Due to the fairly well received Greetings (1968), Brian De Palma decided to make a sequel. Not only that, he brought back Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, the voyeur back from Vietnam. Keeping with the satirical theme but addressing different issues this time and having a more structured feel for some of the time, 1970’s Hi, Mom! , like its predecessor, has its moments, but feels a bit all over the place at times. Another mixed bag for this early pairing of two future greats.
Hi, Mom! starts promisingly enough. A view of a block of flats inhabited by interesting characters, and some jaunty music in the background lend it quite an upbeat start and you already get the feeling that this will be a more structured, straight-forward film than Greetings was. When we see De Niro’s Jon Rubin you know he is obviously going to be the star of the show this time, as opposed to Greetings where his work was shared with the other two main characters. Jon Rubin has returned from the Vietnam War as an aspiring pornographer, using the flats that we see in the opening credits to continue his voyeuristic tendencies and film the sexual goings-on of the unknowing residents in an attempt to sell his film to supposedly successful adult film producer, Joe Banner (Allen Garfield). But it’s not long before one of the blocks’ residents, Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt), is noticed by Rubin and he becomes obsessed with her. Not just content to film her, he wants to date her to, putting his potential sleazy movie at odds.
Now, despite its initial, very questionable subject matter Hi, Mom! would appear to be a simple, sleazy comedy about a guy trying to get his life back on track after returning from war, and continuing his life from where he left off, for better or for worse. But what makes Hi, Mom! stand out from other comedies is its darker nature and satirical look at society post-Vietnam War. A scene involving black people asking fellow white New Yorkers if they know and understand what it’s like to be black in America is an interesting one, for the time at least, and sets up Jon Rubin’s involvement with an experimental theatre company that brings out Rubin’s darker side. Has he come back from Vietnam any different? How can you adjust to normal life after being involved in and witnessing war first hand? How are a society’s views affected regarding different races during and after wars and such extreme events? It’s this subject matter that is the most interesting part of Hi, Mom!, and shows Brian De Palma as quite a brave filmmaker for discussing these issues and wrapping the comedy element regarding Rubin and Judy Bishop around them.
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The film’s most striking and confrontational moment is the piece of experimental theatre itself. Filmed in a grainy, documentary style, the black and white piece, titled ‘Be Black, Baby’, takes place in an old building where the audience/participants, all white, are shouted at and intimidated, forced into certain rooms and made to wear shoe polish on their faces. Jon Rubin’s role involves playing an NYPD officer, and arresting audience members under the pretence that they are black members of the public. An attempt to make the audience think and feel what it’s like to be black in America. Although quite a visceral moment and an undoubtedly brave move by De Palma, it does feel completely random at the time and it’s easy to feel like it was just thrown in due to lack of ideas or budget; something to pad out the film’s running time. Looking back, it kind of works in conjunction with the deeper issues the film addresses, and the scenes surrounding it involving De Niro’s NYPD character definitely lend him some credibility as it invokes the type of images he would later become so well known for as Travis Bickle in 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, but it all feels a bit thrown in, to the point where it disrupts any flow or continuity Hi, Mom! had. Saying that, maybe that was the point…
The final scenes of Hi, Mom! tell you all you need to know concerning Jon Rubin and whether his time in Vietnam affected him in any way. His darkly funny final line is certainly in keeping with the film’s loose flow, and pretty much describes Hi, Mom!: interesting, daring, random, humorous, and with very dark undertones. Like Greetings before it, Hi, Mom! is something of a product of its time and doesn’t always feel compelling enough to pull you in for the entire nearly ninety minute run time, but when it does it can be a powerful, interesting and intelligent piece of cinema and is quite a pivotal piece within De Palma’s varied filmography.
Extras for Hi, Mom! include an interview with Charles Hirsch, writer and producer for the film; a brand new interview with actor Peter Maloney on Hi, Mom!; and the theatrical trailer.
The box set itself, De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films, comes with newly commissioned artwork and a limited edition collector’s booklet with new writing on the films and an archival interview with Brian De Palma and Charles Hirsch. It is out now on Arrow Video.