- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

“Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” remain a peculiarly durable, not to mention durably peculiar, set of calling cards. They were the movies that introduced many of us to an aspiring young writer-director named Brian De Palma and an unknown young actor named Robert De Niro.

When “Greetings” appeared at the end of 1968, Mr. De Palma was 28 and Mr. De Niro 25. Its companion piece, “Hi, Mom!” opened in the spring of 1970, with Mr. De Niro reprising the character he had introduced in “Greetings”: Jon Rubin, bookstore clerk and amorous opportunist.

In the years 1968-69, it might have seemed that both Mr. De Palma and Mr. De Niro intended to specialize in comedy. There was little reason to suspect that in their futures the impish, wacky topicality of “Greetings” would be engulfed by the ominous and sinister atmosphere that surfaces in the last half of “Hi, Mom!”

Mr. De Niro seems to have restrung his instrument for comic emphasis in recent years. Indeed, younger moviegoers may associate him more vividly with “Analyze This” and “Meet the Parents” than the loose-cannon landmarks that emerged from his collaboration with Martin Scorsese: “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “Raging Bull,” “GoodFellas” and “Cape Fear.”

Mr. De Niro’s comic flair, latent for so many years while he played a succession of violent sociopaths, is faintly foreshadowed in his pair of early collaborations with Mr. De Palma, which are being revived this weekend and next by the AFI Silver Theatre. The films are part of a nine-title tribute to Mr. De Niro, recently honored as the recipient of the AFI’s Life Achievement Award.

Hit-and-miss, fringe-market entertainments from the outset, “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” exemplify a genre that flirts with obsolescence: the topical satiric farce. The films were indebted to the techniques of improvisational sketch comedy. The dating scenes in both movies echo the routines of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who had retired as a comedy act.

“Greetings” begins as an impudent comedy about draft dodging, the preoccupation of a trio of pals named Paul, Jon and Lloyd, portrayed by Jonathan Warden, Mr. De Niro and Gerritt Graham, respectively. This pretext (alluded to in the title itself, the salutation that began draft notification letters), gets sidetracked, mercifully, by sex farce. Often sex farce scrambled with political burlesque.

To cite the most effective mixture, Lloyd is an assassination freak, observed in preposterous attempts to reconstruct the murder of President Kennedy and draw the appropriate conspiratorial conclusions from the body of evidence. In his most characteristic gesture, Lloyd uses the sleeping, naked body of his girlfriend as a sketch pad in order to trace exit and entry wounds with a marker.

“Greetings,” which opened two months after the Motion Picture Association’s rating system was installed, was an early X-rated picture. A few years later, when X had become synonymous with hard-core pornography, it merited a downgrade to R. The most consistent humorous vignettes permit Mr. De Palma to mock his own agenda: to deliver a sexploitation movie of some kind, without letting the nudity outstrip the satirical nonsense.

There’s no balance among the three friends of “Greetings.” Mr. Warden seems to vanish, especially after an uproarious sequence in which he is overwhelmed by a computer date, a hippie man-eater played by Mona Feit, who entered the cult hall of fame with this interlude.

A similar nostalgic appeal surrounds Ruth Alda, cast as a shoplifter named Linda who becomes Jon’s target of opportunity for a pop-art brainstorm he calls “Peep Art.” Jon persuades Linda to pose for an 8 mm test reel. He needs to hustle her through a “private moment,” commonly known as a striptease, because those 8 mm spools run out rather quickly. The interplay of Mr. De Niro’s verbal urgency while directing his subject off-camera and Miss Alda’s self-satisfaction while cooperating at her own coyly reluctant pace is still a kick, an exceptional blend of the blithe and the lewd.

Miss Alda returned for “Hi, Mom!” but not as Mr. De Niro’s logical consort. The seduction gambits that Jon Rubin tried out with Linda are shifted to another young woman, Jennifer Salt’s Judy, whom Jon has presumed to film surreptitiously from a ramshackle hideout across the street from her co-op.

Jon’s aspirations for “Peep Art” also have shifted. Instead of trying to attract the Whitney Museum, he’s trying to sell a porn producer named Joe Banner, briefly encountered near the end of “Greetings” as a mere sidewalk smut peddler. The sleazy but engaging Banner was a defining early role for Allen Garfield.

Where “Greetings” began as a farce about military induction, “Hi, Mom!” begins as a farce about dating and porn, two of the more productive subtopics of the first film. The sequel wasn’t submitted for a rating, probably because everyone took an X for granted. Mr. De Niro and Miss Salt share one hilarious date, but the humor of their mismatched personalities and agendas isn’t sustained. “Hi, Mom!” veers off on a tangent that remains uniquely shocking and inflammatory.

Having flopped as a furtive porn director, Jon gets a small role as a cop in an off-Broadway polemic, “Be Black, Baby,” an assault on white racial guilt that is not so much a theater piece as a stylized mugging. Ruth Alda turns up as the most conspicuous of the victimized theatergoers. Yet despite humiliations that may have culminated in rape, recorded by a video crew associated with National Intellectual Television, she chimes in with an endorsement: “Clive Barnes (the theater critic of the New York Times circa 1970) was right. … It really makes you stop and think.”

As a practical matter, this sequence is so vicious that it throws the entire movie out of whack. Mr. De Palma’s contempt for both the predatory troupe and their spineless customers is too naked to allow a retreat to comedy. Something else is activated: a foretaste of both Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro as stylish tormentors.

Mr. De Niro seems to be rehearsing for Travis Bickle once Jon is cast in the infamous play. We watch him threaten a backstage ladder and mop with his prop nightstick, anticipating the Bickle “You talkin’ to me?” monologues. He’s even harder on a TV monitor than he was in “Taxi Driver.” Travis pushes over a set with his foot. Jon Rubin empties a gun into a hapless set in “Hi, Mom!”

Brian De Palma really had no finish for the twisted continuity of “Hi Mom!” He promotes Jon from amateur actor to urban guerrilla. Robert De Niro is staring at us with an embryonic “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” grin when he delivers the tag line of “Hi, Mom!”

In retrospect, it looks as if the transformation from light comedian to mercurial psycho was achieved in a twinkling, years before Martin Scorsese had an opening for the psycho vibes. One wouldn’t necessarily rewrite movie history, but sometimes it seems a shame that the light comedian spent all those years in cold storage.

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