Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Auteur Files # 1- Brian De Palma's Hi, Mom (1970) + a little warning about spoilers.

This is the first of hopefully many posts about films I have recently watched. If you are averse to spoilers, it's maybe a good idea to wait until you've seen the film to read these posts, since I often detail parts of the story as I flesh out my ideas in written form. I write primarily for my own personal satisfaction, and while I sincerely hope others dig it, I don't enjoy dancing around a film's elements while making my points. I don't think it's what a film's about that makes it great or good or average or bad, it's how the film is about it that matters. If that makes me a snob, well okay. Maybe I'll try drinking my tea with a pinky finger pointing straight up into the air. I've heard that really enhances the experience.

The relationship between the 1970s and auteurist criticism is quite interesting. Up to that point, the canon of great directors was rather secure, with room to move for individual preferences. The emergence of the film school generation coincided with the death of old Hollywood to bring a problematic relationship between director-focused readings of film and then contemporaneous work: Allen, Altman, Ashby, Bogdanovich, Boorman, Coppola, Forman, Friedkin, Hellman, Lucas, Penn, Polanski, Rafelson, Scorsese, Spielberg and many others divided opinions in a startling way. Critical tolerance for cynicism, homage, the audacity of youth, and for large cinematic gestures meant that any consensus on North American film from that period was pretty much impossible, especially from the perspective of auteurism. In the present, some of the above names have developed strong advocacy from auteur critics, while others are more fringe tastes, being championed by one or a few writers to the surprise or disdain of many.
Brain De Palma fits in this second group like a foot in a tailor-made sock. My own opinion is that he’s wildly uneven, sometimes obvious, often gaudy, frequently pretentious, and rarely boring. I prefer his 70s work to that of the subsequent decade, and certainly to the 90s, where he seemed to lose many of the qualities that made his films fascinating, of not rewarding to me personally.
Hi, Mom is one of his earliest efforts, made before he slowly integrated into the Hollywood system and became a directorial presence to the general movie going public. Before Sisters, De Palma was basically an underground filmmaker with an attitude to match. Hi, Mom is drenched with satirical intent, some of which succeeds while other parts fall flat, largely due to the radical shifts in tone, a deliberate state of affairs that seems designed to keep the audience from establishing any sort of comfort with the film.
For many, the main attraction here will be a young Robert De Niro. He’s great in a role that seems to be the prototype for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but here he is working in far more jagged territory, his character essentially a prop in De Palma’s scheme, much of which would continue to appear in later films. The preoccupation with Hitchcock is evident at this stage, referencing Rear Window, as is the broad social commentary which in this case feels like a filmmaker trying to have his cake while eating it: the movie as a whole is one big middle finger to authority and good taste while simultaneously lampooning ideas like activism, radical activities like experimental street theatre and liberal bastions such as educational television. Playing both sides of the fence in this fashion says a lot about the frame of mind De Palma was in at the time, but it doesn’t leave a whole lot to chew on other than a general sense of his distaste for other people (Fuck the man, man and look at all those stupid saps who think they can actually change things). This attitude is deepened by the film’s constant mockery of its characters; when De Niro speaks the line “tragedy is a funny thing” the intent as commentary on the film as a whole is blunted by the fact that the character is clueless to the joke, the dialogue functioning as a gag played at his expense. This wouldn’t be such a big deal in a film containing roles that were fully drawn and held the possibility for sympathy or identification, but Hi, Mom is barren in this department. Everybody in this movie is set up for derision. I don’t necessarily consider this a shortcoming, for some of my favorite films employ this same tactic, but in this case it’s quite raw and shrill. It was possibly much more effective at the time of release, directly commenting on its surroundings, but nearly forty years later it feels a bit hollow and condescending.
In addition to Hitch, the influence of Godard is all over this thing. The film possesses so many conflicting elements that it’s hard to compare it to anything other than movies like Pierrot Le Fou and Weekend: a stridently anti-Hollywood opening scene, jump cuts, a title song (quite bad, foreshadowing later musical miscues by De Palma), inter-titles, abrupt detours into black and white pseudo-cinema vérité that anticipates later developments in the Cinema of Discomfort (Haneke, Noe, etc), improvisational scenes, and a sharpening sense of sarcasm that concludes in an blunt anti-ending. If it sounds like a mess, it sort of is, though it’s a rather deliberately designed one. In regard to Hitchcock, I’ve come to the conclusion that De Palma cheapens what he steals, but the Godard influence is more successfully applied, possibly because it was contemporary to his development as a director. It gives Hi, Mom a sort of time-capsule appeal, detailing a certain fractured mindset as the 60s petered out in all its dysfunctional glory.
This time-capsule aspect is heightened by the harsh judgment given to the bourgeoisie (more Godard), the examination of class warfare (more more Godard), the light-hearted romanticizing of De Niro blowing up an apartment building with dynamite (more more more Godard), and the overt commentary on Vietnam (ditto ditto ditto ditto). As a representation of a certain specific historical quagmire (the feel-good, hopeful 60s transmogrifying into the shit-hole 70s where Nixon wins the ‘72 election in a landslide), Hi, Mom can be quite riveting. But it could have been so much more; the blackness of its satire is lessened by the director’s withering view of human beings and what results doesn’t register as protest (which is what the best satire really is) but far more as a contemptuous screed. It’s tempting to call it nihilist, but then the problem arises over what De Palma’s getting so worked up about. Maybe it’s a nihilist recruitment film. If so, I’m not sold.
To elaborate, here is a moment that inspired groans from my couch: in a vérité segment, a group of radicals are arguing with some vaguely middle class denizens by a newspaper stand. The argument gets heated. Another altercation develops next to them between a man with a gun and the paper seller. The seller is shot. The rest of the group is so ensconced in argument that they don’t even notice, and the shooter slinks off camera. The documentation of seemingly random violence is straight out of Masculin-Feminin or Weekend, but the effect is less that of catharsis from the depths of disgust and more that of snide finger pointing toward the baseness and self-absorption of humanity.
Hi, Mom is certainly not a bad film, for it possesses an artistic ambitiousness that sometimes finds success, but it’s also far from satisfying. Some of this was obviously intentional, but at this late date, that fact doesn’t really count for a whole lot. It’s a bit like being cornered at a party by a strident and highly literate misanthrope. The guy’s dedication and communication skills are somewhat admirable, but it’s hard to understand why he didn’t just stay fucking home. I guess every get-together secretly cries out for a killjoy, and circa 1970, De Palma seems like a party-killing drag par excellence. Watching this movie will hopefully leave you with the impression that you’re not as bilious right now as he was back then. If not, then let me know, because I have some prospective shindigs that maybe you shouldn’t know about.

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