Thursday, September 10, 2009

De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (and "Be Black, Baby")

Tata Sky has recently added TCM, MGM, NDTV Lumiere and WB to its package of movie channels, which means I have to rethink my reluctance to watch films on TV. It’s a joy to have access to TCM again after all these years – brings back good memories of gorging on Old Hollywood on TNT in the early 1990s shortly after cable television first came in. I’ve been carefully checking schedules for the next few days on the Tata Sky menu and setting reminders, but it usually isn’t possible to keep two hours free at a specified time, given my very erratic work schedule these days. So I’ve been contenting myself with re-watching bits and pieces of movies I first saw a long time ago: the early Paul Newman-starrer Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Yearling (which turned out to be a darker film than I’d remembered – much more the story of a struggling family than a boy and his cutesy little fawn), The Merry Widow, Inherit the Wind, The Asphalt Jungle, many others.

And from a much later era, a movie that I saw in its entirety: the early Brian De Palma film Hi, Mom!, with the young, pre-stardom Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, a would-be movie-maker who sets up a camera at his window to videotape people in the building across the street from him. But this description makes it sound like a straightforward, narrative-driven film, which it definitely isn’t.

De Palma is one of my very favourite directors and I would find it very difficult to make even a short list of scenes I love in his movies (there’s an attempt in this ancient post, but it’s woefully incomplete). His best work has an energy, an understanding of how to use the camera to manipulate an audience’s emotions, that you rarely find elsewhere. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Hitchcock devotee, but I sometimes find myself in reluctant agreement with Pauline Kael’s assertion (in her review of De Palma’s The Fury) that “no Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense or ever went so far”. I love the way he uses devices like the split screen (notably in Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Carrie and Snake Eyes) and other camera tricks (the superb, hallucinatory climax of Body Double) to constantly remind us that we’re watching a film, and to comment on the relationship between the movie and its audience – it isn't incidental that many of his plots involve characters who are secretly watching or being watched by others, and that some of his most thrilling scenes have the viewer (us) being made privy to something that the protagonist is unaware of.

If you’re familiar mainly with the films he made from the mid-1970s onwards (the ones that led to him being unfairly labeled as a copycat Hitchcock), you probably won’t realise what a political filmmaker he was at the start of his career. Hi, Mom! is two movies in one: the first is the (relatively) conventional narrative about Jon Rubin’s shenanigans, but the second is an enormously disturbing short film (or film-within-a-film) made in the Cinéma Vérité style. Titled “Be Black, Baby” and shot in black-and-white with a handheld camera, this radical “documentary” has black actors interviewing randomly chosen white people and trying to show them what it feels like to be black: they force them to eat "soul food" and apply shoe polish to their faces, and then things get even more claustrophobic and cringe-inducing - until, in a classic example of the tearing down of the Fourth Wall, Jon Rubin makes a sudden appearance as a policeman.

Exactly how “Be Black, Baby” ties in with the main Rubin narrative is too complicated to explain here (I’m not even sure it can be explained in realist terms) but suffice it to say that taken together, the two threads have a lot to say about an audience being forced to actively participate in the film they are viewing; to stand in the shoes of people whom they've been accustomed to watching from a safe distance (much like the documentary's white respondents who had no idea what they're in for). Hi, Mom! makes it very difficult to maintain that distance. It didn’t get wide release back in 1970, but
its off-kilter take on the civil rights movement must have had a very strong impact on the few people who did see it.

P.S. Anyone who’s ever thought “Robert De Niro can’t do comedy” should watch this film, especially the bits where Jon attempts to seduce a girl by trying to be a sensitive, sexually reticent young man. (Just prior to this, they have a hilarious conversation about a movie they just watched together – a conversation that also touches on the viewer as participant; how people sometimes define themselves in terms of the films they watch.) It isn’t a brilliant, show-stopping comic performance but it has a freshness and an unselfconsciousness that you would never see from De Niro in a film like Meet the Parents. It’s an experience in watching a talented, charismatic young actor before he became subsumed into a star persona – not unlike watching Amitabh Bachchan in Anand or Reshma aur Shera. Incidentally, there are traces of De Niro’s Travis Bickle in this performance too, especially in the anarchic final scenes.

P.P.S. An earlier post on meta-movies here.


  1. damn it, this means i have to upgrade (and still not turn the tv on), right?

    sigh...tcm (wasn't it tnt?) i practically lived in front of the tv them days.

  2. De Niro's comic timing is evident even in Mean Streets, his first major breakthrough. Though the film is more akin to a tragedy.

    Even I've been getting TCM lately. Loved The Merry Widow. But was slightly underwhelmed having watched the extraordinary Chevalier starrer The Smiling Lieutenant a few weeks back.

    The Asphalt Jungle is up this weekend. A film that tops Kubrick's better known The Killing in most respects and also predates it by several years

  3. You might find this interesting -

  4. No more tennis post, what happened got distracted by abdomen injury of your favorite player ?