Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brian De Palma: Greetings

Though it shares only the most minimal of stylistic traits with his previous two features, Greetings marks the spot where Brian De Palma began to pull it all together, "it" in this case being De Palma's cheeky love affair with the artifice of cinema, his scatological interpretation of Godardian form and his gift for lowbrow, high-concept humor. As with both The Wedding Party and Murder à la Mod, Greetings discards narrative flow, even coherence, for the sake of style, but here his preoccupations with form at last help, rather than hinder, the film.

Greetings plays out in a series of gonzo vignettes revolving around a trio of friends: skeevy Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), vivacious, paranoid Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) and shy, lovesick Paul (Jonathan Warden). They splinter apart after the beginning, and De Palma spends the rest of the film tracking back and forth between the three, jumping away from one character just as they appear on the cusp of doing something. De Palma calls further attention to the division of the narrative via title cards, jump-cuts and, once more, sped-up film for any scene featuring characters walking between scenes.

As with Murder à la Mod, Greetings even bends the content to fit the form. The three friends spend the first few minutes of the film intricately planning their attempts to dodge the draft. They try on flamboyant clothing when considering the option of posing as homosexuals, and they act out the speeches they intend to sell to the draft board psychological examiner. In a manner reminiscent of Tim Roth's laboriously prepared "true story" that he uses to convince Joe of his authenticity in Reservoir Dogs, the men practice every syllable and enunciation of their pledge to go to Vietnam and kill everyone in their path, including minorities and other "undesirables" in their own units. Watching them is akin to sitting in a theater as an acting troupe runs through rehearsals, and their apartment even looks like a theatrical set.

The trio's fear of going to Vietnam is preceded by the film's open on a T.V. broadcast from President Johnson -- the entire television set is visible, yet another artificial complication -- as LBJ attempts to sell the public on the war, offering up the ludicrous, half-hearted stab at populism: "I'm not saying you never had it so good, but that's true, isn't it?" Left to their own devices, we see why each man fears deployment (other than the obvious reason). Basically, Greetings morphs into a free-from travesty of late-'60s issues.

For example, Floyd proves to be a vivacious and talkative ladies man who prioritizes his fondness for conspiracy theories over nookie. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the Kennedy assassination, and Graham uses his scenes to build himself into a frenzy, marking the supposed wounds with markers on a nubile young companion and looking straight into the camera as he triumphantly "proves" that one shooter couldn't have caused all the wounds that Kennedy received. In one of the cheekier moments of the film, Floyd holds up a series of photographs pointing to a police officer who fired the actual shots, but De Palma bleeps out the officer's name, as if the Warren Commission and other forces Floyd so fears have already gotten to him and covered up his revelations.

Paul stands at the other side of the spectrum from Floyd, a shy, wholesome boy who cannot adjust to the burgeoning free love movement. He tries out a series of computer dates (they had those in 1968?), each comedic in its own way. His first date is stand-offish and interprets Paul's nervousness as boorish lewdness, yet she intimidates him by flaunting her cleavage and legs as she shows off the clothes she purchased for their date. This synthesis between consumerism and sex suggests that the push for increased promiscuity is an orchestration by the very system the hippies, the most visible adopters of the free love ethos, reviled. It recalls the World State in Brave New World, a place that deified consumerism (even setting up Henry Ford as their god), where sex is seen as a fun distraction that involves the purchase of contraceptives to ensure someone makes a profit on love-making. Later, he stumbles across a revolutionary selling a far-left newspaper that fights capitalism through its primary weapon, advertising, as the editors superimpose images into the ads that connote what the ads are "really saying," a sort of superliminal message. Paul's third date is a foil for his first experience, as he meets a lady who's into eastern practices and attempts to align their auras and other glorified euphemisms for foreplay. The punchline is a devious premature ejaculation joke, as the two disappear off-screen to really align their spirits and we hear the woman stop and exclaim, "What happened to your source?!"

Rubin falls somewhere between his two buddies in terms of his sexual freedom. Not as successful with the ladies as Floyd nor as reserved as Paul, Jon is instead a voyeur, spying on a woman in a bookstore through a shelf as if peering through a window. He confronts her later after she leaves the store, and he claims to be an artist who captures what he calls "private moments" as if conducting some sociological study (he even claims that he's discussed the project with a museum curator). "You've heard of Pop Art?" he asks the increasingly awed and excited woman. "Well this is Peep Art." As Rubin convinces her to become his chief model and "actress," a woman undresses in the window behind them, further making obvious that Rubin has simply found a clever new term for being a peeping tom.

Rubin's arc holds perhaps the least social relevance, but the subject it broaches is likely the dearest to De Palma's heart. Jon acts as the hyperbolic stand-in for the growing independent movement, of which De Palma was still a part. The theme of voyeurism already popped up in Murder à la Mod, and we see Jon here filming his willing model through a window as he shouts commands at her to take off her clothes and writhe about on the bed. She constantly expresses hesitation and says that she wouldn't throw her dress on the ground the way Jon tells her (as if she's a method actress) but continues anyway, oblivious to the fact that acting against her natural habits undermines the "private moment" bullshit Rubin peddled earlier.

Her own overacting might be a bit of self-criticism against some of the performers De Palma placed in his earlier films (and this one), and it's but one of several moments of unadulterated playfulness from the director. Paul's second date never happens; after the title card introducing the date, Paul shows up at the wrong address, apologizes, and then the story simply moves on to other matters. One shot opens on a picture of a bullet on the cover of one of Floyd's Kennedy books, a particularly phallic object that only looks more so as the camera pans out and we see the book resting on the lap of a nude woman. One of Jon's stalking expeditions is interrupted by another amateur pornographer who pitches Rubin on buying his own films as if a traveling salesman. There's even a shot of a woman holding a copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Perhaps the grandest joke of the film comes with its coda, as Rubin finds himself in 'Nam after the draft examiner accepts his lunatic ramblings about killing anyone and everyone and passes him along anyway. Jon walks through the long grass as a television news crew stumbles upon him (we're watching their broadcast) and follows him as they come into contact with what may be a member of the Viet Cong. Jon instructs the crew to wait where they are as he moves ahead to find that the person is a Vietnamese woman and, as the news camera continues to fixate on him and the "VC," Jon attempts to make another one of his Peep Art films on the spot, communicating futilely with the woman as she somewhat follows his instructions. There's some sort of metaphor for the war there, but I'm not sure how. The joke is only made funnier by the film's close on the same LBJ clip that opened it, a cyclical action that reminds us one final time that it was all just a show and it'll start again just as soon as the staff come in and sweep the theater floors. So much of Greetings is unessential, even cumbersome, but this sort of carefree, self-reflexive attitude makes what would have been an embarrassment in someone else's corpus a breakthrough for De Palma. Is this the same guy who made Scarface?


  1. I recently went on a pretty big De Palma kick, but have not seen this one. Basically, I've covered nearly everything from Sisters through the present. Interesting review here, though... sounds intriguing in terms of comparison to so much of De Palma's other work.

  2. Well, I believe it's OOP so you might have to resort to other measures to see it. Surprisingly, it's the only one of his films that seems to be hard to find, considering the nature of The Wedding Party and Murder a la Mod.

  3. Maybe I should watch more De Palma films. As it stands, I tend to associate him with "The Black Dahlia," which was such a ham-fisted disappointment that the mere mention of his name leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Suggestions? Any De Palma films I must see?

  4. Well, before this I'd only seen Scarface, The Untouchables in piecemeal by watching bits of the TV edit over the years, and Carlito's Way (which I can still remember well enough to recommend, though not well enough to give a definitive opinion on the matter). I would just say to keep reading as I go through his filmography to see which ones I like. That sounds like a plug, and I suppose it is, but I honestly don't have an answer right now.

  5. Greetings is minor De Palma and it's got nothing on Murder a la Mod or, especially, Hi, Mom!, which I consider his first masterpiece. It's a funny film, though, and De Palma was bold to make it when he did. I liked that scene where De Niro was being pestered by the creepy guy on the street into buying the porno reel. The songs were catchy, too. "Spend a day or two with Uncle Sam..."

    Trust me, though, Jake: once you see Hi, Mom!, you won't know what hit you.

    And M. Carter: I recommend films like The Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale if you're looking for pure De Palma.