An online film critic said upon the release of 2000’s Mission to Mars—probably the film that demonstrates the single largest gap in perception between mainstream American audiences and hardcore French cinephiles—that there’s no better test case for the auteurist model currently working in film criticism than Brian De Palma. No matter how seemingly diverse his films are (or, conversely, how seemingly tied they are to the work of a certain suspense director), they are all immediately identifiable as “a film by Brian De Palma.” But too often De Palma’s films are looked at as simple, stylistically flossy, self-referential exercises using thriller genre tropes. This is unfortunate, because it leaves no room for De Palma’s reckless early films, including the stunning, complex comedy Hi, Mom!
Conceived as a sequel of sorts to the three-pronged satire of 1968’s Greetings (in fact, Hi, Mom! was originally set to be titled Son of Greetings), Hi, Mom! is likewise a film with three major threads, only all are devoted to the character of Jon Rubin (played by an appealing, floppy-topped Robert De Niro in a performance many consider to be a direct harbinger of his Travis Bickle role in Taxi Driver). (Readers should be advised of possible spoilers, and those already familiar with the film should be aware that I make no attempt to clearly streamline the film’s wild, ungainly plot.) Jon, a Vietnam vet, drifts through the film like a skuzzy butterfly, moving from one underground social environment to the next: first the world of pornographic filmmaking, next becoming an actor in a performance art-cum-social crusaders’ college theater troupe, finally landing on domestic terrorism. His enlightenment-barbarism is held against a distorted paradigm of flowering courtship rituals with Judy (Jennifer Salt), the girl with whom he initially wants to make his Candid Camera pornographic film.
De Palma biographer-enthusiast Laurent Bouzereau notes in The De Palma Cut that the film received rave reviews from adventurous critics, but suffered a financial failure that led De Palma to also consider it an artistic failure. But one has to take into consideration that the director’s greatest directorial strategy—one that incidentally informs Hi, Mom! more than it does practically any other De Palma film—is his attempt to make us aware of our role as an audience, and also our connection with what he as a director is attempting to accomplish through a heady mix of artifice, contradiction, and a hectic emotional pitch.
De Palma’s films are nothing if not structural, representational works of art, filled with winking moments that distance the audience from the diagetic details of his scenarios through their flamboyant technique (the slow-mo zoom on Nancy Allen’s open-book face as she discovers Angie Dickenson in the elevator in Dressed to Kill, the downright Brechtian finale to Body Double), even as other equally showboating moments are galvanizing narrative K.O. punches (John Travolta feverishly discovers his erased tapes in Blow Out, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos comes to the water’s surface in Femme Fatale).
If indeed De Palma’s own auto-critique of Hi, Mom! in relation to his own personal canon was informed by what wags sarcastically refer to as the “Hitchcock connection” (derisively calling to mind images of De Palma fixed on the belly of the Master of Suspense like a lamprey or via an umbilical cord) and that this early counter-cultural comedy somehow falls short on the required tally of Hitch riffs, it would be a shame. Hi, Mom! might have been only the third feature film by the director, but practically every trait that would come to signify the art of De Palma is at play in the film, many of them, natch, in direct conflict with another.
The most Hitchcockian riff that De Palma ever examined is the capacity for the human psyche to harbor intense, complicated divergence. But, whereas Hitchcock often resolved this tension by placing it in the context of a relatively well adjusted, normalized society (i.e. the long-winded psychological rationale that closes Psycho), De Palma complicates the archetype through his insistence on highlighting the equally labyrinthine tangle of contradictions behind social normalcy, knots that seem to cause individual maladaptive dysfunction. An early broadcast from NIT (that’s National Intelligent Television, the front used by the anarchist theater clan) sees the crew of black students taking to the streets with the intention of exposing the internal hypocrisies of the average WASP. Obviously baiting people to their breaking points, the students reveal the sham of social grace, as their targets are stripped of their reliable defense (their politeness and tacitly segregated racial congregations). This sequence is obviously the comedic setup for the “Be Black, Baby” performance art nightmare that practically rapes the definition of social façades and the lengths people will go to preserve them. But it’s also a reflection of Jon’s demented internal logic (to the extent that a cipherous figure can be said to have logic); in De Palma’s world he is portrayed as a man whose utter alienation from normalcy stems, appropriately enough, from the total absence of it.
As Chaka Khan purrs in “Tearin’ It Up,” “I’m going to make you wish there were two of you.” Many schisms in De Palma’s movies are tethered to sexual frustrations and confusions—basically anything having to do with sex that doesn’t involve supine boudoir humping. The Fury can be taken as a sweeping, apocalyptic satire of educational sex education films, charting the development of one boy and one girl as they go through a sort of psychic puberty. The attempts of adults to contain their increasingly virile state (psychic abstinence) leads to the ultimate sexual-murderous release. Hi, Mom! doesn’t so directly address the connection between sex and violence, but it should be noted that the film’s last act, in which Jon plants a bomb that demolishes the building he and a pregnant Judy share in domestic tranquility, is a sly joke. Being that Jon and Judy met under the pretense of sexual intent (at least according to Jon), the fact that Judy is pregnant indicates a newfound absence of sexual conquests, and every tryst between the two now carries the promise of further consequences. Jon’s destruction of everything that represents familial domesticity, like Amy Irving’s “removal” of John Cassavetes, clears the way for further sexual adventures.
Like the shot in To Die For of Nicole Kidman as a kid looking back and forth between a video camera and the monitor feed in an effort to see her own face on television, Jon Rubin’s relationship to pornography in the film’s first segment is complicated by his desire to straddle the gulf between watching and being watched. (The Rube Goldberg device he invents to film himself making love to Judy in the building across the way—which predictably fails—accentuates the comically Sisyphesian difficulty of bridging the gap between the two.) In its take on the relationship people have with their own image-making games, Hi, Mom! occasionally comes off as the work of a film student who spent his summer session on Marshall McLuhan blitzed out of his mind on acid. The concepts are all there, but they’ve been kneaded into a bizarrely funny burlesque of the “medium is the message” worst-case scenario.
With the “Be Black, Baby” sequence, De Palma manages to do with racial tension what he no doubt hoped to pull off with sexual ambiguity in filming Cruising (a project he lost to William Friedkin before turning out the thematically similar Dressed to Kill). Aided by a deliberate dissection of a very real social stress point, it is one of the most thrilling left turns ever filmed. The theme of voyeurism, which up to this point had been treated as a blue joke, becomes a hellish shattering of the seemingly secure fourth wall, both for the on-screen audience of upper-crust whites who attend the show, submitting themselves to humiliation, beatings, and broomstick rapes, as well as the actual film’s audience, who are basically cast adrift into an 8mm calamity without even the comfort of a recognizable character. For their trouble, the audience is thrown a bone with the post-performance reactions of the upper-class twits who exclaim, amazingly, their gratitude for being shown how they’re directly responsible for all of society’s racial ills.
There are, of course, basketsful of further stylistic and structural tactics that construct Hi, Mom! If the descriptions of the film’s collage of ideas and subplots all sounds rather daunting and busy, it probably is that and more so; this is, after all, De Palma’s Godard period (I say that without wishing to be flippant). In fact, if the film indeed has a failing, it would be in its unbridled, undisciplined ambition. Early in Jon’s would-be career as a pornographer, he pitches his idea to his decidedly uninterested producer (Allen Garfield, deliriously funny) to blur the lines between fiction and verité by filming four real windows, four real storylines. This not only predicts De Palma’s fascination with split-screen effects (he actually had already experimented with this device in Dionysus in ‘69), but also his fascination with the difference between private emotions and public “performance” (take note of the fact that the “reality” he’s filming across the courtyard is filled with sexual fantasy role-playing, or “fiction”). Hi, Mom! is an overachieving film that deserves better than mere footnote status in De Palma’s already far too marginalized career.