When it comes to a wide-ranging body of work, it's hard to top Brian De Palma's oeuvre. Would any 1968 viewer of a proudly scrappy underground comedy like Greetings, anticipate that within a decade the same auteur - so clearly recreating Godard on the gritty streets of New York - would be directing baroque, elaborately formal horror films? Or that, within another twenty years Mr. De Palma would be lending his talents to a big-budget, straightforward adaptation of a 60s TV spy show? By now, we're used to directors introducing themselves with a rugged autobiographical indie, only to move on to more mainstream (and usually rather unfortunate) fare. But, putting aside the fact that De Palma was not selling out in his more expensive movies (at least the early ones), we also have to deal with the fact that his early work was not your run-of-the mill low-budget calling card. Greetings presents us with a fully-formed vision, however different from the vision De Palma later cultivated. It has its own forceful ethos, which is why that proverbial '68 audience could be forgiven for expecting De Palma to follow along the path he was cultivating in this early work, instead of virtually abandoning it for fresh ground in another field altogether.
That said, there are signs that the filmmaker behind Scarface and Carrie is also the mind behind Greetings, a social satire cum screwball comedy documenting three youthful New Yorkers and their quests to avoid the draft, get laid, and solve the Kennedy assassination. For one thing, despite some intentionally sloppy stagings (De Palma sees Godard's jump cuts and raises him a jump cut in which the background and positions of the characters also changes) there's an obviously gifted eye behind the camera. One sequence is particularly striking: as the tired trio parade in Central Park, trying to keep one potential draftee awake so that he'll flunk his examination the next morning, one of the scruffy group breaks away to chat with a street personality, a photographer displaying his increasingly fuzzy blow-ups of a single photograph, interpreting their aesthetic while simultaneously acknowledging the debt to Antonioni's Blow-Up (a constant reference for De Palma here; particularly in relation to the examination of the Zapruder film). Meanwhile, as the zoom lens moves in closer and closer the two remaining buddies, punch-drunk from a night of staying awake, continue to cavort in the background, De Palma holding them in the increasingly tight shot as the heady dialogue continues in the foreground. Here and elsewhere, he's able to balance multiple elements for a dizzying kinesthetic effect.
This already distinguishes De Palma's underground work from many low-budget cousins and direct descendants. Consider mumblecore. While that nascent "genre" has its stylistic flourishes it does not seem to have the same grasp of cinematic history and cinematic language that De Palma effortlessly conveys in Greetings. True, the setups are often static, the shots held for long lengths of time, the distance wide between figure and lens. But in moments like that park scene, De Palma breaks out, and even within many of his long takes, he moves the camera around, indicating an instinctive understanding of where his focus should be during an extended take. Despite its reliance on cheap and easy setups (it varies the static shots with a roving handheld camera), Greetings ends up spinning out a kaleidoscope of cinematic effects, and complements these with extensive references to the larger world of cinema. In addition to the stylistic quotes of the French New Wave and the Keystone Cops (or perhaps the French New Wave quoting the Keystone cops), we have a girlfriend leafing through Hitchcock/Truffaut before fornication, the aforementioned application of Antonioni to Dealey Plaza, and mock news coverage from Vietnam which mirrors both television footage of the time and cinema verite (while questioning the supposed objectivity of both forms by having Robert De Niro's character restage a striptease that he earlier coaxed from an actress for a supposed art piece - here De Palma ties art, exploitation, and "objective" documentary together in one cynical gesture).
Yes, that's De Niro in the movie, whose ugly mustache makes him look a bit older than his actual age (twenty-five) and hence less a kid than he'd appear in some of his later roles. But then he always had a flexibility which leant itself to camouflage. He also had a subtle ability to draw the viewer in his direction, when he chose to flex this charismatic muscle. Note how, for two-thirds of the movie, his character hovers in the background, nondescript comic relief, a third banana much as he was (albeit in pudgier form) in De Palma's earlier The Wedding Party. Then, in the last half-hour, he suddenly appears stumbling through a sex paperback, holding it close to his face as Jean-Pierre Leaud did with Mao's Little Red Book. Without knowing quite way, he fascinates: there's the sense that beneath his clumsy monologue and plain expression some mesmeric serpent is uncoiling. Call it intensity, or star-power or what have you, but whatever "it" is, he's got it. And so after flunking his doomed attempt to appear too right-wing for the Army (he shows up before the draft board in cowboy boots, condemning Chinese and Jews), he ends up in Vietnam and the film's penultimate scene focuses on him, by now the acknowledged star of the picture (his other friends having been long ago forgotten and ignored by De Palma's curious camera).
The movie opens and closes with a television set, clearly situated in some unseen person's kitchen, on which LBJ gives a crowing, preening speech about the war. Greetings' compulsive references extend outside of the cinema (which is already more than most contemporary movies can manage) to the outside world and its frantic, apocalyptic, painfully immediate zeitgeist, something which contemporary Hollywood had more or less walled off (though fissures were beginning to appear in that particular wall). Indeed, Greetings seems to be broadcast from an alternative history: one in which American cinema was as engaged with political and cultural reality as European cinema or American music. The movie hits all the 60s touchstones, which works only because it takes them all for granted: there's the jingle-jangle folk rock of the title track, the cinematic array of Jules et Jim-esque tricks which De Palma employs, frank sexuality and nudity which earned the film an "X" rating (coupled with a sexism often crossing over into misogyny which, joined by constant reference to "fags" and a cavalier attitude towards racial epithets, reminds us that the 60s rebellion was not as PC as preachy leftists, not to mention preachy conservatives, would have us believe).
The 60s - and Greetings - are close enough to the 50s for some macho, un-PC social attitudes to remain (even as the movie's characters mock social conventions and Establishment politics). The film is so close to the clean-cut Camelot of '63 that the Kennedy references seem au courant, yet it is also close enough to the 70s to employ the stylistic range and adult content which that decade would make de rigeur. This, to me, captures the fascination of the 60s in a nutshell: not so much that the era represented the "new" as that it represented the crosshairs of "new" and "old" where World War II was something people in their thirties remembered while schoolchildren would grow up to found dot-com companies, where the traces of classical black-and-white cinema still lingered but the wide-ranging possibilities of the movies' future was just barely over the horizon. The changes happened so fast that for a brief moment, "new" and "old" co-existed - it was modern America's adolescence and Greetings captures that moment beautifully.
At least for me it did. I discovered, on You Tube, a rather smug countdown of "50 Worst Movies" which presented Greetings at #37. How glibly - and effectively - it makes its case. Yes, that color does look cheap and grainy. How funny and silly those people look marching down the street in fast motion - were they trying to be hip and edgy in that oh-so-dated sixties way? And that theme song! Really, who makes a movie with a theme song, anymore?! The narrator informs us that it was a "turkey" despite the soon-to-be-famous De Palma and De Niro (their fame grants them a bit of immunity with the folks who assembled this piece, as if the film was simply a youthful faux pas). But, really, the harshly contrasted, cheap-looking clips do all the convincing. Cue De Niro's line, in response to the reporter's query, "What are you doing here?": "I don't know." Cue slickly computer-animated audience tossing vegetables at the screen. Move on, cue #36.
Seen from this perspective, I realized what fragile ground a film like Greetings stands on. Sure, it's something of a mess but the messiness is what allows its frequent creativity and occasional brilliance. By breaking all the rules, shattering good taste and conventional expectations both where they should and should not be shattered, Greetings allows something fresh and forceful to bloom. And yet it's so easy to put that down if you're skittishly looking over your shoulder, wondering if you should be laughing and grinning, or sneering and smirking. And so I'm reminded of a Pauline Kael essay I read recently, one which expresses a disgust with the vulgar decadence of Hollywood "society," yet confesses an honest inability to feel secure in this disgust when confronted with the vapid confidence exhibited by L.A.'s ostentatious elite. She concludes: "It's easy to reject all this when I'm back in San Fransisco. But not here. You can't really laugh at the Beverly Hills Hotel and people who pay $63 a day for a suite that's like a schoolboy's notions of luxury. It's too impressive. Laughter would stick in the throat - like sour grapes."
The film industry's arrogant sense of superiority - spurred by its financial largesse and command of the media - easily overwhelms any challengers to its aesthetic and narrative. If they become too threatening, it simply consumes them, then spits out their early aberrations like jagged bones, while the scurvy scavengers gather in a circle to point and laugh at the absurdity of such an object. One often wonders why so few people make films like Greetings, films which are, however flawed, also adventurous, inventive and exciting. Perhaps it's because they're too afraid.
(P.S.: For a great background of that photographer I mentioned, check out De Palma a la Mod's response to this post. Turns out that, far from being a "street personality" (or perhaps in addition to being one) he's the man who designed the White Album!)