An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #4: Hi, Mom! (1970)


I don't know where to begin. This movie destroyed me. It is utterly brilliant and insane and a certain addition to my constantly shifting mental list of all-time favorites.

First of all, anyone who still thinks Brian De Palma is just a Hitchcock ripoff-artist with fancy camera moves needs to see this and have their tidy little false narrative shattered to pieces. Hi, Mom!—part of BDP's early output of late-'60s/early-'70s gonzo-comedies that I once read somewhere referred to as his "Godard period"—is completely unlike the director's famous thrillers. It bears several of De Palma's signature thematic obsessions, but examines them within the context of wackily satirical, countercultural irreverence. And just when you think you've got the movie's bizarro tone nailed down, De Palma drops you into a new situation that culminates in one of the most harrowing and vivid scenes the man ever filmed, before tying it all together in mind-blowing fashion.

The film stars a pre-stardom Robert De Niro as the same character from De Palma's previous film Greetings (which I haven't seen but now desperately want to), an aspiring filmmaker/pornographer named Jon Rubin with a fetish for voyeurism he hopes to translate to cinematic success via a new form of "peep art." In checking over contemporary reviews I see that many people have noted an eerie prescience in this character's similarity to Travis Bickle, and I would have to agree, although Rubin's particular form of sociopathy manifests itself such that De Niro gets to play creepily funny rather than creepily tragic. The movie's first scene is Rubin's hilarious encounter with a porno producer who says things like, "Look at that cleavage! You're not gonna find that in a Fellini film!" and warns Rubin never to enter the men's room at a XXX theater. Rubin's peep-art ambitions fail, hilariously, but he ends up forging a fraudulent romance with one of the subjects of his peeping, based on a series of outrageous prevarications. She thinks he's an insurance salesman up to the very end.

I may be making it sound like a farcical sex comedy, but that's only a tiny fraction of what the film is. I don't want to get into endless plot summary here, but let's just say that Hi, Mom! turns out really to be two films in one, and the other one involves a radical theater troupe of black-power activists documented in black-and-white verité-style for an ostensible TV documentary. When the troupe stages their performance art it's one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen on film—more disturbing, to me, than anything in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, to name one film whose shock value I think has been overstated. And it's all the more unsettling for the sick joke with which De Palma buttons up the scene.

Oh, I don't know. De Palma auteurists can and have written about how the themes of voyeurism and meta-textual awareness in Hi, Mom! fit into his larger career; check out this piece at Reverse Shot, whose author agrees with me about the devastating power of the "Be Black Baby" sequence, calling it "the best moment of De Palma's career, and perhaps the key to it, as well." All I know is that the movie's wild mix of tones and uniquely skewed take on sixties counterculture did a number on me. I'm a long ways from being a Brian De Palma completist—I'd kill for a retrospective to hit Chicago, because if anyone's work demands to be seen on film, it's De Palma's—but this movie's iconoclastic gamesmanship has burrowed into my brain more than anything I've seen by him to date. Stay tuned for my "Lost in the '00s" feature, when I cast my lot in with the defenders of De Palma's underrated Mission to Mars!

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