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