Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hi, Mom!

Hi, Mom! (Brian De Palma, 1970) Second full-length film (although it seems more a comedy pastiche in final form, like the Zucker Brothers were making at the time) that De  Palma and his producing buddy Charles Hirsch cooked up as a sequel of sorts to Greetings (retaining Robert De Niro and his "character" John Rubin), while having absolutely nothing to do with the first film.  Ostensibly about a young film-maker who wants to make "peep-show art" out of filming the real lives of his neighbors in the co-op across the street—shades (opened, naturally) of Rear Windowit meanders into Rubin's plotting a relationship with one of his subjects (Jennifer Salt), while at the same time becoming involved in an experimental theater group, staging a radical audience participation vehicle called "Be Black, Baby!"

Mean-spirited (but in a smart way), with that stagey kind of improv quality to it that only works 40% of the time, it feels like De Palma taking off the gloves, cracking his knuckles and using his camera like a fist against complacency. It also has that bi-partisan cynicism to it that's very refreshing—for instance, "Be Black, Baby!" is shown being presented (in grainy black and white on a rounded edge square screen) over a parody of NET,* now called NIT—National Intellectual Television.  It's a chortling, vicious piece of satire done in multi-parts (with the Rubin segments interrupting and becoming more and more inconsequential, the "peep-art-show" concept having long been abandoned**), starting with citizens being accosted on the street about their failure to know what it means "to be black in America," then more segments that are less cinema verite, but have a good improv feel, and then the actual presentation of the play in which privileged whites are challenged, force-fed "soul" food, beaten, robbed and arrested (with one attempted rape thrown in for good measure), before being released to the outside world again—"Hope you enjoyed the show!"—at which point, they're interviewed about their experience (the best line in the whole thing is "Clive Barnes was right!").  In one swell foop, art, pretentiousness, and "touchy-feely" moccassin-walking are given the mau-mau, and come up wanting.

It's "bad-kid movie-making" with a smart-alecky breeziness ("Hi, Mom!") that beats any number of elaborately formal set-pieces that De Palma has subsequently staged.  One misses this "turk" De Palma***—the one that would do things that upset audiences, and sit back, cigar in his teeth, saying "Wait'll you see the next one!"  Maybe it's not De Palma's fault.  Maybe we've just become insensitive enough that nothing he can produce shocks us anymore.

If that's true, imagine how miserable Hitchcock would be.

* The percursor to PBS.

** The best segment in the Rubin sandwiching sequences is one where he meticulously plans a seduction of Betty Shaefer—Salt's character—in order for him to film it—yes, a sick idea, but quaint in these days.  But, things go awry when he arrives at the apartment and she tries to pull him into bed immediately, while he does his best to keep anything from happening, a lovely little turn on sexual roles, expectations, and how much power a director "actually" has.  De Niro does his best work here, hemming and hawing and making excuses, constantly glancing at his watch and re-buttoning every shirt-button she's unbuttoned,  and trying to use any of his by-now useless preparations in order to delay, delay, delay (you might say "the worst laid plans")

*** And he might, too.  In an interview, the director has said that the "Be Black, Baby" segments of Hi, Mom! are the best thing he's ever done.  Sad to think that, after all his successes, the elder De Palma looks back and sees this edgy, slap-dash sequence as the epitome of his career.  But...if one is dissatisfied with one is doing, with all the compromises and concessions to getting a picture made and marketed, it's easy to look back on the brash days and say "That's when I had the freedom to do anything I wanted!"  After the bludgeoning De Palma's films of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Redacted took, one can see that a bit more clearly.  He could make that kind of film today.  But, the market...and the critical elite...will bash it down.


Manny Lage said...

I think the improv might work more than 40% of the time (this could also be because it's been so long since I've seen it), anyways, great little write-up on this hidden gem

Yojimbo_5 said...

Too long hidden, I think. Thanks for joining in the talk.