Hi, Mom is a memo from a time before ambiguity was systematically eliminated from the vocabulary of U.S. filmmaking. The days have long since passed when an artist, even an adventurous and iconoclastic one such as Brian De Palma, could depend on an audience to accept narrative uncertainty at face value. Nowadays, whenever a director (usually David Lynch) tries to provoke his audience into the realms of independent thought, he is usually met with blank stares.
By contrast, Hi, Mom asks a great deal from the viewer, and offers little in return. It includes frequent tonal shifts, abrupt changes in generic gear. It begins as an urban farce, transforms into slightly meditative romantic comedy, then, by turns, social satire, harrowing cinema verité, and domestic comedy. A viewer could be forgiven for feeling slightly whip-lashed by the film’s violent conclusion.
It is slightly odd to see Robert DeNiro so young and handsome, giving a performance so deftly naturalistic. He hasn’t yet settled into the rhythms that would define his broad character acting, and his Jon Rubin remains a cipher, his seemingly random actions never fully explained. He begins the movie as a filmmaker, sort of. He pitches a new kind of dirty movie to an uninterested porn producer, a patently illegal look into the lives of the swingers inhabiting six different apartments. When he gets the go-ahead, Rubin rents an apartment across the street from his target building and sets up his camera. He eventually focuses on one particular tenant, the lonely Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt). At first it looks as if he’s honestly interested in her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is only manipulating her to convince her to have sex for his film.
After that venture fails due to a technical mishap, Bishop trades his camera for a TV and falls in with a group of radical black activists operating under the aegis of “Be Black, Baby.” They sponsor a theater production dedicated to showing bourgeois white intellectuals the visceral experience of being black in America, complete with simulated robbery, assault, harassment, rape, and murder. The “Be Black, Baby” performance appears in rough, hand-held Super-8-style “realism,” an uncomfortable bromide after the film’s farcical first half.
Hi, Mom explores the many ambiguous steps between observation and participation, as these occur during the process of filmmaking. Rubin remains disassociated from his surroundings, even as he evolves from voyeur into actor, and his seeming assimilation leads to an unnerving finale (that said, the last scenes undoubtedly felt less severe in 1970 than they do in 2004, as they include images of exploding buildings).
Though billed as a comedy, Hi, Mom is not a funny movie. In fact, it shares themes with Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976), as both films examine the psychic fallout of the 1960s in ways that are at once jarring and subliminal. Hi, Mom leaves you with unanswered questions.