Criterion Prediction #90: Two by Brian De Palma, by Alexander Miller
Title: Greetings & Hi, Mom!
Year(s): 1968, 1970
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jennifer Salt, Gerrit Graham, Jonathan Warden, Allen Garfield, Lara Parker, Paul Bartel
Synopsis: This loose-fitting duo starts with Greetings, in which Paul, Lloyd, and Jon pal around New York, talk conspiracy theories, evade the draft, and try their hands in amateur filmmaking. Hi, Mom! shifts focus more toward Jon (De Niro’s character from Greetings) as he returns from Vietnam, pitches his “peeping tom” style of filmmaking, and is commissioned to record his neighbors from his rear window in their more intimate moments…or stage his own? Along the way, Jon’s voyeuristic pursuits are moved aside when he becomes involved with a radical theater group whose “Be Black Baby” presentation is intended to show upper class whites what it means to be black in America.
Critique: It might seem strange to differentiate De Palma from the fetishistic themes and garish violence that some of us have come to embrace, but there’s another quality to his body of work that is just as kinetic if tending more toward Godardian comedy than Hitchcockian thrillers. That’s not to say his stylistic trademarks aren’t in motion, because even at this early juncture, they’re visible in both Greetings and Hi, Mom!.
Greetings is a minor gem of a movie that is a freewheeling exploration of all that is leftist sixties culture – the Kennedy assassination, draft dodging, sexual liberation, race, voyeurism and computer dating. Everything in the film permeates liberal culture, while also serving as a roster of De Palma’s subsequent themes.
Despite some aping of stereotypical gay mannerism adopted by the characters in their efforts to fail the draft exam, Greetings is a punchy and compact movie that shows its age in both a positive and negative light. Feigning homosexuality was a common method to dodge the draft board, and the material is pulled from De Palma’s personal experience, but it hasn’t aged so well.
Greetings is like a warm up to Hi, Mom! in that it revisits De Niro’s Jon Rubin character in more detail, but is light-years ahead of its predecessor in scope, technique, and structure. It’s part farcical sex comedy, segueing into a hard-hitting social/racial commentary helmed by a wildly magnetic performance from De Niro. He’s comical and spirited, the kind of unhinged grace we’d see in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. In a short running time, Jon becomes a “peep art” director, plays a racist cop for a revolutionary theater group, then turns into an urban guerrilla masquerading as an insurance salesman who bombs buildings. It all sounds a bit crazy, and it is, but not any more than the telekinetic teenagers, hard-rock phantoms of the opera, homicidal Siamese twins, and transgender psychiatrists of De Palma’s more famous films.
Hi, Mom! has the capricious energy we’d associate with De Palma’s work. Before settling into genre-driven films, his trademark aesthetic devices are present. With the advantage of hindsight, it’s never been so fun watching an artist ground themselves and seeing the byproduct that is these two early features. He shifts toward documentary style once we reach the anticipated participatory theater show “Be Black Baby,” where bourgeois, liberal white people are painted in blackface, while the black players are in whiteface berate and assault their captive audience, conveying what it’s like to be black in America.
It’s a visceral experience that almost goes off the ledge, but there’s a dual edge to this subversive exercise. De Palma’s loaded this cartridge with more powder than expected. Playing on the theme of white guilt, classist complacency, and even the film itself as its intensity is something that we might not want to endure, the “Be Black Baby” show is just as much an exercise in radicalization as it is a comment on it as well.
De Palma’s comedic tendencies have a persuasive diffusion in working with the weight of the material, not as a corrective action, as it feels like a natural source of quelling.
Hi, Mom! finishes the conversation started in Greetings and succeeds in its blunt examination of class, race, and war in showing us there’s no “easy” way out, but handles it with a sense of humor.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It’s surprising to me that Brian De Palma’s later work has made its way into the collection before Greetings or Hi, Mom!. Not based on their merits as movies, but these earlier titles not only feel more consistent with the arthouse sensibilities of The Criterion Collection. That, and the rights for distribution would be a cinch seeing as both movies have a low visibility rate with MGM, who seems to have more of an open-door relationship with Criterion over the past few years.
I could picture Greetings and Hi, Mom! in the mold of Criterion’s dual title releases, like Gates of Heaven/Vernon Florida or the Siegel/Siodmak double pack of The Killers. With Hi, Mom! being the stronger movie, I could see Greetings as an additional feature like The Front Page to the His Girl Friday DVD/Blu-Ray, or the adjoining Paul Fejos films attached to the release of Lonesome. Not that Greetings isn’t deserving of a spine number, but if there’s an early De Palma movie that deserves some more admiration it should be Hi, Mom!, but you can’t have one without the other.