Beginning with a point-of-view shot of the protagonist’s perspective and ending with that same protagonist waving directly into the camera, Hi, Mom! is a film that states a clear desire to involve and manipulate the audience. It wants to make you complicit in its senseless violence, its comedy, its voyeurism. It wants you to be aware that as you watch and judge, you are also being judged. A film like this wouldn’t even get made today in America, but if it were, it would be just as incendiary as I’m sure it was back at the beginning of the 70s.
Practically formless, Hi, Mom! is composed more of a string of related scenes rather than a straightforward narrative. There’s Jon Rubin, just back from Vietnam, who wants to film the people in the housing project across the road from him and sell the footage to discerning buyers. And in the windows of that housing project, we have: the family of four whose mother remarks that their housing project is much nicer than the others down the street (it’s exactly the same); the playboy who forcefully beds a different woman each night; the cute girl who Jon attempts to seduce; and the young actor staging a play called ‘Be Black, Baby!’ with some African-American friends, and the audience for that play. Through all of these characters, these ciphers who do not remotely represent real individuals but instead stand for collective groups of society, De Palma turns his gaze on the American public and says ‘Something ain’t right’. And he does it with a wink and a smile, daring you to distance yourself from it.
As I said, it’s a string of related scenes with not much tying them together narrative-wise; still, many of these scenes are excellent. The absurdly optmistic footage shot by the well-to-do family makes light of a situation most would be disappointed with; little is more depressing than someone trying to say they’re happy with their lot when really, they’re not. Jon’s routines with the cute girl are extremely manipulative, but I found myself laughing along with them because Jon was intended to be a source of amusement – wasn’t he?
Then there’s the performance of ‘Be Black, Baby!’, for which the film’s upbeat soundtrack stops and we descend into hell for several harrowing minutes. It’s the moment in the film where you realise how twisted it’s been all along, how you are just as involved in it as these audience members are in the play. It’s truly horrifying to watch, creating an incredible sense of dread that eventually does spill over into our deepest revulsions. And suddenly, Jon appears to play his part, and we’re back where we were – aware once again that it is just a film, just a performance, as if his presence on screen reassures us. The audience’s eager recommendation of the play at its end is, I suppose, akin to my little ‘R’ at the top of the post there – I felt angry and confused, but I’m damned if I didn’t enjoy it just a bit, or feel like I learned something.
After that, Jon loses it and… well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but his actions are outrageously senseless, and they are coupled with that same upbeat music that keeps telling you everything’s going to be all right. A character called Joe King (say it out loud, fast) succinctly sums up the film’s agenda, but is listed in the credits as a real person. Then Jon interrupts to register his disgust because, among other things, Mr. King hasn’t been to war and seen what he’s seen. Finally, he says hello to his mother, and smiles and waves directly at us.
What to take from all this? Is he reminding us one last time that it’s all just a performance and we can go home and recommend it to our friends and family? Or is he saying that it is us, the audience, that spawned him and brought him to commit such heinous acts? This is the earliest film I’ve seen that really manipulates the audience and incorporates them into its agenda, and it does it very effectively; in a way, its lack of structure helps its impact. You won’t be able to sit through it and not have a reaction. Just quietly, this is a film that came out of nowhere, almost completely unheralded, and pretty well stunned me.