Brian DePalma’s 1970 feature Hi, Mom! is the director’s most reflexive and cynical film. DePalma employs all the trappings and devices of the Underground Cinema to an end that was beyond the expectations of his peers.
Throughout Hi, Mom!, DePalma shifts the film into various vignettes connected loosely by the narrative concerning the main character Jon Rubin (Robert DeNiro). These vignettes are reflexive in their execution, shot on 8mm and 16mm film stocks, differing from the 35mm film stock the principal narrative was shot on. Some vignettes are simply POV shots from the perspective of peripheral characters of the Jon Rubin narrative, whose point of view is seen from the home movie cameras they are wielding. For instance, a sequence in a camera shop begins with a POV shot from the perspective of a 8mm color camera a woman is trying out before she buys. She tries the zoom and focus on Jon Rubin, who stands in another corner of the shop. This is typical of Hi, Mom!, stopping the narrative so that through these instances of documentary style realism DePalma can scrutinize the New York culture of the late 1960s.
The most memorable of these vignettes focuses on a performance groups show Be Black Baby. The Jon Rubin character lands a bit part in this “play” as a cop. The vignette is shot on 16mm black and white, with the moving camera style of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentaries, lending it a heightened sense of realism. The performance group of this vignette forces its white patrons (all the performers are African-American but one) to wear black face while the performers paint their faces white. The performers begin to abuse the patrons, beating them, threatening rape until Jon Rubin as a police officer arrives. At which point, Rubin assumes the black face wearing theater patrons are suspect since they are “black”. After Rubin’s questioning, the patrons are dismissed, and talk to the camera (DePalma gives a consistent impression throughout this vignette that it is a documentary into which the viewed has segued via Jon Rubin’s television set earlier) praising the show. However, the performers feel their show was not aggressive enough, and at Rubin’s behest decide to take the show into the living rooms of the “silent majority”.
Hi, Mom! then resumes it’s primary narrative course with Jon Rubin watching TV and reading a book titled The Urban Guerrilla. On the TV is the last installment in Hi, Mom! of the Be Black Baby performers. They storm apartment buildings, only to be gunned down by their desired audience of white middle class nuclear families. Upon seeing this on television, Jon Rubin pulls a revolver from his pocket and shoots his TV. Rubin then resolves to integrate himself into the “silent majority” only to demolish it from the inside.
The trajectory of the Jon Rubin character is a strange and depraved one. At the outset of the film he is shopping for a new apartment, settling on a real dump. It is from the window of this apartment that Jon Rubin begins the first of his three misadventures. He concocts a scheme to make pornographic films by photographing his neighbors across the street, which he terms peep-art. Though he sells his idea and seduces a neighbor, the film fails. This failure prompts Rubin to join the Be Black Baby performers.
The third of Jon Rubin’s misadventures successfully ties up all the loose ends of Hi, Mom!. It begins just after he has shot his television in anger. The woman he seduced for his peep-art returns, now pregnant with his child. Rubin himself has obtained work at an insurance agency, which becomes ironic later. In this scene of domesticity, he volunteers to do the laundry. Once in the basement where the washers and dryers are kept, Rubin plants an explosive, obliterating the apartment building. Hi, Mom! then transitions into 16mm color film, standing in for a TV news report. Here, as the reporter interviews witnesses to the explosion, Rubin reappears in an army uniform. Rubin comments that it looks to be the work of an explosives specialist, which he also happened to be while on duty in Vietnam. Of course, the film’s title comes from this final sequence when Rubin asks the reporter if he may say hello to his mother.
Hi, Mom! scrutinizes, parodies, and condemns all extremist views and politics. Nothing is too sacred, nothing is taboo for DePalma. Even in regards to film criticism itself, DePalma just as soon elevates pornography to art as label Frank Perry’s film David & Lisa soft-core exploitation; to DePalma it’s all the same. The sympathies of the film fall not on Jon Rubin or the wide array of supporting characters, but on the peripheral characters. The characters confronted with complicated political questions posed by the Be Black Baby Performers, and victimized by Rubin’s camera and later explosives. These minor characters make up a greater whole, a stand in for most of what was then contemporary America. They have no strong opinions of perspectives, but live with the constant threats of either extremist end of the right and left. I would argue that this is the real message of Hi, Mom!. DePalma clearly wants his audience to see the problems of communication between all these parties concerned, as well as the moral dilemmas proposed by such extremist actions, no matter what the motivation is. Of all of Brian DePalma’s films, Hi, Mom! paints the most accurate portrait of America at that moment, and it does so in a very funny way.