Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut film of: Brian De Palma, writer, editor, and director; Robert de Niro, actor.
By Roderick Heath
Brian De Palma, one of the greatest stylists amongst contemporary American cinematic masters and one of the most misunderstood, made several short and unreleased independent films in the 1960s before finally seeing the light of day with the cult comedy Greetings, based in the common experiences and paranoias of three Greenwich Village hipsters. Although he and his actor friend Robert de Niro had collaborated on The Wedding Party nearly five years earlier, that film was not released until after Greetings, which became the work that announced the actor’s career. Greetings, with its rough, occasionally flaccid technique and amateur-night production values, can be hard to penetrate. Several sequences grind on in shapeless, improvisatory fashion, relying more on the skill of the actors to keep them sustained than on cinematic effect or decent writing. But De Palma’s sensibilities are certainly emergent, except that the guise is that of a satiric comedy, rather than a thriller or war movie, and there’s ingenuity and intelligence in Greetings, qualities that make it crucial to understanding De Palma’s later work. Greetings is a series of related character vignettes, often announced with episodic title cards, involving three bohemian pals. Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), who walks into a bar and provokes a fight with the black patrons, and gets the crap knocked out of him. His motive? An unscientific attempt to make himself unfit for his upcoming army physical. His companions Jon Rubin (De Niro) and Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham) advise him on better tactics, suggesting he come on like he’s gay before Jon suggests he use his own tactic: posing as a genocidal right winger. Jon and Lloyd keep Paul awake for days, bombarding him with dirty stories, until the examination to make sure he’s in terrible condition.
Paul fails his examination with flying colours and sets about trying to find himself a mate. He signs up with a computer dating service that sets him up with women variously insulting, bonkers, or larcenous, and mostly flat-out horny. Lloyd is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, and this constantly distracts him from pressing matters (at one point he dresses up a woman he’s made love to in a suit and tie to illustrate, for a rant at the camera, a hole in the Warren Report). Inspired by a conversation with an artist (Richard Hamilton), and having watched Blow-Up (1966) one too many times, he enlarges portions of photos from the assassination scene, perceiving shapeless blotches as rifle-wielding killers. In his job at a book store, he encounters a paranoid man who claims to be Earl Roberts (Peter Maloney), nephew of Lee Harvey Oswald’s boarding-house manager, now believing he is pursued by government agents. Jon is drawn toward becoming a voyeur, and conceives a form of installation art he calls “peep art.” In the same bookstore, he spies upon a young woman named Linda (Ruth Alda) who shoplifts several volumes. When it seems she’s been caught, Jon dashes to the rescue, paying for what she’s taken. Linda’s so grateful she makes a date with Jon, only to be roped into his project, which is to capture a facsimile of a woman undressing on her own in an apartment. Distracted from a ’Nam vet’s (Richard Landis) account of his time in the service by a drop-dead beauty (Carol Patton) at a party, Jon shadows her about Central Park, but gets caught up talking with a pornographer (Allen Garfield) who pesters him until he buys a dirty movie. Finally, Jon’s own attempt to get out of the draft with a Nazi act is a flop, and he’s shipped off to Vietnam, where he’s still trying to get women to enact his fantasies.
Greetings offers mostly modish student-movie tricks, such as sped-up, silent-movie-like inserts where characters cavort in the streets or have sex, that are a long way from the perceptual and emotive orchestration of his later greater works. Only vaguely present is the emotional kinesis, balanced somewhere between ardour and sadism, that drives his most memorable stories and characters. There are occasional shows of impish technique (such as Paul’s third date, which also purports to be Garfield’s porn reel, “The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife”) that aren’t half as dynamic or poetic as those employed in Martin Scorsese’s equally rough-and-ready Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967). It sits apart from other early works of De Palma’s Movie Brat generation that take in similar settings and ideas. It’s not, like Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, a vivid work by a tyro trying to capture elusive psychological moods and ethnic specifics, or a flashy piece of attention-seeking pop, like Francis Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1967). Nor does it have the lyricism and scope of Arthur Penn’s draft-dodger epic, Alice’s Restaurant or the urgency of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).
To be fair, Greetings’ budget was rock bottom, even lower than Penn’s and Coppola’s films. It is a counterculture document, but in a ground-level, distracted, self-critical fashion, attentive to the sights and sounds of its era, yet more caught up in analysing new habits in perceiving the world. It’s also a cinephile’s work that bears relation, in a way, to the films of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, with its three heroes as screwball foils interacting with a specific environment, surviving, and contending with the forces that assail them. Nonetheless, the film does have a specific political and social idea to communicate. It’s not found in scenes such as when Lloyd encounters a zealous radical magazine seller, or in the draft-dodging hijinks. Lloyd’s paranoia, Jon’s fetishist interest in realising voyeuristic fantasies, and the way these tendencies cross-pollinate in efforts to capture the obscured truth on film reveal the leitmotifs of De Palma’s career. It’s easy, for instance, to point to Lloyd’s constant citation of Blow-Up and his general obsession with assassination and political skulduggery and note that both inspired Blow Out (1981).
Several sequences, like the opening credits in which the camera follows Paul in his search for a place to get beaten up or when Lloyd is mysteriously assassinated and tumbles down the ramp of a modern edifice, evoke De Palma’s later propensity for using long, intricate interactions with physical environments to set his story in play. The most notable example is the bookstore scene, in which two different storylines and five different characters’ disparate actions are observed in relationship. Hanging out, absorbing, theorising, girl-watching—De Palma admitted his adolescent habit of frequenting art galleries trying to pick up girls inspired the epic opening of Dressed to Kill (1980) as much or more than Hitchcockian film theory—are the major activities of his heroes, and these reflexive pursuits also infuse De Palma’s work. Jon’s sighting of Linda between a rack of books both celebrates ordinary male ogling and fuses it with a fascination with her criminality and Jon’s morally ambiguous complicity (Jon uses the leverage he gets over Linda in her gratitude for saving her) that entwines a power game with the act of watching.
If in thrillers like Dressed to Kill, Body Double (1984), or Femme Fatale (2002), he found a way to explore the same elements in a way that entertained audiences, even at his most apparently frivolous, De Palma remained a political filmmaker. His occasional return to the material and feel of Greetings (even his most recent film, Redacted , is, in many ways, a return to the guerrilla aesthetics and radical perspective of his debut) confirm this. In De Palma, things always have to be looked at twice, at the least because nothing is ever found at first glance. It’s a theory Lloyd, in a comic fashion, lives and dies by. When he has the photos of the grassy knoll enlarged, the girl who does this for him dismisses the images she perceives as white blotches, but he insists they contain meaning: his blackly amusing fate seems to confirm that he was right. This motif of the witnessed, the unperceived, and the gulf between the two, correlates constantly to the done and the undone, the action and the failure to act. Hence Jon’s growing obsession with voyeurism both provides him with a way of watching, controlling, and using the world, and also confirms a curious impotence in dealing with that world. Early in the film, the men’s fixation causes them not to notice when the girl Paul has just made resentfully steals stuff from them and then walks out.
The film’s two most crucial sequences involve Jon’s fixations on women. In the first, he prods Linda into taking part in one of his “peep art” projects in a sequence shot entirely from the perspective of someone watching her undress on her bed through a window. The window becomes the movie screen, and the slow strip both fulfills and excoriates the erotic fantasy; the constant dialogue between Linda and Jon evokes a strangely fraught game between the watcher and watched, male and female, audience and act, as Linda and Jon’s differing agendas fuse to come to the desired result. In the end, Jon steps through the frame and joins Linda on the bed, shattering and consummating the dirty dream all at once. That this has political relevance, and is not merely a semantic spin on movie watching, is revealed in the “episode” “Two Ways of Looking at Vietnam.” De Palma presents at several junctures in the film footage of people on television talking about the war. When he juxtaposes one such safely boxed, edited experience with the veteran’s bizarre anecdotes, De Palma employs a specific cinematic touch, as the camera representing listening Jon’s perspective, removes focus from the vet and fixes on the blonde roaming through the party: Jon will swiftly leave behind the vet and the party to rejoice in the sheer act of watching her. Jon’s taking his eye off the ball, as it were, renders him vulnerable, but his desire is all-eclipsing. This gets him no further than ending up with a dirty movie reel in hand. In both halves of the episode, the omnipresent, grim fact of the war is obscured by modes of perception.
Jon’s transformation into a filmmaker and a peeping tom confirms both his involvement and impotence in worldly affairs. He finally gains sexual satisfaction with the woman he asks to take a picture for a false passport (so he can escape the draft), but misses his chance to escape. When we last see him, he is a GI in the field being interviewed on TV, captured both by the box and the war on it, lost in his very own fantasy world, still trying to put it over, this time on Vietnamese farmer girls. In contrast, Lloyd’s obsession sees him constantly shattering the fourth wall and then literally annihilated by his fantasy. It’s finally a kind of solipsism that De Palma detects and unravels in these men, a solipsism as destructive as the variety LBJ reveals in his TV broadcasts. The cast is uniformly effective, including the great Garfield, Graham, and Warden, who, oddly enough, never made another film. But it’s De Niro who eventually made the splash. That De Niro plays the weird, but important Jon and not the lovelorn Paul or obsessive Lloyd, both pays tribute to his obvious talent and also seems to undercut his definite star quality and voluble capacities. It’s De Niro’s tautly self-contained quality that is rare and interesting; even when simply engaged in reading a book, he projects intelligence and character. Free of any Method twitchiness, he nevertheless anticipates his casting as Travis Bickle, an even more dissociated, obsessive, porn-fixated outsider and Vietnam vet than Jon—a reminder, indeed, that De Palma would continue the adventures of Jon as a returning, even more warped veteran in a sequel, Hi Mom! (1970), and would then work on developing Taxi Driver as a project.