A young Robert de Niro in Greetings (1968).

In preparation for seeing Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary about Brian de Palma, which opens next month, I’m trying to catch up with some of the few de Palma films I’ve never seen.  Which brings me to Greetings (1968), de Palma's second feature, starring a twenty-five-year-old (!), pre-Godfather, pre-Mean Streets Robert de Niro as one of three New York hipsters who wile away their afternoons hatching schemes about how best to score chicks and dodge the draft, and who shot JFK.  Greetings was released the same year as Martin Scorsese’s debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, which deals with similar material and feels similarly rough around the edges (though Scorsese’s editing is already far more sophisticated than de Palma’s).  Watching such films is like looking at someone’s baby photos: underneath the unformed face of the child you can just make out the contours of the adult.  They’re loose, sloppy, young-man’s films, animated by a juvenile spirit—the films of young men with more energy than skill, too horned-up about sex and art and being funny and being political to really get any of it right.  It’s the energy, not any of the comedy or the “ideas,” that comes through.      

Greetings is a hybrid film, a comedy about 1960s counterculture with sexploitation elements, directed in the style of Godard and scored to a bargain-basement pop tune (“Greetings, greetings, greetings, / Spend a day or two with Uncle Sam…”).  In a way, it’s the kind of movie that Otto Preminger’s studio-produced Skidoo—also made in 1968—was trying to be, a movie that makes fun of both the youth movements and the establishment but still manages to work on young audiences’ wavelength.  The problem, of course, was that the very production model used to make Skidoo meant that it was doomed to be square, whereas Greetings, an independent feature made by a no-name kid, could afford to be tossed off and stupid and was all the better for it.  (The adolescent humor of Greetings also helps explain some of the goofier touches de Palma would bring to later films like Carrie.) 

While it’s hard to take Greetings very seriously on any level, de Palma’s fascination for the voyeuristic nature of cinema is shown to be already in place.  De Niro’s character is a wannabe peeping tom and an amateur pornographer who, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, convinces a pretty young shoplifter (Rutanya Alda) into posing for a cheesecake movie.  The final scene of the film is a fake news broadcast from Vietnam in which we see de Niro squatting in a rice paddy, trying to get a female Viet Cong to strip for him.  Ever the horn-dog, de Niro would rather make love than war; for de Palma, who would rather make art than either love or war, the camera has already become his new favorite plaything.

Shooting women: Tisa Chiang and Rutanya Alda.

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