Undignified Degeneracy

Inserts at the Pi Alley directed by John Byrum

ANY WORK hyped as a "degenerate film with dignity" might be expected to lack that very quality. And a work which insistently echoes the tritest of cliches--"Nothing pure, old, sport, is ever that simple," or "Do you continue or vanish into the mists of self?"--would seem to be courting ridicule and criticism. Yet despite its inauspicious underpinnings, Inserts manages to transcend a mediocre script to reveal a powerful cinematic drama. Director-writer John Byrum, shooting on a three-week schedule and a minimal budget, has done what all the hotshots for the American Film Theater in many dull and inept efforts could not do--he has preserved the excitement and immediacy of drama, on film.

"Inserts are close-ups, garish interludes in the process of the whole." So explains Richard Dreyfuss as The Boy Wonder, a washed-up wunderkind silent-film director. Inserts, the film, is also a garish interlude, examining the transformation of an accomplished and talented young movie-maker into a drunken pornographic film director. The story itself involves the efforts of The Boy Wonder to finish shooting a porno flick in the course of a single afternoon, all in the living room of The Boy Wonder's Hollywood Spanish mansion. A "degenerate film with dignity," tacked with an "X" rating, conjures images of Emmanuelle and The Story of O. These films are degenerate in the colloquial sense, wallowing in themes of glorified sex and sexual subjection while purporting to be serious artistic works. In Inserts John Byrum deals with degeneracy in a more literal sense, addressing the idea of the moral, spiritual, and intellectual decay of one man--the degeneration of The Boy Wonder from what it is suggesdgd he once was to what he is in the film.

Inserts is formally a one-act play. But unlike most works of that genre Inserts is open-ended, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and intimations unexplained. The demise of The Boy Wonder is the major mystery of the film; no explanation is ever given for his peculiarly pathetic state of affairs. Equally musterious is Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), a junkie porno queen who ODs during The Boy Wonder's filming session and who Byrum suggests was once a star in "real films."

Just when answers seem forthcoming, they are neatly sidestepped. When Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), the seductive and immorally ambitious, aspiring starlet confronts The Boy Wonder, demanding to know why he has been reduced to such a pitiful ghost of his former self, he glibly replies that he is not scared of anything. When Miss Cake presses for an answer, an explanation is anticipated. But instead of pouring out his story, The Boy Wonder breaks down in tears and the mystery remains. Given Byrum's weakness for cliches, perhaps it is better that he avoids giving an overt answer. Such a revelation probably would have turned good drama into banal mush. Byrum hints that The Boy Wonder was not able to work in the talking pictures, and there is a nagging suspicion that The Boy Wonder must have been modeled on an actual Hollywood figure. The character recalls the Billy Brights and Buster Keatons of old Hollywood--the great talents discarded in their twenties and thirties, broken by the studio system--who ended up wasted and poverty-stricken.

THERE ARE MOMENTS when Inserts seems to aspire to tragedy and others when it verges on absurdist farce. The broadly farcical sequences lighten what might otherwise be a plodding melodrama and heighten the pathos of The Boy Wonder's plight. A contrast is effected between The Boy Wonder's intelligence and dedication to cinematic art, and the foolish self-serving idiocy of the world around him. At one point, Stephen Davies as Rex, dubbed the Wonder Dog, an empty-headed young undertaker with visions of film stardom who moonlights as porno stud, proposes a perverse idea for flaunting his masculinity. The Boy Wonder rejects the idea--an idea which, thought perverse, is in fact appropriate to the erotic purpose of pornographic film--scorning the unimaginative incompetence it represents. The tragedy in Inserts is that The Boy Wonder's talent has been rejected rather than recognized and appreciated.

As a film play, Inserts is unusually dependent on the quality of its acting. The photography (directed by Denys Coop) is straightforward and simple, emphasizing performances and not technical effects. And the performances are for the most part first-rate, the characters evoked with feeling. Veronica Cartwright effectively conveys the pathetic depths that Harlene has fallen to and Jessica Harper carries off a difficult part as the seductive and seemingly China-fragile Cathy Cake who is tough as nails inside. Harper bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Mia Farrow and occasionally lapses into her mannequin-like posturing.

Primarily, Inserts revolves around the character of The Boy Wonder, and as The Boy Wonder, Dreyfuss succeeds remarkably given his limitations as an actor. Dreyfuss' performance is, of necessity, a studied one. Dreyfuss is not an actor who commands the screen, lacking the presence of a Brando, a Newman, or even a DeNiro. He does not have that brooding presence that would be more suitable for the part, but his performance as The Boy Wonder is one of his best. Generally, he manages to avoid the idiosyncratic gestures--the nervous cackling laughter and the sardonic grin--that even at twenty-eight have already become identifiably Dreyfuss. He is able to convey the suffering of a mind slowly suffocating, and while he may not be captivating, he is compelling.

THE DOMINANT theme of Inserts is sex and sexual inadequacy as a metaphor for the inability to cope with life in general. The big joke during the film is that The Boy Wonder is sexually impotent: "You couldn't get his rope to rise with a magic flute." The Boy Wonder's manic need to make films is a form of sexual displacement--perhaps it is the need for gratification that drives him to make "five-and-dime films" when he has been forced from "real films." In a confrontation with Cathy Cake he is made to face the full reality of his impotence. When he does in fact, through the guiles of the seductive Miss Cake, get his "rope" to "rise" he simultaneously deflates his compulsion to make films. Nonetheless, Dreyfuss's success is not completed, for while his inability to cope has been conquered on a symbolic level, there is still a lingering doubt about real life.

In a United Artists press conference in Chicago, Dreyfuss called Inserts the best one-act play that he has ever read, considering it better than Albee's Zoo Story. While this is gross exagerration, Inserts is in fact one of the better film dramas to come around in a long time, an example of dramatic power and momentum glossing over flaws. But despite the advertising claims, Inserts shows degeneracy as it is--undignified.