It’s always good to stop, look back, and reflect on things that came before. More often than not you discover a hit song, movie, or comic book has taken from the past be it an obscure work of art or a popular one. Arrow DVD recently released a remastered edition of Brian De Palma and Robert DeNiro’s early work. How early? We’re talking DeNiro and De Palma’s first films which are not only experimental, but cutting edge in a lot of ways. Here are my three takeaways after watching Arrow DVD’s special restored edition.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
In 1963, Robert De Niro stepped in front of a movie camera for the first time. The resulting film, a low-budget black and white comedy called The Wedding Party, would take three years to complete, and another three years to be released, but it would also establish a hugely important working relationship for the aspiring actor. One of the filmmakers, long before he became synonymous with suspense thanks to Carrie, Dressed to Kill and other classics, was Brian De Palma. He and De Niro would team up again in the next few years for two more comedies, both with a countercultural bent.
Takeaway #1: A great snapshot of the time
The collection is a snapshot of what it was like in the old days watch an indie movie. Chances are the budgets were so low the filmmakers had to shoot in the streets guerilla style without lights or a robust crew. That makes much of these films feel genuine of the time filming in the streets with many of the characters being played by regular folks in their own clothes. These films were released in 1968, 1969, and 1970 although The Wedding Party was filmed in 1963. I marveled as DeNiro ran through the park in Hi, Mom! as old-timey police officers walked by or were shocked to see the sexual awakening and conversation of drugs and war so adamantly displayed. All three films were made by young filmmakers and actors trying to make a movie and it shows because it’s so raw. One has to wonder if DeNiro at the time was basically playing himself. The exploration of peep shows and voyeurism is also interesting further exploring the sexual revolution at the time but in real time.
Takeaway #2: Clever cinematography, editing, and story choices
Given how these films are a bit long, paced oddly at times, and can lose your interest it’s actually quite impressive how good the cinematography and editing is in these movies. DePalma plays around with speeding up films, jump-cutting mid-conversation, and playing around with perspective. The opening of Greetings is a good example of this showing a skyscraper with different apartments and then cutting in footage of different rooms over the windows. It’s an effect that I’m sure at the time was painstaking and difficult, but it looks seamless. The use of light and contrast works wonderfully in The Wedding Party thanks to it being in black and white.
Story-wise each film has its merits. The Wedding Party has the feel of something modern, post-2000, but was made so long ago it’s a marvel. It’s a conversational film not unlike Clerks although it’s far less controversial. Greetings tackles the Vietnam War in ways nobody was doing at the time. Its comedy can sometimes hit the mark, and it’s certainly controversial in how it uses language. It’s a black comedy that works in bits. Hi, Mom!, which serves as a sequel to Greetings, has an excellent first act involving DeNiro’s character selling a porno businessman on voyeurism films. Unfortunately for him he falls for one of the girls he’s peeping on. The film devolves a bit after this into a film within a film, but it’s compelling here and there.
Takeaway #3: You gotta start somewhere
One of the most shocking elements in watching all three of these films is how raw they are. DeNiro has yet to discover the psychotic in Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or the gangster that defined his career. He’s generally speaking playing a normal guy in his 20s. In fact, The Wedding Party was shot when he was 20 years, if my math adds up, and is his first on film work. He’s not bad in the role-playing an average guy and it makes you wonder if he carried on doing comedies or standard dramas if he’d be as popular today.
DePalma’s directing is incredible considering this is where he started. There are definite signs he’s playing around and learning as he went, but much of these films hold up and are watchable.
It can’t be perfect, can it?
There are many signs these films are basically experimental. The creators most likely had limitations in budget and staff, but they’re also doing a lot of riffing. There are many scenes throughout these three movies that run on way too long, but I’m sure at the time they thought it was a comedy or dramatic gold. It’s clear they were made for fun at the moment with the intention of skyrocketing their careers. It probably worked, just look where DePalma and DeNiro are now, but it’s difficult to sit through all three of these if you’re not a huge fan of theirs.
Is it good?
Having gone to school for screenwriting and watched a lot of movies it was a delight to devour these movies. Arrow DVD has done an exceptional job remastering them with very clean visuals even when they were shot on subpar film. As it stands these films act like time capsules for the time they were shot, but also how raw DeNiro and DePalma were at the time. If you’re a lover of cinema it’s worth experiencing the films for their creativity, but if you’re a casual moviegoer I’d suggest skipping these due to their unpolished nature.