Saturday, August 16, 2008

GREETINGS (1968) IS THE KIND OF MOVIE I USUALLY HATE. It's one of those late 60's antiestablishment movies (nothing wrong with that) that usually are so smug and concentrate on more "Look at me! Aren't I quirky" tableaux than concerning itself with actually "moviemaking". It is also by a director whom I dislike with a star I dislike as well. No one could ever accuse me of being a Brian DePalma fan. And Robert DeNiro is without doubt the single most overrated actor on the planet. However, having said ALL this. . .I kinda like the movie. Firstly, while there is a large "quirky 60's" quotient, the film actually does demonstrate a spark of talent. OK, more than a spark. While there are some smug and rather annoying segments (particularly at the beginning when our three main characters run around the city in fast motion as if they were in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT), there are an equal number of interesting and funny segments. DePalma and DeNiro are both obviously at the very beginning of their careers; before DePalma lapsed into shamelessly apeing Alfred Hitchcock (although even here, DePalma STILL manages to insert a shot of a woman reading the "Hitchcock/Truffaut" book). And while DeNiro, as usual, doesn't act but merely plays himself, that actually kinda works here. Shockingly this film, made by DePalma in 2 weeks for a mere $43,000 was so popular with antiestablishment hippies, Vietnam protesters and college students that it took in a cool million on it's theatrical release. And any independent production like GREETINGS deserves some support for just getting itself made and seen in the first place. So, GREETINGS is a diverting and funny little movie.
What's it all about? We know EXACTLY what it's about when the opening scene features a TV set featuring a news broadcast concerning the Vietnam War and featuring Lyndon Johnson looking silly. Three friends Paul Shaw (Jonathan Warden), Lloyd Clay (Gerrit Graham -- "Beef" in DePalma's later PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) and Jon Rubin (Robert DeNiro) have all been summoned to the army induction office and are trying to find ways not to go to Vietnam. Lloyd went last week and now Paul is facing his imminent appointment with the induction officers. Strategies to make themselves 4F include pretending to be homosexual (DePalma's long-running treatment of gays as some "alien life form" began this early), pretending to be a Nazi (which I suppose DePalma equates with being homosexual somehow) or running around the city staying awake for days so they will "look their best" (echoing Arlo Guthrie's ALICE'S RESTAURANT). Of course, rather than fake mental irregularities, the three men ARE actually kinda strange and should probably not be inducted ANYWAY! Paul is obsessed with sex and, while waiting for his induction appointment, embarks on a series of computer dates where he can exercise his sexual hunger with as many random women as possible. Lloyd is fanatically obsessed with the JFK assassination and conspiracy theory; he has studied every detail and blows up frame after frame of the Zapruder film (linking him directly with Antonioni's BLOW UP -- which is even referenced in the script). In fact, Lloyd is so obsessed that while he's in bed with a naked woman he would rather dress her up in a shirt onto which he plots JFK's bullet wounds than have sex with her! Lloyd is stymied by the fact that blowing up photographs only makes it impossible to see anything; the photo becomes too blurry and grainy. DePalma seems to run with this aspect by featuring many scenes in which our main characters are performing in the foreground while other activity (apparently just as important) is going on farther back in the frame. Lastly, we have DeNiro's character Jon who is a voyeur that likes to film women (thankfully WITH their full knowledge and cooperation) through a window acting out their "private moments". DeNiro is so obsessed that, when he finally does get drafted and sent to Vietnam, he still does the same thing. A TV reporter in the jungle with DeNiro's character films him while he sneaks up with a rifle on a supposedly Viet Cong women and has her act out the same "private moments" for the TV camera.
This is an interesting thing about DePalma's films. He (co-writing the screenplay with Charles Hirsch) has his characters mostly end up where they don't want to be. The sex-obsessed Paul is the only one who probably finishes where he belongs: as the star of a porno movie called "The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife". We find this out in a backhanded (and quite deft) manner. In a truly funny scene, a rather sleazy man strikes up a conversation with DeNiro's character on the street and eventually leads up to selling him a dirty movie for $5. This movie, of course, stars his friend Paul. DeNiro's character Jon, as mentioned, fails to stop himself from going to Vietnam but still manages to act out his "peeping tom" obsessions (Michael Powell, anyone) in the jungle for a TV camera. And Lloyd's character meets an extremely cracked character who claims to have been in Dealey Plaza as a witness to the Kennedy assassination. This paranoid guy insists that he (and Lloyd) and are being watched by the government. When he suggests a later meeting, Lloyd shows up and is himself assassinated by an unseen shooter (!) on his way to the Statue of Liberty.
DePalma's direction is predictably slapdash but that can be forgiven due to the "seat-of-your-pants" independent production it was. DePalma also utilizes such old-fashioned movie tricks as title cards (which 9 times out of 10 don't work but here I don't mind them) and fast motion a la silent movies (which is usually irritating in 60's films and kinda is here too). I don't know how much of the film was scripted and how much was improvised by the cast but the actors really do bolster the film tremendously. If they weren't so watchable, we wouldn't be watching; I can assure you. GREETINGS was even more shockingly followed by a sequel called HI MOM (which I've never seen). However, it apparently didn't do as well as GREETINGS so DePalma fell into his more commercial (and less satisfying) Hitchcock pastiche which he has sadly never left; abandoning the rather fresh approach to filmmaking on display in GREETINGS. The DVD of the film can be got quite cheaply online so, if you're so inclined and want to see where Brian DePalma's career COULD'VE gone, you might want to pick up a copy.


Weaverman said...

I've avoided GREETINGS for years and still don't feel inspired to see it. De Palma is a problem because he spent too long wanking over his Alfred Hitchcock VHS collection instead of developing a style of his own. Having said that I confess to loving CARLITO'S WAY and that film he did with Michael Fox (the war thing) was under-rated. I think you are hard on De Niro although his range is limited as you say. But he's appeared in too many good films and given too many perfectly good performances. I liked him better before he started whoring out in purely commericial crap...but, hey, we've all got to live. My vote for the most embarassing moment in De Palma's directing career : The shootout in the railway station in the over-rated (wildly) THE UNTOUCHABLES.

Cheekies said...

A couple points, one - De Palma No sir, never liked him. Two - I believe there are naked boobies on your blog. Three - happy belated birthday. And yes, for your information I knew it was Thursday.

gilligan said...

Nothing really to say, but thanks for turning me on to this movie. I've already tabbed over and dropped it in my Netflix queue.

I'm not expecting greatness, but it sure sounds off beat enough to be interesting.

Cerpts said...

Ah, I see the DePalma Punchers are getting more numerous. It's nice to know I'm not alone. Yes indeed Weaverman, while I've never seen CARLITO'S WAY or the Michael J. Fox war thing and can't comment, I have always been, to say the least, incredibly underwhelmed by Brian DePalma's work (as I correctly assume you and Cheeks have been as well). There is a point where one cannot seriously call it "homage" but must simply call a magpie a magpie. The man shamelessly rips off Hitchcock and I don't see how you can gloss that over. Of DePalma's filmwork (post GREETINGS) I have seen CARRIE of course, the already mentioned UNTOUCHABLES, SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (Wow, it somehow never occurred to me that he directed THAT). While CARRIE is watchable (although I, the ultimate horror fan, don't even own it) and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE has a certain wacky charm, all DePalma's films have mostly illicited a "so what" response in me; nothing special and slightly embarrassing in their baldfaced lifting of Hitchcockian technique. Seriously, I don't see how anyone can slam the (equally wrongheaded and pointless) Gus Van Sant shot-by-shot remake of PSYCHO and then profess to like DePalma.

Having said that, I think that's why GREETINGS was such a (mildly) pleasant surprise. Coming as it does so early in his career, the film shows DePalma demonstrating an actual nascent voice of his own before he allowed himself to sink in the distasteful mire of misogynistic Hitchcock pastiche. Although DePalma's misogynism is still quite evident (although much MUCH milder) in GREETINGS as well and that's another problem I have with the director. "Offbeat" is certainly a good term to use in describing GREETINGS and one can only wonder what DePalma's career could have been had he resisted the onanistic swiping of another director's work and tried to cultivate his own individual cinematic voice and style. GREETINGS seems to hint vaguely at some sort of potential but abandoned talent.

Cerpts said...

Oh, with all that DePalma stuff I forget about DeNiro.

Am I being too hard on him? Possibly. I think the reason I err on the side of criticizing him is simply because he is so overpraised. After all, he is constantly referred to as "one of the greatest actors of his time" (a typical statement which assaults you on his imdb page, frinstance) and he CERTAINLY ain't that. I could name probably dozens of actors who are better. So it's this overpraising of an, as you say, "limited" talent I'm reacting against, surely.

I'm am a great fan of A BRONX TALE (which he directed as well as appeared in a supporting role). As for some films he appeared in which I think are great: he was adequate (if not spectacular) in THE GODFATHER PART II (a film not as good as the first GODFATHER, though). BRAZIL is a masterpiece but certainly not because of DeNiro's (almost invisibly uninteresting) performance. GOODFELLAS I also love but I must admit that DeNiro is actually not very good in it and another actor probably would've been more effective (his performance upon hearing of Joe Pesci's death is particularly embarrassing).

I won't go into the countless hackwork he whored himself out doing from the 80's on; which amounts to MOST of his career, then. Your comments show you're well aware of those movies. But I can't let his truly awful, hammy scenery chewing in the equally awful CAPE FEAR remake. Then there's TAXI DRIVER, a movie I do not like, in which both he and Scorsese failed in their stated goal to make Travis Bickle alienate the audience whereas in fact fans of the movie actually cheer him and root for him. I've mentioned previously in this blog how, the usually highly praised "adlib" performance of DeNiro in front of the mirror ("You talkin' to me?") was consciously or unconsciously stolen by DeNiro from an episode of TWILIGHT ZONE entitled "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room".

As you say, he's been whoring himself out for, what, decades now? But I don't dislike DeNiro nearly as much as I dislike DePalma (if you can believe THAT). So that's somethin'in his favour, innit? And, as I've said, I will admit that he's been in some really great films. But the films are great, I think, not because of his presence but because . . . well, they're great films. One can only wish that eventually the general public will re-evaluate their DeNiro worship and place him more properly in context. Once that happens, we can move on to Al Pacino. . .

Cerpts said...

Ah, there you go, you scamps. Making me trash people. I know you love it! But I'm trying to work on my karma. That ain't right! Trying to get me to unleash my acid, you naughty thangs! As regglarr readers of this poor excuse for a blog have no doubt already noticed, I try to focus on the good aspects of films. I very much dislike the "Medvedian" tendency to tear down and mock movies i.e. Golden Turkey Awards. That's too easy and frankly mean-spirited. Why the hell are they watching all these movies if they hate them so?!? I try to focus on the enjoyable parts of movies; hell, I even found some nice things to say about THEY CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and RIDERS TO THE STARS for goodness sake! For that, at least, I deserve a cookie. Or some nice puddin'. Mmmmmmmm! Well. This is the reason why you've NEVER seen me talk about a Brian DePalma film here before (and probably never will again); until I came across GREETINGS which, if nothing else, I praise for managing to get itself made at all -- as well as showing an infant director who might just have a reason to be behind the camera in the first place. DePalma's subsequent work, of course, has disproved THAT theory!

But, before the deluge I know will come, I thought I'd put my puddin' where my mouth is and list you . . . say, two dozen actors who ARE better than DeNiro. Before you scamps call me on it. In no particular order (and limiting the list to those with penises since some of you might still distinguish between "actors" and "actresses" and think including "actresses" might make the list too easy. Here they are, in no particular order, and randomly random -- about two dozen actors who at least ONCE have bested anything DeNiro's ever done:

Sidney Poitier
Michael Caine
Scott Wilson
John Heard
Laurence Fishburne
Max Von Sydow
Robert Morse
Ian Holm
David Strathairn
Michael Emerson
Nicholas Cage (OK I'm kidding)
Chris Cooper
Jeremy Irons
Forest Whitaker
Eduardo Noriega
Derek Jacobi
Robert Downey Jr.
Jared Harris
Ryo Ishibashi
Paul Newman
Brad Dourif
J. T. Walsh
Pete Postlethwaite
Steve Buscemi
Donald Sutherland

Whoops, it looks like I've hit two dozen already so I might as well stop. I think you get the idea.

Cheekies said...

You go on with your bad self you hot bitch, vent baby just vent.