Freud and Superman and Fellini and sleaze-house dens all make walk-on appearances just in the introductory passages of Brian de Palma’s Hi, Mom!, a quasi-satire, or at least a loosening up of, the malevolent Hitchcockian Rear Window. A bizarre-world antecedent to Taxi Driver, this is a film with Robert De Niro obsessively subjecting New York to his viewfinder until he is himself victim to and participant in an artistic nightmare. Relentlessly aware of its own spectatorship and shot-through with neurotic ambivalences, the film always has film on the brain, and the muscles, and the loins. But De Palma refuses to rest on this tried-and-true meta-textual laurel, instead wandering off – skipping, even tumbling – in untold and untested directions. Call him a Hitch parasite all you want, but Hi, Mom! commandeers Hitch for its own sinful purposes.
Ever since the development of film studies as a formal discipline, scholars have been mining a thick vein of self-reflectiveness or self-consciousness about the art form discovered in the classics of the medium itself. But it might be said that many of these salient observations are conditioned on the understanding that all films innately boast observations on their medium intrinsically, because they are the medium, rather than because they have taken it up as their conscious mission statement to always direct themselves back inward upon themselves and their productions. The post-modernistic acknowledgement of the self-reflective project in the medium has unfortunately paved the way for scores of essentially solipsistic, cosmetically clever commentaries on the nature of meta-textualism from nascent scholars who have, like totally just discovered Stanley Kubrick and have taken on the crushing responsibility of letting us know it.
But Hi, Mom! is too effervescently paced – simultaneously panicked and enchanted, unsure if it is fleeing its own moral crimes or running toward a long-lost lover – to demand that we notice all of its tricks. Although endlessly self-reflective, this breathless, maddened mélange of heterogeneities does not treat self-reflection as a compulsory necessity. It doesn’t always stop to ensure we “get it”. In fact, when it does take note of its self-reflexive qualities, the film rather perversely develops an affinity for heavily, overly flagging its self-referentiality – ricocheting between images from various viewfinders operated by various operators – to the point that the film is rather more likely to parody the self-reflexivity impulse than play sycophant to it.
So if you detect a semi-Antonionian awareness of the conceitedness of perspective, the drugs De Palma ingested were, I suspect, whatever the diametrical opposition of Antonioni’s regimen might have been. While Antonioni chills the bone, De Palma’s film boils over with hot-headed, frenzied agitation, turning to magma and reshaping itself every minute. De Niro’s nebbish stalker is introduced as peeping tom brandishing a handheld camera hurtling into the dark, scared passages of a New York tenement – a descent into hell. But thereafter, we get a Keaton-esque jolt of comedy where De Niro places his tripod outside his apartment window hanging in mid-air, De Niro filming his neighbors. As if De Palma wasn’t already Hitchcockian enough, the neighbors are presented as a fricasseed riff on Rear Window: their windows become sliding-door passages unshrouded like prizes on a gameshow, all wrapped up in De Palma’s zig-zaging revue-show aesthetics, as though the neighbors are being presented for us as gifts. This early on, the film is already wide-eyed and wild-eyed, bushy-tailed in the morning to the point of woolly, unshaven recklessness. With film as an out-of-control tilt-a-whirl, the only tranquility to be found is in the ridiculous acknowledgement of perpetual stylistic downfall.
De Niro plays Jon Rubin, and he will eventually try to acquire Judy (Jennifer Salt) for a sort of guerilla amateur porno that he has been hired to produce by filming his neighbors. But – as though flagellating itself – the film loses this thread as soon as you suspect it is about to congeal into yet another post-Peeping Tom riff on the oppressive dynamics of the gaze. Reminding us that his film is not stone-cut to display the cognitive commitment of a thesis traced linearly, there are new permutations on every theme by the second. The frame is always mutating too. At one point, a salesman glimpsed through a viewfinder helps a woman purchasing the camera zoom in, darken the frame, play around with exposure (a cheeky double entendre) and revel in a promiscuous attitude toward an ever-changing focus, all while De Palma teases us about his own skill at frustrating of our viewing frame. Speaking of lenses and frames with such obviousness and fervent indiscretion, the film displays the effusive self-parodic tinge of Hitchcock with weak knees on a slip-and-slide. This film menaces Hitchcock, twists his arm. It’s a Beat Hitchcock that, in some ways, beats Hitchcock, at least as far as brio is concerned.
Continual refrains to Jon living life by his viewfinder – trained on the people across the way in other buildings – do not advance a Hitchcockian conundrum where we slowly become raveled up in the spell of others’ actions, tied obsessively to the objects of viewership and complicit in the spectator’s gaze. Sure, De Palma does dive right into the schizophrenic shambles of his own lurid economies of sex and viewership, but really, this Rear Window retread is just a ruse for the film, a jumping off point so that De Palma can take every left turn he finds. He has no real interest in the people Jon is viewing, which is why the film eventually shifts gear to focus on an initial periphery strain – a collective of radicals putting on a play called “Be Black, Baby” as we learn about the indifference of the white race. Hitch’s old chestnut wherein the masculine agent aided by the phallic camera is undone by their inability to exist outside their own viewership is kaput early on as the film melts into a bizarre semi-pantomime of various strands of social anxiety pestering the early ‘70s. You may want this to become a Scorsese-esque descent into the mind of a brutal appetite-driven man, but psychological readings – any assumption that the filmmaker has access to the mind of the filmed – are verboten here. It seems as if De Palma has no idea what is happening and is as helpless against the torrential pandemonium as the characters are. What better way to mock the filmmaker’s assumption that they domineer over, create, and master everything?
There are a million other tendrils of the film’s many-faced, writhing-armed argument about the viewer, from cunningly contradictory point-of-view shots to sudden spouts of narrative exposition spreading across the screen like news bulletins. There’s also a proto-“You Talkin To Me” scene where De Niro, decked out in boy-in-blue garb, accosts a broom and a ladder as the film plays around in the space between human and object with cheerful abandon. Eventually, the wall between audience and participant fragments beyond repair in one of the most infamous passages of all cinema: a black theater troupe in white-face inviting a collection of white people to don black-face to experience blackness in a live-wire experimental theater show, filmed in grainy black-and-white 8mm as though we are observing a documentary. In a caustic purgative of the film’s comic exploits, the guerrilla theater show experiments with the limits of confrontational comedy, asking what it truly means to subject the audience to the life of the Other objectified by the lens. Effectively, the sequence suggests that almost all other filmic claims to bridge the world of the viewed and the viewer, the black and the white, the other and the norm, are hopelessly square and ineffectual, tantamount to cinematic auto-fellatio.
De Palma also sees himself as complicit in this ineffectuality, provocatively undercutting his own premise when the white theater guests ultimately reinstate an atmosphere of neutered, self-congratulatory realization. They dryly comment on how they finally understand what the black experience is, as though registering the physical experience – one of them has just been raped – only through a lens of practiced, academic distance. The film cunningly, cannily reintroduces the glass house divide with nary a consequence, as if mocking the ephemeral impotency of its own bids at radicalism in one final hurt-tickle from this constantly (purposefully) misfiring Seussian monstrosity. But this film’s self-mockery is almost inexhaustible, setting its viewfinder on a collection of totally dysfunctional people ricocheting around a frustrated contradiction of aesthetics as the film staggers in and out of coherence. In fact, it critiques itself right from the very beginning. Early on, we see murderously disfigured remnants of urban architecture strewn about an apartment’s open courtyard. The landlord seems to be organizing the debris into a particularly flamboyant pop-up art project, an obviously anti-realist scene that feels like a parody of “symbol-for-the-film” shenanigans: a character, much like De Palma, attempts to turn social destruction into creation and art.
But if the film is inexhaustible, I know one thing for sure. Hi, Mom! ushers the spirit of underground cinema, dating all the way back to Lewton and Tourneur’s WWII era jolts of sexual repression, social dislocation, and historical amnesia, into the modern age. And it does it all with an improvisatory nonchalance befitting of such a stylistically mischievous slice of auteurist lunacy untrammeled by the lamination of respectable cinema.