It’s some of the seldom-seen UFOs in Brian De Palma’s career that can dramatically alter one’s perception of his work. Someone brought up to believe that the director is just a sleazy plunderer of Old Hollywood tropes probably won’t be dissuaded by Scarface, Body Double, and Snake Eyes. But show a poor soul like this Hi, Mom! or Get to Know Your Rabbit, for instance, and you’ll probably give your De Palma-hating buddy a nervous twitch. (It’s temporary, the neurons just need a little time to rewire.) This isn’t to claim that these films are masterpieces that will make true believers out of naysayers—Hi, Mom! might be, but Rabbit probably isn’t—it’s just that they exterminate stale notions of what exactly De Palma does in his work, and why. As a bonus, Orson Welles stars in Rabbit as an imperious bumbling magician. He’s Dell’assandro, and he teaches courses for tap-dancing magicians, but sadly we don’t get to see him tapping—no, not even a glimpse of the old soft-shoe.
The storyline is simple and goofy in a low-key way. A corporate exec named Donald Beeman (Tom Smothers) decides he’s had enough and quits his job without even bothering to turn in a letter of resignation. His dream? To tour the country as a tap-dancing magician. Donald’s fiancée disapproves, but then she just eventually disappears from the picture. Donald’s disapproving boss (played by character actor John Astin) is more insistent. He tries so hard to get his underling back that he ends up a bum, then becomes Donald’s ally and manager, and eventually, ironically, pushes the storyline into its most weirdly abstract space. All this, and a few odd digressions, such as a piano tuner who decides he’s going to start courting customers who don’t even own pianos.
Get to Know Your Rabbit falls in a long diachronic line of Hollywood filmmaking—slightly surrealistic, often very “plastic” and “fake,” not exactly dissonant with a Marxist critique of white collar corporatism. Its forebears are films like Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, while its followers include Mike Judge’s Office Space, the “rebellion” scenes in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, maybe a bit of Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2, and some elements of Albert Brooks. A more violent white-collar, bright-color work alienation comes in the form of David Fincher’s Fight Club and Marry Harron’s American Psycho. The message is: “Take this candy-colored, dehumanizing, high-paying corporate job and shove it!”
Get to Know Your Rabbit also has synchronic pals. It was made in the early 1970s, the period when many film buffs—not without some justification—say that Hollywood still took chances on risky projects, weird things, high concept films, or perhaps just simply “concept” films. (Some may assert that the corporate beast has once again allowed some conceptual invention and autocritique in its product. After all, it was recently that those films like Office Space and American Psycho were made.) Watching Get to Know Your Rabbit is in this way more comparable to Melvin van Peebles’s Watermelon Man, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, or De Palma’s own Hi, Mom! than any of the latter-day films mentioned above, simply because the era and the industry that spawned it were so historically singular.
Things could be really weird and conceptually ambitious then, not because the system encouraged it but because the system allowed it and didn’t always punish it. There could be loose ends, or mere insinuations of ends, such as what happens with the romantic subplot in the film between Donald and the Terrific-Looking Girl (Katharine Ross) he meets on tour. What’s necessary and revitalizing in watching this film is not to harp on its creaks and strains, its ill-fitting imperfections, but to realize that these things’ very existence pointed to the conditions of freedom and happy experimentation in which it was produced. The thumbs-up is almost irrelevant because you really were supposed to have “gotten to know the rabbit.”