VARIATIONS ON A THEME
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This independent film, which Brian De Palma made in New York in 1970, is an exuberant grab bag of mischievous whimsy that blends radical politics, sexual freedom, racial tension, and emotional hangups with the director’s own catalogue of artistic references, from Hitchcock and the French New Wave to cinéma vérité and avant-garde theatre—and adds a freewheeling inventiveness and an obstreperous satire all his own. It also showcases the explosive, sardonic young Robert De Niro, as Jon Rubin, a cynic on the make who creates reality-based porn inspired by “Rear Window” and, finding that reality needs his help, seduces one of his subjects (Jennifer Salt) for his camera. De Niro brings unhinged spontaneity to Jon’s Machiavellian calculations, especially in wild and daring scenes involving a militant theatre group that preys violently on its spectators’ liberal guilt. De Palma offers a self-conscious time capsule of downtown sights and moods, especially in his rambunctious, hilarious, yet nonetheless disturbing parodies of public television. In his derisively satirical view, the well-meaning media depicts the day’s furies and outrages in an oblivious objectivity that misses the deeper truths that this movie’s own theatrical exaggerations are meant to capture.
News that Garfield died due to complications from COVID-19 was posted by Garfield's Nashville co-star Ronee Blakley on Facebook last night. However, The Hollywood Reporter's Mike Barnes received confirmation of the actor's death from Garfield's sister Lois Goorwitz, and Barnes' obit only attributed the COVID-19 element to Blakley's post.
"Garfield suffered a stroke as he was set to appear in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (1999)," Barnes states, "then suffered another one in 2004 that led him to reside at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills. A spokeswoman for the MPTF facility did not know if Garfield was there at the time of his death."
Garfield also appeared with Tommy Smothers in De Palma's first studio picture, Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972). That same year, he was cast in Michael Ritchie's The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford.
Between Greetings and Hi, Mom!, Garfield appeared in another influential counterculture satire, Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope, as well as Woody Allen's Bananas in 1971. In 1974, he appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (a key film, of course, in the realm of De Palma's cinema), and later, Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), William Friedkin's The Brink's Job (1978), Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980), Coppola's One From The Heart (1981) and The Cotton Club (1984), among many others.
Before he began working at a video store, Quentin Tarantino studied acting for six years, three of them with Garfield as his mentor.
Here's more from Barnes' obit at The Hollywood Reporter:
Born Allen Goorwitz on Nov. 22, 1939, in Newark, he went by his real name in several films, including The Brink's Job (1978) and One From the Heart (1981), midway through his career.
Garfield boxed as an amateur, worked as a sportswriter and studied with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York. He appeared often onstage before making his film debut in Orgy Girls '69, followed by other big-screen appearances in 1971 in Woody Allen's Bananas and The Organization, starring Sidney Poitier.
Often playing jumpy types, he worked for Francis Ford Coppola in The Conversation (1974) and The Cotton Club (1984) and for Wim Wenders in A State of Things (1982) and Until the End of the World (1991).
He also portrayed Louis B. Mayer in Gable and Lombard (1976) and police chief Harold Lutz in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and his résumé also included roles in Teachers (1984), Desert Bloom (1986), Dick Tracy (1990), Destiny Turns on the Radio (1995) and The Majestic (2001).
"The reason I did [the 1988 movie] Chief Zabu is that Allen Garfield is from the Actors Studio, I'm from the Actors Studio, and we worked together there on stuff," actress Marianna Hill said in a 2016 interview with Shaun Chang for the Hill Place blog. "Allen Garfield happens to be a great actor. He's a really underrated actor. Allen was the hardest-working actor, but nobody realizes that about him because he seems to be a natural."
Before Brian De Palma made his mark as the new master of suspense with “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill," he made a couple of counterculture-skewing satires that hold up very well today as mischievous documents of a turbulent time. The best of these is “Hi, Mom!," a sequel of sorts to “Greetings,” that stars Robert De Niro as a voyeuristic adult filmmaker. The film is basically a collection of vignettes, the highlight being a guerilla theater performance of “Be Black, Baby," in which white theatergoers are coated in blackface and terrorized by the African-American actors. It’s a searing sequence that is as masterfully orchestrated as anything in De Palma’s impressive oeuvre.
The event description includes an excerpt from The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "An exuberant grab bag of mischievous whimsy that blends radical politics, sexual freedom, racial tension, and emotional hangups with the director’s own catalogue of artistic references, from Hitchcock and the French New Wave to cinéma vérité and avant-garde theatre—and adds a freewheeling inventiveness and an obstreperous satire all his own."
Below that is a description from Cameron Worden:
Before achieving notoriety as a director of formally audacious commercial thrillers, Brian De Palma found his footing in the New York independent film scene of the late ‘60s, producing a series of oddball underground features that culminated with this scabrous comedy. Prefiguring his turn in TAXI DRIVER, De Niro stars as a Vietnam vet navigating the seedier corners of New York City, first as a pornographer surreptitiously filming his neighbors’ sex lives, then as a member of a politically radical avant-garde theater company, before eventually dipping his toes into domestic terrorism. Moving freely between sitcom-ready mugging, Godardian direct address, and gritty faux cinéma vérité, HI, MOM! would demonstrate the breadth of De Palma’s gifts as a cinematic stylist and preternatural ability to stage memorable set pieces. 35mm.
(Director Brian De Palma) ended up not liking me. I was very naive and not very courageous. There was a scene in a bathtub, which was cut out of the movie, where he wanted me to be nude. I didn’t want to do it. It was all improvised. He wanted me to improvise sexual fantasies ... in a bathtub … with bubbles … in the nude. It seems strange today, because actresses will do anything to get successful. But I was way too shy and way too inexperienced to come up to his standards. I couldn’t do it.
He was a brand new director. He was treading water, too. He asked us to improvise these scenes, ‘You guys just talk,’ which is hard to do when you’ve been learning lines for however long I’d been acting. I didn’t know how to do it.
I've been asked that so many times because the women's movement had begun. Looking back historically, Angelique was one of the earliest strong women characters portrayed on television. She was really the first “Bitch Witch” that became so popular later. But at the time I wasn't aware of being any kind of social figure. I just felt that I had a good part and I was happy to have a job and go to work and be an actress. It's a gift. But I certainly didn't see myself in the larger sense of being any kind of a social influence.
I think it's rare to pick up on that in the moment. I think only looking back I see that I was actually fortunate to be, in a small sense, one of the movers and shakers in the women's movement.
I see you as more than that. I happen to be a big Brian De Palma fan and you were also part of the New York City independent film revolution. At the time, were you aware of how different Hi Mom! was from the Hollywood machine?
Well again, no. Brian De Palma cast me and they actually put in my two children. He was doing improvised theater. We were improvising on film, without lines, without a character to play. It was a whole different thing and I actually was not very good at it. But, yeah, I was aware that there was an experimental film movement, very much so, yes. It was actually very politically focused.
Hi Mom! has some kind of show [in] it called Be Black Baby where the people were all dressed up in black face. I was very young and I wasn't really very aware of what Brian De Palma was trying to do. He was young too. He was experimenting but he went on to do some wonderful films.
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Brian De Palma’s 1970 film Hi, Mom!, a white woman, dazed and recently raped, gives a fuzzy exit interview on camera. “Well, [New York Times theater critic] Clive Barnes was really right,” she says. “It was some experience. I’m gonna tell all my friends that they’ve gotta come.” The experience that she’s referring to is Be Black, Baby, an immersive opportunity (and Hi, Mom!’s film-within-a-film centerpiece) for well-heeled whites to, per the title, temporarily “be black.” If this white woman and her kin had predicted correctly that they would be given “soul food,” and be made up roughly and inelegantly with black shoe-polish, they do not seem to have guessed that they would also be robbed, gaslit, faced with furious demands to see ID, interrogated on the subject of their livelihoods and personal lives, hypersexualized, beaten and sexually assaulted, and then arrested by a white NYPD cop. The happening’s artist-cum-terrorist showrunners, who are African American but wearing whiteface, are as pale as death, and do not seem afraid to kill. The fact that the participants, if rattled, see their ritual humiliation as a dazzling work of art is owed to an embarrassing, embarrassingly recognizable strain of privileged white faux-wokeness. The fact that this scene takes place in a film both written and directed by a white man makes it doubly charged, recursive in its condemnation of white tourism in black lives.
Be Black, Baby is the third of five acts in Hi, Mom!, the fourth effort by the Hitchcock-loving, sleaze-artiste auteur. It is the perfect nucleus around which a chaotic story swirls: A Vietnam vet, broke and keen to game the sickest parts of New York’s system, becomes a peeping-tom-pornographer, then an actor, then finally a radical determined to quite literally explode the bourgeoisie. The protagonist, Jon Rubin, is played by Robert De Niro, a fact less significant in 1970 than it is now. The movie’s introduction to a grinning Rubin, yanking down a cloth that’s covering a mirror to reveal himself behind the camera, must have looked then like a broad allusion to the director’s ongoing themes of doubling and observation. In the wake of 1976’s Taxi Driver, it now functions as a meta joke, a “gotcha” shot whose punchline depends on the megawattage of its star. Meta now, too, is the scene where he auditions to appear in Be Black, Baby as the aforementioned white cop, only to be told that he looks too incapable of brutality or insanity to get the part. “I think I can play a cop, you know,” he swaggers. “I know I can. I can do anything.” Like Travis Bickle, Rubin is a firm believer in the cleansing properties of vigilante violence. His first scheme for making money is to buy a camera, hole up in his dive apartment, and then film the couples living in the opposite block through the readymade screens of their front-room windows; finding that his movies lack the necessary action, he seduces the girl living opposite in order to become the lead in his own porno, a conceit that’s more De Palma than De Palma in its invocation of the twin desires to see and be seen, to fuck and watch the action, to be both directing and directed.
When the stag film fails, he hawks his camera and procures a television. On that television, he sees the black activist group taunting white New Yorkers in a series of faintly Surrealist vox pops, and the next move in his nihilist career presents itself in black-and-white simplicity. De Palma’s love of cinéma vérité is deployed—both in the broadcast that makes Rubin first seek out the group of radicals and in the Be Black, Baby footage—to invigorating, sick effect: filmed on a hand-held camera, lit like shit and void of color, both scenes feel less like fictional exercises than like real-life powder kegs. The best thing De Palma does in the electrifying “theater” sequence is show how idiotic and banal the rich, entitled white person’s general idea of blackness is. Asked to examine the black ringleaders from head to toe by touch, the ticketholders sound like children being handed salamanders at a petting zoo. “So this is an afro!” one exclaims. “It’s like a sponge!” “It’s like angel food cake,” says the blonde white woman who ends up violated with a broom handle. “I expected it to feel like wire wool.” When she assures the troupe that “You’re the actors, we’re the audience, honey,” it is less a throwaway line than a perfect distillation of the white gaze on black bodies, even if it’s improvised. “It really makes you stop and think,” one audience member beams, his face as bloodied as if he had been at war.
In general, white men seem to love to “stop and think,” perhaps because it is the cheapest, lowest-maintenance form of “atonement.” A voyeur by nature, it is difficult to separate De Palma’s love of looking from his status as an outsider on the particularly thorny subjects of black pain, white exploitation, and police brutality, however excellent the Be Black, Baby sequence is in its inventiveness and execution. He is, in classic De Palma style, within and without, the accuser and the implicated, and his placing of a worthy, right-on bearded white man in the otherwise entirely African American activist troupe might be read as barbed self-satire. “The most Hitchcockian riff that De Palma ever examined,” Eric Henderson wrote in a 2004 reconsideration of Hi, Mom!, “is the capacity for the human psyche to harbor intense, complicated divergence.” A divergence necessarily occurs in the minds of the audience members of the Be Black, Baby skit, who simultaneously believe that they deserved the beatings and the rape by dint of the historic evil of their race, and that their willingness to be debased somehow absolves them of the same historic sin. Jon Rubin, after playing at being a cop in Be Black, Baby, marries and impregnates the girl in the building opposite, then leaves a bomb sequestered in her laundry room. He has not actually destroyed the all-American nuclear family, just like being painted black and brutalized is no real foil for white supremacy. With the imperfect and exhilarating Hi, Mom!, De Palma plants something unsafe and explosive underneath his audience, and runs.
Appearing in the booklet for Hi, Mom!, Christina Newland's essay, "American Godard," is named for Brian De Palma's off-the-cuff remark to an interviewer in 1969 that "If I could be the American Godard, that would be great." Linking these early films to De Palma's later work, Newland states that De Palma's style "has always cheerfully drawn attention to itself." Focusing on Hi, Mom!, Newland writes that the film's narrative "speeds along with nervy ingenuity and a chaotic structure; you might say this is a film with a multiple personality disorder. Loosely divided into three jarring acts, each more wild than the last, De Palma follows a chameleonic young man, Jon Rubin, on the streets of New York City, attempting several different utterly insane ambitions."
Toward the end of her essay, Newland zeros in more precisely on De Niro's Jon Rubin as chameleon:
In the final portion of the film, Jon seemingly becomes entrenched in domestic terrorism and decides to disguise himself as a 'square' by marrying. The artificiality of Jon's faux-domestic set-up recalls a '50s sitcom, underpinned by a Weathermen Underground-style bombing that's thoroughly of the '70s. Though few might characterise the director of Carrie (1976) and Scarface as explicitly political, De Palma applies scalpel-like cynicism toward Jon's flirtation with underground social movements. Perhaps it's a young leftist's frustration with insincerity within the movement.
Still, little in Hi, Mom! is straightforward. In Greetings, De Niro's Jon was a draft-dodger; in Hi, Mom!, he's a veteran, seemingly displaced by his role in that war. Many comparisons have been made between this and De Niro's later role as a 'Nam vet in Taxi Driver (1976), but he's the real spiritual antecedent of another darkly comic role for Scorsese: Rupert Pupkin. Like the delusional wannabe of The King Of Comedy (1983), Jon is so phony he's almost earnest in his phoniness. This is evident in the final set-up, when Jon wrangles his way to the front of a television news broadcast about the explosion he himself devised. As with so much of De Palma's work, we are watching people who are watching other people; some of whom know they are being watched and act accordingly. The intended result is a sort of endless, empty hall of mirros; a media spectacle with no meaning.
Regarding Hi, Mom! now - either as a direct sequel to Greetings or simply as a madcap counterculture relic - it doesn't necessarily equate to coherent greatness. But it does hint at the ways in which De Palma, along with the best of his generation of filmmakers, could marry the arthouse and the commercial in their later work. When they applied teh radical stylings of their art film interests to make challenging mainstream cinema of the era, the New Hollywood flowered into being.
Director George Romero consciously evoked racism’s rapacity and America’s horrific history of racially motivated lynching. Although Romero’s premise (co-written with John A. Russo) inspired the zombie genre that has become newly popular this millennium (it is a contemporary symptom of our subconscious social anxiety), his film, for all that, was not ahead of its time. In other words, it did not anticipate the insipid movie Get Out, which has become a favorite totem of self-congratulatory liberals intent on defending themselves against the stigma of racism. In that useless process, they make a mess of the millennium’s racial consciousness. Romero’s conceit has been misappropriated and transformed into the paranoia of victimhood, which reverses the lessons that Night of the Living Dead taught and trivializes what makes the film still fascinating, still unnerving.
Working outside the Hollywood film industry as a Pittsburgh-based veteran of industrial films, commercials, and political spots (such as for Republican John Tabor’s 1969 Pittsburgh mayoral campaign), Romero perceived the discontents that Hollywood largely ignored in ’68.
Consider that the film first appeared alongside the socially conscious Uptight (Jules Dassin’s ghetto remake of John Ford’s IRA classic The Informer) and Sidney Poitier’s pioneering romantic comedy For Love of Ivy — movies that showed Hollywood’s conscious response to America’s restless black presence. Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year of echt R&B (the alternately hopeful, despairing, and defiant “You’re All I Need to Get By On,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”) and, ultimately, of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Although these connections in hindsight do not weigh upon Romero’s movie, the fact is that Night of the Living Dead edged beyond mainstream Hollywood liberalism; it was part of the same cultural ferment as those films and songs. It stands on its own as a surprisingly stark, unpretentious depiction of panic and compassion.
The scenes of Romero’s mobilized vigilantes hunting down zombies uncannily resemble the black-and-white TV-news footage of marauding southern whites in the civil-rights era. Romero flips our cultural perception to force a simple but disturbing point about America, then on the verge of collapse. Ben’s life is caught within the slight, slippery distance between homegrown terror and homegrown self-defense. At one point, Romero’s narrative, which already included snippets of TV and radio broadcasts, folds in on itself and becomes surreal. It climaxes with a shocking series of stills of Ben’s dead black body, being grappled by white men carrying stevedore hooks, then thrown upon a pile of corpses — a one-man holocaust montage.
This cautionary filmmaking stings, largely because it shares in the media’s modern spectacle of annihilation but lacks today’s maudlin platitudes and arrogant gloating. (Fifty years ago, cinema was at its artistic peak, producing great works of social and psychic consciousness, such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Godard’s Masculin Féminin, which featured a brief reenactment of LeRoi Jones’s play Dutchman, an intelligent, provocative precursor of both Night of the Living Dead and Get Out.)
Romero’s crudely effective technique gave his topical issues the inexorable compulsion of a nightmare like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), another evocation of frightening, unpredictable Americana. These movies are as terrifying as they are unpretentious. I never bought the idea that they are cathartic; their shock and psychological resonance result from the demonstration that when such racial fears are raised, there’s nothing to laugh about.
Not only is Get Out a poor example of the horror genre. Its generic mishap — combining fear and comedy to supposedly meaningful purpose — fumbles Romero’s (and LeRoi Jones’s) insight. Writer-director Jordan Peele reveals a lack of seriousness about both his subject and the history of politicized filmmaking. In 1970, Brian De Palma advanced from Romero and made his first great film, Hi, Mom! — a satire on activism and the media. Its climax parodied both avant-garde theater and Public Television reality, in an extended skit titled “Be Black, Baby!” that combined black racial anger, white racial fear, and the cultural establishment’s pretenses. In 1973, De Palma went further, with the horror film Sisters, another mixed-genre tour de force spotlighting an interracial liaison (Lisle Wilson and Margot Kidder) on a TV game show titled “Peeping Toms,” combining transgressive voyeurism and miscegenation.
Get Out fans probably don’t know these precedents. As victims of our disconnected culture’s amnesia and miseducation, they ignore Romero and De Palma’s once-countercultural experiments and investigations into racial anxiety, but then they fall for the mainstream media’s manipulation of social fears.
Here's more from Chinen's informative Tate obit:
The precision and ebullient feeling in Tate's drumming made him a first call, in the studio and on tour, for many of the finest singers of the '60s and '70s, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Peggy Lee. He also had credits on some notable pop albums, like Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly and Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon. He was the drummer for Simon & Garfunkel's famed 1981 reunion concert in Central Park, which sold millions of copies when it was released as an album the following year.
A generation of kids grew up hearing Tate's voice on the soundtrack for Schoolhouse Rock!, the series of educational cartoons broadcast on Saturday mornings by ABC. The songs were largely composed by Bob Dorough, who sang more than a few of them himself. But Tate was featured on some choice selections, including "I Got Six" from 1973, "Fireworks" and, in a vocal performance as soulful as it is numerically instructive, "Naughty Number Nine."
Tate's career as a vocalist was much more than a side hustle, though, stretching back to 1968 and his debut album, Windmills of My Mind. The title track — a cover of the theme from The Thomas Crown Affair, which won the Oscar for best original song that year — presents Tate the singer in full bloom. He's a suave, companionable stylist, with unlabored phrasing and a careful attunement to lyric and mood.
(In fact, both of Tate's Grammy nominations were for vocal performances: Multiplication Rock was up for Best Recording For Children in 1973, and his version of "She's Out of My Life," from the Jimmy Smith album Go For Whatcha Know, vied for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male, in 1986.)
Though he had the voice of a jazz balladeer, Tate muscled easily into soul and R&B. "Be Black Baby," released as a 7-inch single on the Skye label, is a funky exhortation that can now be found on the compilation Black & Proud Vol. 1 - The Soul Of The Black Panther Era. The song was also sampled on tracks by Big Daddy Kane and the Beastie Boys, and turned up in the 1970 cult film Hi, Mom! — an early Robert De Niro vehicle, directed by Brian De Palma.
Grady Tate was born in Durham, North Carolina on January 14, 1932, and began singing in church at age 4. Not long afterward, he began playing drums; he was entirely self-taught.
After graduating from high school, Tate served four years in the Air Force, playing in a show band whose resident arranger was the trumpeter Bill Berry. He returned to Durham to study theater arts, literature and psychology at North Carolina College. Then he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked briefly as a postal carrier before joining the organist Wild Bill Davis on the road.
Tate moved to New York in his late 20s, but not in pursuit of a musical career: he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to study drama. His training as an actor was curtailed after saxophonist and flutist Jerome Richardson recommended him to Quincy Jones, who had just lost his drummer. The association with Jones led in turn to session work and a six-year stint with Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Band on NBC, from 1968 to '74.
For a certain pop-culture fan base, Tate will always be legendary for his cool, undulant drumming on the soundtrack to David Lynch's show Twin Peaks. Angelo Badalamenti, the composer, recently relayed Tate's joke that the score only ever inhabited two tempos: "slow, and reverse." But in addition to his delicate brushwork on the original Twin Peaks series, Tate is featured in the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired this year.
One track, named in his honor, amounts to nearly two minutes of drumming in the foreground, in snappy waltz time. The track, "Grady Groove," captures the inherent musicality in Tate's beat, a gift both rare and so natural that it can still be easy to overlook.
Survivors include Tate's wife, Vivian, and a son, Grady Tate, Jr.
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