baker's ASYLUM as well as AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS before being hired for INSERTS. Coop's three vastly different experiences in classic British cinema, the early sixties Kitchen Sink Dramatic movement and the more fantasy oriented horror films would all combine to form INSERTS. The look of the film manages to be soft, sobering and strangely surrealistic. There is something hyper real to Coop's photography in INSERTS and even at the film's basest moments, there is an all together classical feeling about the film. Coop would unfortunately die just a few years after INSERTS and would make only one other film, Preminger's disappointing ROSEBUD.
The relatively music free INSERTS, only a haunting MOONGLOW is featured, can be a cold experience the first time through. It improves with each viewing though when one can really soak up Coop's work, listen for Byrum's sharp dialogue and just marvel at the intensity of each actor's performance. Dreyfuss is spectacularly amoral in the role as the fallen director. There is something really rotten and broken in this man and Dreyfuss plays it perfectly. It is easily one of his greatest performances in a career that has had many of them. Cartwright is also notable in how brave her work is in this film. She plays the ultimately sad Harlene as a woman who fitted the silents well but just came in a bit too late...it's a strong performance from the always reliable Cartwright. Hoskins and Davies are also good but the best supporting performance is given by the lovely 24 year old Harper.
INSERTS was one of Jessica Harper's earliest roles and her turn as the manipulative Cathy Cake is quite astonishing. Her work in Inserts is at least the equal to her other spellbinding roles from the period in Brian De Palma's dazzling PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and Argento's peerless SUSPIRIA. Cathy Cake is a strangely ambiguous character who manages to chip away not only at Wonder Boy's already crumbling spiritual shell but finally her own. Harper is astonishing in this role and she remains one of the the great unheralded treasures that came out of the seventies.
INSERTS was a major critical and financial failure when it came out in 1976, nearly two years after it was completed. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at one of the first executive screenings of the film. I can imagine the shock the film might have caused any remaining older Hollywood studio heads and I am sure that is what caused the major delay in its release.
Critics for the most part savaged the brave INSERTS when it was released and it played in just a few markets before disappearing. It briefly appeared on home video in the eighties before slipping out of print only to be resurrected in a surprising DVD release a couple of years back. The bare bones dvd features a nice widescreen, uncut print and is the best way to see INSERTS at this point. It is a film that screams for a special edition but as neither audiences or critics have ever warmed to the film that will probably not happen.
INSERTS is a cynical little monster of a film and it is pretty hard to shake. As a vision of Hollywood as an almost apocalyptic wasteland of corruption, drug addiction and vacancy it is pretty untouchable. In a film filled with extremely shocking moments, the most shocking for me remains the final scene when the sun suddenly powers through Boy Wonder's window...for a character this far gone into darkness even a sun rise seems impossible to the audience at this point...and, I am willing to bet, even to him.