Free Radical
Michael Joshua Rowin on Hi, Mom!

What in the world is Brian De Palma’s fifth feature film, Hi, Mom! (1970)? For those familiar with the concept of a De Palma film, this early-Seventies independent curio is at once a complete departure from his barely more “mature” work and a perfect example of the ambivalent countercultural origins that fed New Hollywood’s eventual “maturity.” With a title as unorthodox and bizarre as its structure, this . . . thing seems to be, at turns, an irreverent spoof on the unbelievability of television, the politics of free love and sex, the efficacy of “radical” art, and, needless to say when it comes to De Palma, the universality of voyeurism. That De Palma would be drawn, knowingly or not, to such broad-side-of-the-barn caricatures and screwball situations shouldn’t be surprising. If you’ve seen enough De Palma and don’t get by now that his work is as satirical of the genres it lovingly uses as it is reverent, you’ve probably already dismissed it. And wrongly so. What is Carrie but the most brutal send-up of puberty and high-school competition ever made? What is The Untouchables but a Prohibition era classic in not-quite-convincing drag? Or, similarly, any of De Palma’s films that just barely get away with being so endearingly cheesy and brilliant? More than being indebted to the past, and the inevitable “H” word, De Palma’s films are inconceivable without a very modern, knowing sense of comedy alongside form and intent. In Hi, Mom!, comedy is meant to diffuse the profound artistic and ideological tension at the heart of the film. It’s plenty funny, but can’t quite accomplish this impossible task.

Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro), the same character from 1968’s Greetings, begins Hi, Mom! as a hopeful amateur pornographer and ends up becoming a failed star of one his own films, an experimental theater actor, a “black” militant, and a lone anarchist. With a smile not dissimilar to Alfred E. Newman’s gap-toothed grin, Rubin purchases a Greenwich Village dump so he can set up a camera and film his neighbors in various acts of undress and copulation, a new form of porno he terms “peep art.” Rubin seems to be part of a movie parody of a television program; everybody around him is a “type.” After buying the apartment from a disgusting, shifty landlord, the film launches into its opening credit sequence, with an uplifting pop theme song more suited for Laverne and Shirley. But instead of a tourist montage of the sights of Manhattan—Rubin sprinting by the Empire State Building or Carnegie Hall on his way to the New York Times mailroom—Hi, Mom! introduces us to our hero filming out of his window and making his way to the headquarters of an adult film company. In these improvised scenes De Palma’s satirical aim is set on the bluster of industry: Joe Banner (Allen Garfield), the porno kingpin to whom Rubin peddles his idea, is a caricature of the twin corruptions of enterprise and sleaze, allowed because of his expertise to endlessly talk over Rubin and then make laughable claims for the merit of his work (explaining that the actress in the film they’re watching hasn’t received the right direction, he asks, “You think that’s funny? What’s gonna happen when her mother sees that picture?”)

We’re in more familiar De Palma territory once Rubin sets up his telescopic camera (a scene in a store demonstrates the manipulation of exposure, zoom, and focus) and begins his work, which Banner titles “Confessions of a Peeping Jon.” One might dismiss it as an early homage to Rear Window, but it doesn’t function the way one would expect. The four windows of the apartment across the street don’t provide entrance into a murder mystery, but instead provide glimpses of metropolitan life circa 1970. There’s an NYU student radical, a womanizing playboy, three bachelorette roommates, and a nuclear family, all of whom love to record moving pictures—the student for artistic and political purposes, the playboy for erotic seductions, the family for familial documents—or else watch them. The watcher is Judy Bishop, one of the bachelorettes, who spends her time when her roommates go out on dates vacuuming and watching the television. While Rubin records her activities he fantasizes being Miss Lonely Hearts’ suitor, which leads him to hatch a plot to make his peep art more than a collection of “found” moments. Pretending to be a computer date, Rubin easily seduces lonely Judy and, using a timing device on his camera, returns to her place the next day to become an active participant in his work. Both De Palma and De Niro gleefully use oversized comic gestures for this screwball comedy, with the latter supplying a faux-WASP accent to sell his rambling tall tales and the former cartoonizing it all with jump cuts and rapid motion.

The Jon Rubin–Judy Bishop romance exemplifies Hi, Mom!’s comedic tendency at its cutest and quaintest. De Palma’s take on modern courtship is typically perverse, making explicit the barely contained perversity and violation of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but its attempts at progressiveness—Judy throwing herself at Jon on their second date with complete uninhibitedness, leading Jon to purchase contraceptives which are proudly paraded (i.e., stretched) in front of the camera—exemplify the vibrant freedom of its time without really transcending it. But the film’s next “episode,” what many refer to as the “Be Black Baby” segment, is its sharpest, funniest, most observant, and most disturbing. It’s also the best moment of De Palma’s career, and perhaps the key to it, as well.

An earlier interlude introduced, via a “National Intellectual Television” cinema verité documentary, a troupe of actors—a black man, a black woman, and the white NYU student—handing out flyers and provoking arguments in order to badger people into attending their theatrical production, titled “Be Black Baby.” “Excuse me, sir, do you know what it’s like to be black in America?” the woman asks. “Yes,” a white man answers, totally deadpan. The question and response point out the profound disconnect and misunderstanding between left-wing radicalism and its proposed audience of potential converts. Likewise filmed for “N.I.T.,” “Be Black Baby” intends for its white, liberal audience to not just “intellectualize” being black, but to really “feel what it’s like.” Audience members are led up a flight of stairs, at each level learning a bit more about the Other by touching the skin and hair of the cast, eating “black food” (the force-feeding of black eyed peas and pigs’ feet to the gagging audience is a blunt metaphor for the “Be Black Baby” experience as a whole), and then getting smeared with blackface. After members of the cast—in whiteface—aggressively take purses and wallets from the audience, physical violence is threatened. The mood, increasingly charged throughout, has now built to a screaming pitch of danger, hostility, and unpredictability. The planted white student pulls a gun on the black cast and leads the way to safety, only to turn around and aim it back at the audience, forcing them to stand and watch as two black men (again, in white face) attempt to rape one of the haughty, stuck-up Westchester women who only wanted to come to the theater for a good, safe experience of cultural enrichment. Rubin, who joined the cast after his failed “peep art” project, barges in as a cop. But rather than arrest the rapists and their white accomplice, Rubin arrests the audience, treating them to a terrifying display of authoritarian bullying.

The white liberals are then shown the door, made aware that this flagrant overstepping of boundaries was the show’s method of entering the black experience. The punch line, of course, is that the audience actually loves this extreme example of the Living Theater of Cruelty, or at least justifies its excesses. “It should be called ‘Humiliate the Honky,’” says one stunned theatergoer, even as he gives his thumbs up. “Clive Barnes was right!” raves another. Those damn liberals, they’ve intellectualized even this! De Palma himself, through the immediacy of “cinema verité”—with gritty “documentary” images shot in the unquestionable veracity of black-and-white—aligns our sympathies with the tricked audience while also letting us in on the trick. In the end, the political and social message of “Be Black Baby,” of forcing others to “feel what it’s like” to be something they’re not in the most violating way possible—the greatest illusion, power, and responsibility of all art—dissipates the moment the con is revealed to the mark. Though this constitutes the overarching theme of all De Palma’s work, in which manipulation is time and again undermined and accentuated with disclosure of its mechanics, it’s most powerfully felt here, in a real life setting far more difficult to recuperate from than the entertaining make-believe of the later films. Hitchcock aside, the greatest influence on early De Palma is Jean-Luc Godard, and De Palma’s sharp comedic strategy for making that other Master’s lessons relevant, rewarding and unmistakably American (this during Godard’s own “Be Black Baby” period, the Dziga Vertov days) is one of the underappreciated facets of his diverse talents.

Acknowledging the aesthetic and revolutionary cul de sac of “Be Black Baby,” Rubin inspires the leftist troupe to change their tactics, to bring their message directly to the people through violence. The film at this point literally and figuratively explodes. Another episode of this by-now demented variety show (all such episodes, it should be noted, are introduced with onscreen graphics) has the actors/militants plan a take over of bourgeois, white apartment complexes, but in carrying out their strategy they’re ambushed in turn. Rubin watches it all on television (while reading The Urban Guerrilla), smashing it to pieces when his plan goes awry. The next stop, logically, is anarchy. Jon and Judy play bourgeois husband and wife in the latest spoof, volleying a series of vapid clichés back and forth until Jon lights a stick of dynamite in the washer and blows the building sky high. The punch line? Interviewed at the scene of the explosion, Rubin defends his action without giving himself away and then asks if he could say just one more thing. “Hi, Mom!” he shouts into the camera. Freeze frame. Cheesy sitcom music. End credits.

If the enduring afterimage of Hi, Mom! is its unforgettable “Be Black Baby” sequence, with most of the film’s other points and parodies lost in its countercultural bouillabaisse, there should still be left room to explore the greater ramifications of this madcap essay film. According to David James’s thesis in Allegories of Cinema, every film is a metaphor for its own mode of production and economic-ideological stance vis-à-vis Hollywood. If we follow that line of thought, Hi, Mom! can be seen as a radical act of protest against Hollywood in its unabashed self-reflexivity and disdainful relationship to narrative cohesion, character identification, and formal homogeneity. But at the same time De Palma’s refusal to promote a viable alternative—rejected in Rubin’s (and other’s) self-indulgent amateur movies, in the commercially and ideologically recuperated radicalism of “Be Black Baby” (both the play and the “documentary”), and in the consistently mocked hokey television tropes—necessitates a similar refusal of any focused political or aesthetic agenda. Thus even the “variety format” of Hi, Mom! must be abandoned or, to be more accurate, whipped into a frenzy that brings about its own demise. Unable to contain its own anarchic impulses within the parameters of such an atypical, “open” format, and unable to resolve the tension of its struggle between the revolutionary cause and individualistic rebellion, the film’s climactic destruction of life and property—ideologically unjustifiable despite the ugliness of its targets—logically dictates the final curtain for the film itself and, metaphorically, independent filmmaking altogether.

Indeed, with a big bang, Rubin’s desperate, apolitical act effectively concluded the first phase of De Palma’s career. Fired from postproduction on Get to Know Your Rabbit and thoroughly practiced for his studio debut Obsession with the subversive but nonetheless Hollywood-minded Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise, Hi, Mom! is the last “pure” and violently opposed independent De Palma release, the most valuable clue to understanding the nihilistic skepticism of art and politics (and political art) lurking just below the surface of everything he subsequently laid his hands on. De Palma suggests in Hi, Mom! that if neither art nor action can be trusted in the ability to provide “the truth”—if the tricks that cause us to “feel what it’s like” only remain merely that, tricks—then one can at the very least make a terrific ruckus in bringing us to awareness of this unavoidable contradiction, smearing our faces in it while laughing at the mess.