US, 88 minutes
Scenario: Charles Hirsch
and Brian DePalma
DeNiro, Johnathan Warden,
Gerrit Graham, Allen Garfield, Ruth Alda
Hi, Mom! (1969)
US, 87 minutes
Scenario: Brian DePalma, based on a story by
Brian DePalma and Charles Hirsch
DeNiro, Jennifer Salt, Lara Parker, Gerrit Graham, Charles Durning, Allen Garfield.
Back to screening room
(1968 & 1969)
By Jim Emerson
"Yeah, you know, tragedy is -- it's a funny
-- John Rubin (Robert De Niro) in Hi, Mom!
Looking back at Brian DePalma's career, it seems perfectly natural that he should move from quirky,
underground black comedies like Greetings and Hi, Mom! to highly
sophisticated, operatic horror films like Carrie, The Fury and Dressed
to Kill. The difference between the early films and the later ones is only a matter
of scale and genre emphasis. DePalma began making comedies which are horrifying, and has
progressed to making horror films which are hysterically funny. Like all the best American
directors, DePalma recognizes that horror and humor spring from the same source-our
inability to confront what frightens us. We have two choices: we can draw back in horror,
or we can retreat into laughter. DePalma knows that humor and horror are so inextricably
intertwined in the American imagination (recall Ronald Reagan quipping to his wife,
"Honey, I forgot to duck") that it is fruitless to try to sort out which is
which, to go for "pure" horror or "pure" humor. There's really no such
thing. DePalma's films are bursting with moments which are funny because they are so
horrible-and all the more horrible because they are funny. Conundrums like this are the
stuff of which his films are made. Tonight you'll see what I mean.
"I met a man in filmland, a patron of the
He bought my scheme to turn my dream into a peeping art."
-- Hi, Mom! title song
The first thing you notice about DePalma's movies is that he is absolutely obsessed, and in love, with
the medium. Rarely has the cinema seen such a fluid visual imagination. Always acutely
aware that films are made to be watched by audiences in theatres, he pulls us into his
film-stories using hand-held camera, character point-of-view shots, and other audience
identification techniques-then turns the film around on us, tossing us back into our seats
and reminding us that we're watching a movie by slipping in Godardian inter-titles, jump
cuts, split-screen, slow-motion, fast-motion, fancy wipes and dissolves, and anything else
you can think of that can be done with a movie camera, an optical printer and a moviola.
The artist is clearly in his element, and that's what makes DePalma's films such a joy to
Greetings, DePalma's 1968
anti-military/anti-war movie melange, was the first of his films to find an audience. In
fact, it was so successful that Hi, Mom! was conceived as a sequel (originally to
be called Son of Greetings). Greetings is an ebullient, brazenly disturbing
mixture of movie-movie acrobatics and American counter-culture politics in the manner of
pre-1968 Godard. Critics have emphasized over and over DePalma's debt to filmmakers such
as Jean-Luc Godard and (especially over-emphasized) Alfred Hitchcock. In Greetings,
Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, another hip youth-cult film of the time, also looms
large. But the filmmaker whose spectre really presides over this film is that of Abraham
Zapruder, the man who made the most famous 8-mm home movie of the Kennedy assassination at
The first thing we see in DePalma's movie is a television set carrying a speech by President
Johnson. In front of the set sits a book: Six Seconds in Dallas. Greetings, made
five years after the assassination, is a picture of a nation obsessed with six seconds of
Kodak movie film. Right away, DePalma begins detailing the dissolution of the barrier
between the personal and the political in American society; just as, in this and
subsequent films, he will dissolve the barrier between the film and the audience, between
horror and humor, between public and private.
"Peeping through my window / Seeing life on
-- Hi, Mom! title song
All of these elements are operating splendidly in the first shot of Greetings. President
Johnson, giving a televised speech, is speaking both to the audience there in the
auditorium with him and the audience watching him on TV. In front of the television set on
which we are watching him is a coffee pot, partially obscuring a portion of the screen.
We're not just watching Johnson on TV, we're watching him on a particular TV set in a
particular room in someone's home somewhere-which puts us at three steps remove from that
hall where we see Johnson speaking. When Johnson turns to the camera to address a question
directly to his audience, we experience a strange, chinese-box sensation. Johnson,
speaking directly to the TV camera, is speaking directly to the audience watching
television. We, watching this television set in this movie, suddenly find him addressing
us, too. The documentary reality of Johnson's speech becomes a part of the fictional film,
Greetings; all these layers are at once telescoped and compressed into a single
frame-within-a-frame. Appropriately, DePalma both begins and ends his film with this shot.
Even more tension is
added to the above moment when you consider how DePalma is playing with the dimension of
time: Johnson delivered the speech at a particular moment in time; the videotape of that
speech was broadcast at another time-say on the evening news; DePalma, after making a
videotape of his own from the broadcast, filmed the speech off the television set at some
other time in 1968; and we are watching that film now on April 14, 1981. Johnson, in the
moment he looks through the camera lens at us, slices through all those levels of
distanciation and the moment becomes an immediate one again, Time is trapped on film and
renewed. If this is beginning to make you feel dizzy, it should. It's this kind of
mind-boggling tension that DePalma's films thrive on. Each film is like a pair of mirrors
facing each other with the audience trapped in the void between.
In Greetings, Gerrit Graham plays Lloyd
Clay, a conspiracy buff who finds evidence everywhere-but especially in blow-ups made from
the Zapruder film-which he feels proves conclusively that the Warren Commission was a
whitewash, that the FBI lied, and that there was indeed a man with a gun behind the grassy
knoll. DePalma, too, is clearly fascinated by the "frozen" moment in time which
that piece of film represents.
Godard called cinema "the truth 24 times a second." But DePalma, echoing David Hemmings
in Blow-Up, also realizes that the closer you examine a frame (one twenty-fourth
second) of film, the less tangible the "truth" of the visual evidence becomes.
One person may clearly see an assassin; another may see only a grainy blob. Part of
DePalma's fascination with split-screen lies in its ability to bombard the audience with a
great deal of visual information, allowing viewers to choose what they want to watch at
any particular moment -- like Jon Rubin, picking out the most interesting windows in the
apartment building in Hi, Mom!, or Allen Garfield watching three porno movies at
once in the same film.
Film is a medium in flux;
time will never stand completely still for scrutiny, even when "captured" with a
movie camera. So DePalma plays with that flux. In Obsession, we move from 1975 to
1959 in one apparently seamless shot. In The Fury, the past and the present
occupy the same frame simultaneously as Amy Irving has a telekinetic vision on a stairway.
And in Greetings -- well, there's that opening/closing shot.
In what is probably Greetings' funniest and
most unsettling scene, Lloyd Clay draws diagrams of bullet paths on the nude body of his
sleeping girlfriend to prove that the doctors provided the Warren Commission with false
information. Suddenly, in a rather jarring reminder of the film's first shot, he looks
directly into the camera and, on the verge of hysteria, shouts his assassination theories
at us. We thought we were witnessing what Clay's friend, Jon Rubin, will later call a
"private moment." What could be more private than this intimate scene in these
people's bedroom? But all at once DePalma and Gerrit Graham reach out of the film and nail
us to our seats. A private moment, blown up on a movie screen, becomes a public one. The
private and the public, the personal and the political, are fused. A decade later, this
scene will find its echoes in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.
This complex relationship between DePalma (the intelligence behind the screen), the actors/characters
on the screen, and the audience watching the screen, receives its fullest expression (as
do most of the themes we encounter in Greetings), in Hi, Mom!, one of my
favorite films of the seventies. Greetings is a funky, funny little experimental
home movie which captures the atmosphere of the time in which it was made as few films
ever do. But it looks almost like a quaint little time capsule next to Hi, Mom!,
one of the most radical, revolutionary, and provocative (in the truest sense of the
word-it provokes the audience) films of the decade. I've tried to avoid discussing Hi,
Mom! For the most part until now because I wanted to give it a treatment all its own
and because I don't want to ruin the experience for viewers who are seeing the film for
the first time. If you've never seen Hi Mom!, don't even think of reading any further
until you have. When watching intricate epistemological puzzles like DePalma's films, it's
always a danger to know too much beforehand.
BLACK WOMAN: You're participating in a play, and this
is your part.
WHITE WOMAN: But you're the actors; we're the audience.
The kind of certainty the white woman displays about "who's who in the theatre" is
completely undermined by Hi, Mom! DePalma seems to have set out to make a film
which would prove that, even as you are watching a movie, the movie can watch you back. In
1969, between Greetings and Hi, Mom!, DePalma made a film of a play in
which the actors disregarded the barrier of the proscenium and interacted with the
audience. DePalma was fascinated by this and wanted to capture on film, not just the play
but what was happening between the play and the audience. Without the audience, the play
was incomplete. So, he filmed the entire thing in split-screen-half the screen devoted to
the actors on stage, and half devoted to the audience and its reactions. As the actors
moved out into the audience, they crossed this split-screen barrier, moving from one side
of the screen to the other and blurring the separation between audience and play.
"You think people don't know when they're being
-- Allen Garfield, Hi, Mom!
DePalma, as I said before, is always aware that he is making films to be watched by an audience in a
theatre. He glories, like Hitchock, in drawing "mass emotions" out of an
audience. (Think of the ending of Carrie). At the same time, we in the audience
are always aware, because of his obtrusive technique, of DePalma's presence as master
manipulator behind the screen-or if you prefer, behind the camera. He may distance us from
the story he's telling with overt cinematic artifice at times, but it's usually for a
purpose: to allow us to examine our relationship to the film we're watching and the
characters in it at any particular moment. DePalma has been criticized for hi flashy
displays of technical devices such as slow-motion or split-screen, but the split he's
really concerned with is the one with the audience on one side and the film on the other.
DePalma never lets us "wonderful people out there in the dark," in Norma
Desmond's phrase, feel safe just because we are cloaked in darkness. He doesn't let us
feel smug about our voyeuristic advantage over the characters onscreen. He forces us to
acknowledge that we are engaged in an act of voyeurism and that, at any moment, we could
conceivably be caught in the act.
"Here I am, I'm back again / Recording all
my dreams . . ."
-- Hi, Mom! title song
Movies, DePalma notes, are a vital part of our lives-both conscious and unconscious, our
"real" lives and our fantasy lives. We incorporate our fantasy lives into our
real lives when we, consciously or not, act our scenes or bits of dialogue from movies in
our daily interactions with people. We all do it. To paraphrase from Win Wenders' Kings
of the Road: the movies have colonized our subconscious. We are often acting out
patterns we have picked up from movies we have seen without even being aware of it.
Filmmakers, too, absorb these influences and incorporate them not only into their lives,
but into their own films, as well. Jean-Luc Godard was perhaps the first person to make
films which were explicitly about other films. (One thinks of Jean-Paul Belmondo and his
"Bogie" impression throughout Godard's first feature, Breathless). DePalma, too,
makes films which build on earlier films: Phantom of the Paradise owes the bones
of its plot to Phantom of the Opera; Obsession is a variation on Vertigo;
Dressed to Kill is a meditation on Psycho; and The Fury is
clearly designed to play on the expectations of people who have seen DePalma's own Carrie.
Hi, Mom! takes its basic thematic material from two films: Alfred Hitchcock's Rear
Window and Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (In turn, Hi, Mom! is
itself a major influence, in terms of basic plot elements and De Niro's performance, on
his friend Martin Scorsese's 1976 film, Taxi Driver). In Rear Window,
Jimmy Stewart watches neighbors in the apartment opposite his through binoculars. DePalma
adds another dimension by making his protagonist a filmmaker who is interested in
"peep art," not only watching his neighbors but filming them. In Sherlock Jr.,
Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep on the job and dreams of actually entering
the fantasy world of the screen. He walks down the aisle of the theatre and jumps right
into the action onscreen. Robert De Niro, playing Jon Rubin, (the same character he played
in Greetings), becomes a character in his own film in order to act out his
fantasy of seducing the woman in the window (allusion to the 1945 Fritz Lang film of that
title intentional) across from him.
Jon Rubin, like all of us
when we "plan our day," fantasizes a scenario for himself, enters into it, and
acts it out. He first meets Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt) when he knocks at her apartment
door, claiming that she is his computer date (another element picked up from Greetings).
They go to see a film which Judy feels she can really understand because, in her words,
"I had a personal experience." Personal and movie (public) experiences get all
mixed together. The movie Jon and Judy have experienced together becomes the pretext for
Judy to narrate an episode from the story of her own life, in much the same way that she
would describe the plot of a movie. When she has finished, Jon takes this as a cue to tell
Judy his story of a similar personal experience. This is one way people become the
scenarists of their own lives, re-interpreting the past in light of current events and
exposing certain carefully related "scenes" to certain people. Jon tells his
narrative so that it overlaps with Judy's -- they've both been victimized by some brute
named Roger. Suddenly, they have something in common, and Judy is primed for seduction.
Jon, of course, isn't-not until he's got his camera
Movies are like mirrors held up to an audience: what people see in films depends on the experiences
(experiences from other movies as well as personal experiences) that they bring with them
to the theatre. Audiences project their view of reality on to the screen, which affects
the way they perceive what it seems to be reflecting back. Jon Rubin projects his
fantasies onto the little screen of Judy's window, moves out from behind his camera and
acts out his fantasy in front of it (thus preserving his fantasy on celluloid for future
enjoyment). In the same way, we project something of ourselves into the movies we see,
vicariously acting out the experiences of the movie actors/characters we identify with,
even as their experiences seem to be mirroring our own.
"I'm looking at you from far away."
-- title of another song from Hi, Mom!
Hi, Mom! is an elaborate exercise in point of view. DePalma puts us inside a number of movies within
the movie-home movies, television shows-even a porno movie, where we look back at the
audience from the screen's point of view as Allen Garfield turns to De Niro and says,
"This is your public." (Here's a real "mirror" held up to the
audience). The first shot of Hi, Mom! is a subjective shot from Jon Rubin's point
of view. But we don't know we're actually seeing through the eyes of a character in the
film (as opposed to seeing through the lens of an omniscient camera) until the building
manager (Charles Durning) turns around and scolds us for sneaking up behind him like that.
Even then, we don't know whose point of view we are inhabiting until, in a startling
reverse shot, Rubin/De Niro, exposing himself to us for the first time, yanks away a
curtain between himself and the camera, looks directly at us and smiles, "I'll take
it." It's an exhilarating moment, an exchange between actor, director and audience
that says, in effect, "We're all in this together. I know that you're watching me in
this movie, and you know that I know that you're watching." Hi, Mom! is a
movie in which everyone is busily watching everyone else watching. In the camera store, we
see a woman with a movie camera. In the next shot, we are inside that camera, seeing what
it is filming. The woman zooms across the store and we see Jon Rubin, a character in Hi,
Mom! who is now appearing in another character's super-8 movie. Jon points a camera at us,
filming the woman filming him, filming her, filming him, ad infinitum. Two mirrors facing
each other with us in between.
Point of view is a funny thing. Sometimes the camera takes us directly inside the head of a character in the
film we're watching. Sometimes it watches the characters from a detached, omniscient point
of view. Sometimes the camera itself becomes a presence within the action; characters
acknowledge that there is a person with a camera on the scene. When we watch a movie, we
know it is "only a movie," a recorded moment played out before the camera. But
we have been conditioned, especially by television, to perceive some film styles, some
points of view, as more "real" than others. A grainy black and white film shot
with a hand-held camera is more likely to seem like a recording of an actual event than a
well-framed and lighted Technicolor film in which the camera is steady and stationary. The
latter looks like a movie; the former looks like news or documentary footage. This is the
trap DePalma pulls us into in Hi, Mom!
"I don't make bombs, I make movies."
-- Rainer Werner Fassbinder
(paraphrased from the ad copy for The Third Generation)
"Be Black, Baby," the play which is supposedly filmed by the National Intellectual Television
documentary crew, contains some of the most chilling mise-en-scene of the decade. This
mini-documentary is an act of terrorism against the play's audience, the documentary's
audience, and Hi, Mom!'s audience. The play "Be Black, Baby" purports
to show upper-middle class white Americans what it's like to be black in America. It means
to give them a personal, aesthetic experience which will enable them to get inside the
point of view of a black American. Yet once the play's audience realizes that their
experience has been "just part of the play" ("only a movie," in
another popular phrase) they are able to distance themselves from it and, thus, dismiss
it. ("Dynamite theatre!" exclaims one abused patron. "Clive Barnes was
right.") They can never inhabit someone else's point of view, can never really know
what it's like to be black. But we, watching the film of the play, feel that we are there
with the documentary crew, witnessing the events as they take place.
Let me back up a little. A Godardian title card introduces
the final segment of Greetings as: "Two Views from Vietnam" (an
allusion, perhaps, to Godard's contribution to the 1967 omnibus documentary, Loin du
Viet-nam/Far from Vietnam). In the first "view", a cameraman discusses the
war in terms of photographic problems it presented. He describes how the presence of his
camera altered the "reality" of what he was filming. (He asks some soldiers, for
instance, to bring their prisoners out of the shade and into the sunlight for better
exposure.) The war, for most Americans, never really existed except in films. In fact, it
never existed until it was filmed and broadcast into our living rooms every night. In the
second segment, we are with draftee peep artist Jon Rubin on patrol in Vietnam. Here, the
documentary form itself turns Vietnam into a peep show for voyeuristic Americans who watch
form a safe distance. But the documentary form is a lie; it is just another form of
Which brings us back to
"Be Black Baby." How do we get inside this pseudo-documentary, anyway? Jon goes
into an electronic hardware store and in the window we see a television set flashing the
message: "N.I.T. Next." DePalma cuts to a close-up of the TV set. Another cut
and a television screen-shaped frame fills the center of the screen we're watching. The
documentary begins. In three shots, DePalma takes us out of one narrative and plunges us
into another, seemingly unconnected one. And we, quite willing to jump into any point of
view, follow without question. This is the same principle Hitchock uses to trick us into
identifying with the criminals in many of his films.
"Be Black, Baby" looks so real to us, not
only because of the way it is photographed, but also because most of the action before the
camera is improvised by the actors. Some people argue that improvisation is more
"true to life" than the recitation of scripted lines. (At any rate, wonderful
lines like, "I seem to be feeling quite degraded," could never be scripted). But
whether the actors are spontaneously making up their lines within a certain given
framework, or whether they're speaking lines which have been painstakingly rehearsed
beforehand, the reality is that these actors are performing in front of a camera and they
know it. In both Greetings and Hi, Mom!, De Niro has one long,
improvised scene with Allen Garfield-done in one unbroken take-in which Garfield is so
funny that he cracks De Niro up, causing him to break character in the middle of the
shot/scene. Improvisation is not necessarily more true to life, but it's often more matter
of fact about the reality of actors standing in front of a camera.
In "Be Black, Baby," however, we tend to forget that we are watching actors at work (unless we
remember Ruth Alda from the peep art window scene in Greetings). Except for Alda, the play
actors and Gerrit Graham, who Jon's neighbor's home movies has already introduced as a
"Be Black, Baby" actor named Gerrit, the faces on the screen are unfamiliar. The
play's audience seems to be made up of "real people." This makes part of
"Be Black, Baby" almost too awful to watch. I've seen audiences sweat, cry and
run for the exits during this part of the film. Then, just when the performance reaches
its most horrifying point, the rape of Ruth Alda with a broom handle, Jon Rubin/Robert De
Niro reappears in the guise of a policeman, and we remember that we've been watching an
act-within-an-act-within-an-act-that Jon has auditioned for this part in the play within
the movie. After this, the audience watching Hi, Mom! usually begins feeling that
it's okay to laugh again.
But the bad taste "Be Black, Baby" leaves
behind stays with us for the rest of the movie and even afterwards. We have been punished
for our voyeurism, for indulging our wish-fulfillment fantasies at this movie, for wanting
Jon to seduce poor Judy Bishop in front of the camera so that we could watch, for spying
at his neighbors along with him. DePalma has turned the movie around on us. We thought we
were in the superior position, watching safely from our seats. But DePalma has been
manipulating us, putting us through a peeping tom's hell in order to invade the sanctity
of our privacy out here in the dark-even as we've been invading the privacy of the
characters we've been watching in the film. It's okay to watch actors who know they're
being watched, we say; but what do we do when we can't tell if the people we're being
shown are actors or not? They could very well be people like us, the victims of some
monstrous Candid Camera scheme to embarrass and humiliate them. (Sisters
actually begins with a Candid Camera parody called Peeping Tom.) We have
become a society of voyeurs, watching television, movies, plays-and sometimes unable or
unwilling to distinguish between what we see on a screen and what we see out a window.
Those people outside our windows are no more real to us than characters in a movie. And so
we watch them as if they were out there for our entertainment. But sometimes, as it
happens to the Jimmy Stewart character in Rear Window, we inadvertently see
things we don't want to see. Then we're trapped by the knowledge we carry in our own
consciences, the victims of our own voyeurism.
ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS PHOTPLAY ARE FICTITIOUS AND ANY
RESEMBLANCE TO ACTUAL PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD OR EVENTS IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL AND
-- Hi,Mom!'s final disclaimer
In the final third
of Hi, Mom!, Jon Rubin adopts the persona of a mild-mannered insurance salesman
so that he can "bring home" the reality of oppressed America to the middle
class, blowing away the separation between the personal and the political in their lives
as "Be Black, Baby" has politicized him. His home life becomes a grotesque
parody of middle-class situation comedy domesticity on a flimsy, slapped-together set. And
then he destroys it all-the housing project, the kitchen appliances, the laundry room, the
doggie, even his pregnant wife, the unfortunate Judy Bishop. Jon discards the accouterment
of his phony life and, stripped down to shirt and pants, lights the bomb with his pipe and
runs away. The screen goes white, wiping away the world we've been watching for 80 minutes
The next time we see
him, Jon is dressed in a military uniform, wandering into a news report on the former site
of the apartment building he's destroyed. This is the Jon Rubin who we saw sent to Vietnam
in Greetings. He, like the other people the interviewer has talked to, has
objectified the world so much that he can only see how events affect him directly-he's
totally locked into his own point of view with no empathy for other people. He's the
ultimate voyeur. Avery Gunnz (played by DePalma's brilliant editor, Paul Hirsch) complains
that he left his wallet in the building and is really bummed out at having to get a new
driver's license. Jon is upset that he has come back from Vietnam, where he's been
"cleaning up the country," to a mess like this one at home. The interviewer says
that they're running out of time (and film?) and asks him if there's anything else he
might like to say. He looks into the camera and waves.
Is this Jon Rubin, the man who has just blown up his own child along
with its mother, looking at us and waving to the society which has given birth to people
like him? Or is this Robert De Niro waving to his mom, who for all we know could be seated
in the audience right next to us, and simultaneously reminding us that it's all been only
a movie, that building didn't really get blown up, that nobody was raped, and that the
house lights can come up now and we'll find ourselves in our theatre seats? You decide.
Originally published in April, 1981.
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