Melvin Van Peebles -wikipedia
Melvin Van Peebles Melvin Van Peebles at a photoshoot in his home/office. Photo: Alex Lozupone via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Good Thing Melvin Van Peebles Ignored All That Dumb-Ass Safe Advice

Melvin Van Peebles’ life and art are about breaking the rules, ignoring society’s “wise” advice, and following your heart.

Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Melvin Van Peebles
28 September 2021

In a bittersweet coincidence, maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles died on 22 September, age 89, within one week of the release of Criterion’s Blu-ray box devoted to his work: Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films.

The box doesn’t contain all his diverse obscurities. For example, he directed at least four other features, some in collaboration with his son Mario Van Peebles. The box contains his first four, most famous features, dating from the late ’60s and early ’70s, plus his first three shorts dating from 1957-61, and one crucial bonus feature.

Story of a Three Day Pass (1967)
and the early shorts

While working on cable cars in San Francisco in 1957, the 25-year-old Melvin Peebles, who was yet without a “Van” to his name, made two short films. Shot silent and post-synchronized with expressive soundtracks, these were very much “learning curve” experiences in the nuts and bolts of putting together films.

The first short, Sunlight, tells a complicated story with a flashback structure, while the gospel hymn from today’s wedding ceremony bleeds into the man’s memories of 20 years before. The plot has something to do with facial discoloration, a detail that looks forward to Watermelon Man and the childhood flashback in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Elements of the black church and gospel women resurface in Story of a Three Day PassSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Don’t Play Us Cheap.

Three Pickup Men for Herrick is an exquisitely observed vignette about a boss selecting three day-laborers out of a group of five prospects. The boss and one prospect are white, the other men black, and we’re invited to assume this is one factor in selection. The disturbing nakedness of this process is unavoidable, whereas most of us never see our competitors in the more civilized routine of applications and interviews. Our ignorance conceals, or perhaps exacerbates, how dispiriting and disquieting is this culling.

By decade’s end, Peebles relocated to the Netherlands, where he added the Dutch “Van” to his name. Soon he found himself employed as a journalist and multi-purpose writer in France. His work included editing the five issues of Mad Magazine‘s short-lived French incarnation, contributing to the pioneering satirical magazine Hara-kiri, and publishing several novels and short stories.

The year 1961 found Van Peebles making the third short included here, Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs), another silent, post-dubbed film. The agonizing story of a boy’s attempt to lift a 500-franc bill from a sewer drain is a beautifully shot and edited moral fable. Since the only characters are white, racial tension is removed from the equation and replaced with naked competition and desperation as existential human qualities.

Van Peebles’ debut feature as writer-director, The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967), is based on his novel La Permission, which is also the film’s French title and a word of interesting multiple meanings. He made it by taking advantage of French rules about help for filmmakers, and his introductory anecdote about this becomes a small lesson in how you must push yourself into a world that doesn’t always take account of you.

As for the film, the simple fact that it exists in a place and a mental space where an “inter-racial” romance can exist already seems audacious. This charming black and white film is among the most stylistically brilliant and refreshing debuts in film history, and we should have celebrated Van Peebles for it had he never made another film.

Infected by the spirit of the French New Wave, the film spins a simple romantic encounter between a black American soldier, Turner (Harry Baird), and a white French woman, Miriam (Nicole Berger), into a tour-de-force of self-conscious gestures, from the merely playful to the extravagantly beautiful. By the way, the story establishes right away that self-consciousness or double-consciousness is an element of Turner’s existence, as he argues with alternate versions of himself in mirrors.

The scene of the couple’s first meeting in a club celebrates magnificence, from the hero’s “gliding” entrance (foreshadowing a signature Spike Lee gesture) to a fantasy sequence to the fragmentary jump-cuts. The jumps were already present in the army commander’s unintentional comedy routine as he addressed a subjective camera that played Turner. While the jumps are a New Wave element, they hark back to the fragmentary editing of Van Peebles’ early shorts, a choice that evolved from contingency to deliberate gesture.

The sex scene – and all Van Peebles’ films have sex and the theme of sexual knowledge – uses a montage of brutal newsreels to startling effect. The point is that even a private, personal moment has wider political ramifications and must take place within a social context. From the beginning, Turner’s heightened self-consciousness means he always carries thoughts, assumptions and fears that may taint his interpretation and experience, although one of the film’s many refreshing elements is a refusal to indulge in melodrama or tragedy.

To understand how sexually advanced this film is, consider that 1967 is the same year that US anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in the Loving v. Virginia case, which is the basis of Jeff Nichols‘ film Loving (2016). A film keyed into this zeitgeist was Stanley Kramer‘s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, also in 1967, in which interracial marriage is approved after much discussion within an idealized context of white bourgeois privilege. Kramer’s film, which is interesting and important for various reasons, doesn’t really adopt the young couple’s perspective nor does it show them thrashing about joyfully in bed.

By contrast, Van Peebles’ exploration of one sexual weekend in a French context, in which the man worries about his army buddies seeing them while the woman doesn’t need to care, feels more credible and radical about the nature and context of such a relationship. For this reason, it feels like an advance over John Cassavetes‘ important indie debut Shadows (1959), a more angsty drama from the viewpoint of a woman so light-skinned that she passes for white and indeed is played by a white actress.

Van Peebles closes with another mirror scene for Turner that paves the way for mirror scenes in Watermelon Man, which will be more of a raucous satirical cartoon in keeping with Van Peebles’ Hara-kiri work. In fact, several of his cartoonist colleagues have bit roles in The Story of a Three Day Pass. It’s a rich film, both in itself and as a signpost to his future career.

This is, after all, a French film, notwithstanding that an American made it. It was a French submission to the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it did so well that Hollywood studios expressed interest in the filmmaker, perhaps they were surprised to learn that he was in fact American, and African-American at that. Columbia prevailed upon the returning prodigal to direct a bold studio comedy that they had in the planning stages.