Sunday, April 1, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.2: Brian De Palma's Greetings/Hi, Mom!

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma. Today’s double-entry covers his 1968 comedy Greetings and its semi-sequel, 1970’s Hi, Mom!

Greetings Grade: 76 (B+)

Following the release of Murder a la Mod, Brian De Palma quickly started making underground films on-the-cheap in New York. The two most notable of his early films, 1968’s Greetings and 1970’s Hi, Mom!, showed De Palma a talented director with a strong sense of time and place, a witty prankster, and a man with a dangerous edge. Released only seven months after Murder a la Mod, Greetings didn’t seem like a film with much potential to go anywhere: it was made for $39,000, it wasn’t particularly concerned with following a conventional plot, and it was the first film to receive the controversial X-rating. But while the film was hardly a blockbuster, it managed to make $1 million at the box office and established De Palma as a major talent.

The film’s loose plot follows three friends: Paul (Jonathan Warden), a girl-obsessed young man who goes on several computer dates; Lloyd (Gerrit Graham), a young man obsessed with the Kennedy assassination; and Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), who dreams of mixing art, voyeurism, and pornography into something he calls “Peep Art” (“it’s like Pop Art!”). Together, the three chase girls, try to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War, and get caught up in their own obsessions.

De Palma doesn’t hide his influences- his Hitchcockian obsession with voyeurism is more comedic but apparent, he uses several French New Wave jump cuts and quotes Godard’s Masculine-Feminine, his fly-on-the-wall approach has a cinema verité feel, and he constantly references and parodies Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. But he’s more assured here than he was with Murder a la Mod. His directing in the former film was often engaging, but here’s where he first showcased his strength as a visual director outside individual scenes. There’s always something going on in both the foreground and the background of Greetings, which gives De Palma a chance to show what’s happening to multiple characters at a time. A notable example shows Graham’s conspiracy theorist discussing the connection between Blowup and the Kennedy assassination while De Niro and Warden run around Central Park trying to keep an exhausted Warden awake (he has to be present but tired when he shows up at the draft in order to look unwell). Comedy is too often a visually unexciting genre, and De Palma showed that he had the promise of being a revolutionary director within the genre (and even though he’s gravitated more towards thrillers, he never abandoned that sense of playfulness and wit he discovered in his comedies). 

De Palma showed strength in dealing with location in Murder a la Mod, but he outdoes himself in Greetings, where the seediest sides of New York (porno dives, hip stores, cheap apartments) teem with life. Greetings taps into the hipster Greenwich Village scene with aplomb- these characters aren’t as smart as they think (and that’s largely the point), but they’re appropriately irreverent and critical of The Man. The film is bookended with footage of then-president Lyndon Johnson defending the Vietnam War and the current state of America (“this is a pretty good land”) while the characters try their hardest to get out of it at any cost, be it getting beat up after provoking fights or pretending to be ultra-right-wing loons in front of the draft board (not surprisingly, it doesn’t work). De Palma’s decision to employ knowing, irreverent songs by Eric Kaz (including the fun “ this is the man’s war” title song) also helps capture the spirit of the 60s.

The film, which was written by De Palma and producer Charles Hirsch, has a rather rambling narrative that often feels more like a bunch of episodes strung together rather than a cohesive whole. Those episodes, however, are very funny, and these characters are fun to follow as they satirize conspiracy theory (Graham uses questionable methods to prove the measurements of the bullet wounds on Kennedy were off), the 60s sex scene (Warden’s increasingly ridiculous sexual episodes), the radical and sometimes unreasonable leftist politics, and, in the film’s most interesting subplot, De Niro’s attempt to merge art and pornography together.

De Palma best explores his interest in film and voyeurism in De Niro’s sections. The film often has that feeling that we’re seeing things we aren’t supposed to, but De Palma uses De Niro’s perspective in a crucial scene to juxtapose both A. Graham’s conspiracy theory story, and B. De Niro’s fascination with “private moments”. We think he’s following his friend only to find out that he wants to make a pornographic art film called “The Peepers and the Peeped”. He’s been watching a shoplifter (whom the paranoid Graham thought might be watching him), and he wants to both film her and get into her pants. When he gets her permission to start filming her, however, she immediately becomes self-conscious and starts acting. The film acknowledges its artifice in these scenes- no matter how much one might try, they can’t truly capture reality when someone knows the camera is on them. De Niro’s story leads to some of the funniest lines (“you want to bang her? Yeah, you’re a regular guy, an American guy!”) until he finally lands, inevitably, in Vietnam, where he flat out admits he doesn’t know why he’s there (all while trying to resume his peep art dreams overseas). Greetings is still a bit on the sloppy side, but it’s a vital piece of filmmaking that showed De Palma’s talent as a stylist and a counterculture figure.

Hi, Mom! Grade: 83 (A-)

His sequel to Greetings, 1970’s Hi, Mom!, is even better. Where Greetings established De Palma and De Niro as people to watch, Hi, Mom! gave the two a better change to show the range of their talents. The film drops De Niro’s Greetings co-stars as major players and follows his Jon Rubin as he follows his dreams as a peep artist, gets caught up in the underground art scene, and finally becomes a revolutionary figure in America. The film’s first half is a cross between an irreverent Godard-style counterculture film and a comedic, sleazy take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as De Niro’s Rubin tries filming the building across the street to capture “private moments” and girls undressing (and maybe, just maybe, himself getting laid as well). The second half of the film satirizes cinema verité, underground theatre movments, and young revolutionaries in New York.

De Palma’s New York is even better defined here: the opening POV shot has De Niro tour a particularly crappy apartment as sloppy superintendent Charles Durning (soon to be a De Palma regular) accidentally shows off the shoddy craftsmanship of the location (broken door/stove, a sink/dishwasher combo with old moldy food in it, bad furniture); it’s a terrible, overpriced place, but De Niro takes it because of the view. Look across the street, there’s a whole world of people to peep at. The porn producer De Niro courts for money meets him in a sleazy theatre (“do NOT go into the men’s room here, you don’t even wanna know”). The later cinema verité scenes showcase the clash between the bourgeois New Yorkers and the radical Greenwich Village leftists/Black Panther types. It’s a fully formed world, and there’s a master exploring it. That Eric Kaz wrote even better songs to fit the early-70s spirit of the film (particularly the infectious title song) doesn’t hurt.

Hi, Mom! is even more episodic than Greetings, but it’s also funnier and full of more bravura moments. The film’s exploration of the cross between the sleaziest porn and the most pretentious art is great: De Niro has a meeting with the porn producer, who complains that too many adult films have actresses who “have not been told who their character is!” and argued that “you don’t get that cleavage in a Fellini film”. The film also acknowledges its voyeurism and artificiality in more fascinating ways: long montages of De Niro peeping on characters invite the viewer to become peeping toms themselves, but we’re watching through a camera lens. De Niro shows his comedic range when Jon has to constantly put on performances, whether he’s messing up his hair to look like an artist for the producer, pretending to be a friendly square in order to get into Jennifer Salt’s pants (“tragedy is a funny thing!”), or in a late scene when he’s recruited by a guerilla theatre troupe for a controversial production called “Be Black, Baby”.

The “Be Black, Baby” sequence is the real calling card to Hi, Mom!: after peep art inevitably fails, De Niro is hired to play a cop in an unconventional bit of theatre. De Niro shows hints of the dangerous, unpredictable personality that would become more apparent in Mean Streets- his fake cop is vicious, and with reason. The troupe consists of mostly black actors who bring in white patrons. They proceed to slather blackface make-up on the white “audience members” and put whiteface makeup on themselves. There’s an uneasy voyeuristic feeling in the sequence as the film stock switches to a documentary-style. The experience is said to let the audience know what it’s like to “be black”- the actors terrorize and rob the patrons, call them racial slurs, beat them, and sexually assault them. When De Niro’s cop enters, he sides with the “white” people. De Palma lets us know that none of it is real only to make us doubt that everyone is going to be OK. When the audience is finally let go, they make patronizing comments about how it was a “great experience” and that it “really makes you stop and think”. They’ve gotten as close and as voyeuristic as possible, and even being terrorized hasn’t gotten it through their thick skulls that there’s actually something that needs to be done, or that they should be outraged over what’s happened to them. They’re “sympathizing”.

The film takes even more revolutionary turns from there, but it’s hard to top a bravura Hitchcockian/verite sequence like that. Hi, Mom! is De Palma’s first truly great movie, an underappreciated, gleefully anarchic black comedy that shows De Palma’s willingness to get political, get subversive, get provocative, and get sleazy, without apology. Its critical (and moderately commercial) success, combined with the success of Greetings, showed that De Palma was a real force to be reckoned with, convinced other young filmmakers (including Terrence Malick) that independent filmmaking was viable, and got De Palma a job on his first studio film: Get to Know Your Rabbit.

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