Monday, March 8, 2010

Brian De Palma: Hi, Mom!

"You're participating in a play, and this is your part."
"But you're the actors; we're the audience."

Hi, Mom! may not necessarily be a great movie, but it is at the least the first De Palma film to brush up to greatness. Where Greetings developed his Godardian tendencies and his oddball humor, Hi, Mom! consolidates them with the Hitchcockian, voyeuristic structure of Murder à la Mod (which also existed in Greetings but to a lesser extent). It is a film without a concrete point of view, which gives its satire a dark edge, deliberately confusing the audience until we become as complicit in what we see as the filmmakers themselves.

De Palma sets the film's first shot in the first-person perspective of Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), the unsuccessful draft dodger of the director's previous film. Rubin walks through a fetid apartment only slightly less sleazy than its landlord, who leads our protagonist through the place. As the lessor omits over whatever issues he can and deflects the problems that cannot be ignored, the camera jumps forward, eliding with him. So is the camera still set in Jon's POV? He speaks from behind the camera, and when the camera looks into a mirror it cuts to an objective shot of Rubin, so we can infer that we were indeed viewing the world through Jon's eyes. That momentary break in the façade, however, sets the precedent for the routine shifts, subversions and reversals in point of view throughout the movie.

Rubin agrees to live in the ratty apartment because it faces a sleek, modern complex across the street, filled with tenants who leave their windows open. The price of the his flat, even at the exorbitant rate quoted by the landlord, is but a small price to pay for access to dozens of potential models for Rubin's "Peep Art" oeuvre. He sells his concept to Banner, a porn producer who hilariously sounds no different from a Hollywood executive, sifting through pitches to find what will sell. He's what Jack Torrence from Boogie Nights might sound like after home video ruins his artistic aspirations.

De Palma dashes Rubin's dream quickly too, but he uses this first arc to develop one side of his ultimate thematic point. With this storyline, De Palma undermines the topical character dramas of the late '60s, all the while toying with the artifice of cinema. The apartment complex that Jon films of course recalls Rear Window, but a number of its residents get their own say in the matter, awarded more personal shots that reveal them to be a mélange of contemporary types -- hippies, white radicals and a family representative of the so-called silent majority -- and De Palma even sucks some of them into his grand experiment. The housewife of the clean-knit family heads to the same camera shop where Jon is buying a lens, in part to spy on her. A sales rep demonstrates a Super8 camera for her, and the POV suddenly cuts to that of the demo camera, framing the rep as he shows her how to use the zoom and adjust the light exposure. The woman tests out the camera herself by zooming in on Rubin at the other end of the shop as he tests out his new lens by peeking back at her, a voyeuristic spin on that striking opening shot from Contempt. Everyone in the movie peeps on each other, sending the camera flying through first and third-person perspectives and face-to-face with constant mirror imagery.

Rubin appears to embody some of this confusion, as he attempts to script out his life to fit his gonzo art. He manages to woo one of his subjects, Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt), through a complicated ruse in which he presents himself as a computer date -- a nod to Greetings -- given the wrong address by the dating service. She pities him for going to all that romantic trouble and just can't bear to let him throw away those non-refundable concert tickets he couldn't possibly use now, so they head out to the movies. As they relax in a diner afterward, Judy discusses how the movie affected her and uses the film as a launchpad for a personal story about how she had her heartbroken by a man reminiscent of a character. Her description lacks embellishment, running through her life story in such a way that she might still be describing the film. Rubin, who tries to mix the real world with "art," such as it is, interprets her tale as a cue to present his own personal remembrance, which he embellishes to win her over, even working in details from her own story to paint them as star-crossed lovers. The sweet, helium-voiced young lady falls completely for this, and she begs Jon to take her, but he advises them to take it slow, not out of propriety but because he hasn't set up his camera to film them.

The cornerstone of the film, and of Brian De Palma's career to this point if not beyond, is a segment titled "Be Black, Baby." Teased throughout the film with posters set up by the radical (Gerrit Graham) pastes around the apartment complex Jon watches and an ongoing fake documentary on the "Black Revolution" that plays on the television sets in the streets and apartments. The segment appears in black-and-white, a touch that serves a key purpose: monochrome is the color used for old news broadcasts, thus giving the segment an unspoken feeling of reality. Hell, it's in black and white, the idiom for clear-cut fact. A group of unknown white people show up to the theater where the experimental troupe holds their much-ballyhooed play, where they are painted black and made to eat soul food to more easily identify with African-Americans.

The black actors, made up in whiteface, then turn on the patrons, shouting orders, using racial slurs and threatening violence. Graham's presence among the white audience reminds us that the act is planned, but the tension escalates so rapidly and the camera movements become so jerky that we get caught up in the moment. "Be Black, Baby" morphs into a horror film, as the whitefaced actors seem to beat one of the audience and yank one woman down and rip off her clothes as they move to rape her. Just as it can't get any worse, Rubin bursts in, dressed as a police officer. The audience of Hi, Mom! can now breathe relief, as we saw Rubin rehearsing this part earlier, but the audience of "Be Black, Baby" find themselves in a whole new hell as Rubin orders all of the blackface white people against the wall and moves to arrest them despite a bleeding man and stripped woman lying on the floor. The actors drag the audience outside, where they reveal the ruse and applaud, the actors now cheering the audience, the roles completely reversed.

This scene forms a demented bookend to an earlier bit where these actors roamed the streets soliciting white New York liberals to attend their show. "Do you know what it's like to be black in America?" they ask prospective audience members, and De Palma rings a great deal of comedy out of how many of these well-off white people deadpan, "Yes, I do." Back at the theater, the broken-down audience, having processed what just happened, suddenly beam and sing the praises of the acting troupe. "Clive Barnes [the New York Times theater critic] was really right!" exclaims the woman who was nearly raped. These white liberals immediately attempt to analyze the play and wax poetic on how they know feel what it's like to be black, and the acting troupe can only look on, dismayed. "I don't think they learned a thing," laments one of the actors, but the audience of De Palma's film has learned a vital lesson: like Hitchcock, De Palma bypasses personal connection for a grand emotional manipulation, but De Palma directs that emotion against itself, forcing the audience into becoming a part of the film, an accomplice to whatever choices De Palma makes and whatever tricks he pulls to connect.

The "Be Black, Baby" segment moves the more personal side of the story as introduced in Jon's "Peep Art" bit into the realm of the political, and the final act merges the two as Jon, radicalized by his involvement with the troupe, pledges to take the BBB message to the silent majority. He adopts the persona of an insurance salesman, an uptight caricature who smokes a pipe and engages in tired domestic speech with Judy. After holding a whiny but loving argument over kitchen fixtures with his wife, Jon goes downstairs to the laundry room and sets off an explosion to kill her and their unborn child.

This climax serves to tear down the silent majority of complacent, regressive living as well as the nihilistic radicals who only make matters worse. Then De Palma sends us home with an interesting send-off: as a newscaster surveys the demolished building -- interestingly, the news camera films in color, not the black-and-white of the previous verité footage -- Jon walks up in his military uniform, acting as if he'd just returned from 'Nam. He announces himself as a demolitions expert before launching into a rant about the futility of fighting abroad when the United States suffered so many internal problems (Rubin, having just committed a radical anti-silent majority bombing, equates the violence of leftists with the senseless slaughter of 'Nam by dressing up in his military garb). Finally, Rubin ends his rant and closes the film by waving to his mother and cheerfully shouting the title. What Hi, Mom!, in its epistemologically labyrinthine presentation, is either (or both) that Rubin has become the face of late-'60s nihilism, capable of destroying himself and waving sardonically as he does it, or that we're watching De Niro himself waving to his own mother, reminding us -- as so many lazy defenders do -- that it's all just a movie. By the time I reached the end, however, I was too bewildered and battered to focus on an answer.


  1. This is one of my very favorite films- in my opinion it was the first masterpiece of De Palma's career. I don't think people will really "get" De Palma until they see and are able to understand Hi, Mom!.

    Back during the De Palma blogathon at Cinema Viewfinder last September, Ryan Kelly and I were planning on writing a joint-piece on the "Be Black, Baby" sequence. Unfortunately, we couldn't finish it in time, but this is as far as we got...

    ZANZIE: Did you watch the theatrical trailer before you watched Hi, Mom! (1970), Ryan? That's what I always do. A long time ago, I used to save the trailer on the DVD until after I had seen the movie because, well, I didn't want anything spoiled. And sometimes, trailers do tend to give important plot pieces away: for instance, to use a De Palma flick as an example, the trailer for Snake Eyes (1998). It gives away the villain! (I hope those who haven't seen Snake Eyes are reading this, by the way). Then I realized that, when we go to the movies, what's the first thing we do? We sit through the previews and enjoy the trailers! That's what trailers are made. after all: to market. Not to serve as some sort of after-dinner mint once you've had your helping of the main course. For anyone who wants that, there's always director's commentary (unless you're looking for director's commentary from De Palma, in which case you can forget about it).

    But the guys who made theatrical trailers back in the 60's and 70's were smarter. Kubrick supervised all of the trailers for his films, and the trailers for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) are mind-blowing visual montages with nothing but tremendous music in the background, while the Barry Lyndon (1975) trailer simply consists of images from the film coupled with a droll narrator in the background reading out loud some of the film's reviews. And there's nothing in the trailer for Polanski's Chinatown (1974) about Faye Dunaway explaining herself: is that blonde woman her sister, or her daughter? We have to wait to see the movie to find out. The seventies were all about ambiguity.

    So it was only fitting that De Palma entered the seventies with Hi, Mom! while coupling it with a trailer that barely gave audiences a hint of what they were in for. What does "Be Black, Baby" mean, anyway? We see images in the trailer of Jon (the De Niro character) looking up at a poster of a nude woman displaying those exact words. "Be Black, Baby" sounds like a term right out of those Jack Hill/Pam Grier cult flicks. To make matters more baffling, the first scene in Hi, Mom! is just as silly as the trailer: the camera takes Jon's point of view as he enters an abandoned flat and asks a shaggy, unclean Charles Durning (his last name is mispelled in the end credits as "Durnham") if the place is for sale and if the conditions are safe. What's up with that moment when Durning peeks into that sink and finds a cat's litterbox inside? We're left with the impression that this going to be just like Greetings (1968); a random series of vignettes about young male imbeciles who try to make the most of what little time they have left. But gosh, we have no idea.

  2. KELLY: No, I didn't watch the trailer before watching Hi, Mom! for the first time, but I have subsequently watched it, and I would have to disagree that it doesn't give audiences a hint of what's to come in the film. Obviously, the trailer is removed from the actual context of the movie, as all trailers are, but I think the trailer does as good a job of approximating the film's unique sense of humor and politics as could be reasonably asked of it. This isn't a conventional movie by any stretch of the imagination, so no trailer is really going to do it justice. It's clear the makers of the trailer are trying to force the film into a more irreverent counter-cultural niche than it actually occupies, but that's marketing for ya.

    That opening scene may seem somewhat silly, but it also sets the stage for a lot of what's to follow in the film; the prevalent theme of voyeurism (since the sequence is told from the perspective of the main character's camera), the humor, the snapshot of New York class issues in the '70s. The movie is a collection of comedic vignettes, more or less, but De Palma finds an inspired structural device in having Robert De Niro's character Jon Rubin peeping on a middle-class apartment building across the street. In a way, this sequence prepares us for all to come after it, especially the "Be Black Baby" portion, our chosen subject here.

    You perfectly articulated the question we are attempting to answer: what is "Be Black Baby"? My response would be that "Be Black Baby" is simply one of the most viscerally powerful moements in American movies. The movie posits this as almost a mystery at first, as the first glimpse we get of it is during a sequence that is, again, told from the subjective impression ofsomeone's home video camera. The whole sequence is told from the POV of one of the aforementioned middle class apartment building's denizens, and as she goes up the elevator (recording every step of her journey on her new camera, which we also witnessed the purchasing of first-hand) she sees an NYU student putting up a poster of a White girl, painted black from head-to-toe (with the exception of erogenous zones), with only the words "Be Black Baby" written on it. "What is that?", the woman asks, to which the student simply responds "A play". So, we have our first clue as to what "Be Black Baby" is going to be --- a play. Of course, the woman can't possibly know what actually awaits her as she attends the play, which is less a traditional play than animmersive sociological experiment masking itself as experimental theatre.

  3. KELLY (cont'd): Further clues come during glimpses we get of the experiment on the film's equivalent of Public television, hilariously dubbed "N.I.T. (National Intellectual Television)", which features sequences shot in the cinema verite style (handheld camera, black and white 16mm film stock). The first sequence shows the previously noted college youth and two black youth's approaching upper-middle class civilians on the street, forcefully asking them to take part in their little experiment. They ask questions like "Do you know what it's like to be Black in America?" (incidentally, one of my favorite moments in the film is when they ask this question to what appears to be an elderly Jewish person, who simply responds "Yes"), and they take the middle-class entitlement and phony intellectual liberalism of New York brutally to task. Sure, one may March on Washington, talk about civil rights while reading the New York Times over dinner, and donate to the NAACP --- but that doesn't mean one actually has an understanding of what it means to actually be black. This is the exact understanding that the College youths, who live in the same kind of middle-class environment they so gleefully decry, wish to beat into their prospective audiences with the upcoming performance of their play.

    Before we even get to into what our subjective impression of the sequence is, I think this quote from Brian De Palma would help shed light on what exactly the scene means. Generally, I think taking the director's explanation of something in the film is taking the easy way out, but this is an instance where I feel intent and result are as close as could possibly be:

    “First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it. In Hi, Mom! for instance, there is a sequence where you are obviously watching a ridiculous documentary and you are told that and you are aware of it, but it still sucks you in. There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved with it.”

    So De Palma is interested in the manner in which artifice in art can simultaneously bring us closer to something than we would ever get in real life, yet still provides us with the detachment because what we're watching is, ultimately, not real. No matter how 'naturalistic' the technique, the manipulation of artificiality is still there. A documentary that employs the verite technique, or an Italian neo-realist feature is ultimately no more or less illusory than The Wizard of Oz --- yet does that prevent us from being moved by cinema? Of course not, and with "Be Black Baby" I feel De Palma is uniquely summing it up what it means to watch moving images; we know what we're watching isn't real, yet we can't help but be grabbed by what we're watching and ultimately moved by it, even as we step out into the real world and resume our lives, because movies offer us simultaneously a door into another world and an escape from ours. But, no matter how affected we are but what we see, at the end of the day it's just a show.

  4. Thanks, Adam. It's certainly an extraordinary work. His previous features could be read fairly easily, but there's so much going on in Hi, Mom! that even when you figure it out it can leave you in the dust. By the time I was through with it I felt like I'd been beaten the hell up, yet like the Be Black, Baby audience, I found myself loving it for that.