Monday, November 28, 2005

Hi, Mom! (De Palma, 1970)

Made very early on in the career of homage-crazy director, Brian DePalma, Hi, Mom! is a film that captures much of what is so exciting about the cinema of the late sixties and early seventies. In order to reflect a world of tumult -- including racial tension, heightened political consciousness and sexual awakening – film directors often toyed radically with style, questioning convention and decorum at every turn. For those who have seen later DePalma films like Femme Fatale or Body Double, with their meticulous narratives, Hi, Mom! may be something of a surprise. Taking as its broad theme the increased public infatuation with media and the inherent voyeurism attached, Hi, Mom! also explores the arena of radical political theatre with scenes that fluctuate between comedic and disturbing.

Those unfamiliar with the kind of live performance that was happening at the time may find Be Black Baby, the play-within-a-film, to be an outrageous exaggeration. However, the audiences attending alternative theatre at the time may very well have been subjected to treatment very similar to the patrons that find themselves being asked to live through the black experience by eating black-eyed peas, donning blackface and getting harassed by the police. These scenes (in which Robert DeNiro’s lead character is only tangentially involved) are both extremely funny and very uncomfortable to watch. How serious is the performing troupe when they steal the audience’s valuables and then wander off to another room? How seriously does DePalma expect us to take the underlying political message? My initial suspicion wass that DePalma’s intention was merely to lampoon the absurdly aggressive tactics employed by performers at the time. However, when, later in the film, DeNiro’s character seems to adopt the spirit of revolution without quite understanding the artistry of personal expression, it struck me that perhaps DePalma was onto something deeper.

To get at that meaning, I first have to go back and tell you that the main thrust of the film involves a young filmmaker (played by DeNiro) fascinated with filming through the windows of other city dwellers as they go about their daily routines. Although the scenes he captures are only occasionally titillating, he receives his funding from a porn king (Allen Garfield) who sees the erotic potential of the endeavor. Perhaps in an effort to spice up his art, the voyeur soon inserts himself into his work, seducing a young, single woman while the camera rolls across the street. Unfortunately, she is entirely unwilling to go along with the script that he has predetermined before arriving at her door. Later, perhaps inspired by the group of radical theatre artists that offer him a bit part, the filmmaker begins to see himself as an ‘urban guerilla’ working silently from within the system. Where this leads him, I will not reveal. However, I suspect that DePalma is making some kind of point about the use of sensationalism in art and how easily shock tactics are appropriated by those merely interested in causing a disruption, in gaining attention without having anything legitimate to say.

All of this is accomplished in a loose, playful style that I wish DePalma was still able to capture. His actors seem to be using a high amount of improvisation and several scenes attain comedic heights because of the overlapping dialogue and the way these characters pursue their own goals. DeNiro, in the earliest performance that I have seen from him, is already a leading actor of great charisma and ability. The film’s lack of focus is noticeable at times as certain scenes seem without purpose; however, it must be said that this spontaneity is also what makes the film so endearing. In the end, Hi, Mom! has much to recommend and should make for a great viewing experience for fans of DePalma, DeNiro or films revolving around the political tension of the sixties.



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