watching melvin van peebles movies

Melvin van Peebles was many things – filmmaker, novelist, musician, playwright, painter, stock options trader, raconteur – but above all, he was a showman, a skilled self-promoter and unattainable hustler. When he 89 on Tuesday. died on, that was a week after the release of the new box set of the Criterion Collection”Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films(available on Blu-ray September 28), and Van Peebles, who always displayed a sharp sense of humor about himself and the world around him, may have been applauded at the time—their passing marked Ballyhoo’s final. Work also worked as man and his work.

As always for Criterion, “Essential Films” provides a wealth of supplementary material: audio commentary, early short films, interviews, archival footage and so on. But the feature films collected in it – his first four, made in a remarkable burst of creativity between 1967 and 1973 – are the highlights. As the multiple tributes and tributes revealed this week give Van Peebles his (correct) appearance as a cinematic maverick, an indie film groundbreaker, and a black film godfather, the Criterion set stands as a testament to his considerable skill. First and foremost, as a filmmaker. These four works showcase his technical prowess, social acumen and storytelling acumen. But above all, they display her astonishing range.

He began, as most filmmakers do, by reflecting on his influences. “The story of the three day pass“Made in France, based on one of the novels I wrote abroad as an American in the mid-1960s, and the fingerprints of the French new wave are on it: a playful way with montage, A sense of visual humor and (especially) a deeply underlying sense of calm, as he shoots his hero, resplendent in his colors and fedora, strolls the streets of Paris like a Goddard hero.

But as is the case with most great filmmakers, those effects are a mere starter pistol, out of the fog comes Van Peebles’ own voice—most importantly, in an exploration of the complexities and complexities of blackness. He writes his GI (played by Harry Baird) as a model soldier, and dramatizes his internal struggle with a series of scenes in which the GI is attacked by his own reflection in the mirror (“You Captain Let’s have Uncle Tom,” snarls the ID figure). The film’s most personal moments are the quietest, as his camera sees his protagonist as a man out of his element and out of his place, in a country where other black people also face him, giving him an eye of suspicion. see from.

Van Peebles will follow those threads in his next film. The critical success of “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” earned them a deal with the most elusive of animals, a mainstream studio, and the result was “watermelon value,” an intriguing mash-up of high-concept comedy and social satire. Black nightclub comedian Godfrey Cambridge initially starred in Whiteface as a racist, self-satisfied insurance salesman who wakes up one morning and finds himself, inexplicably, head-to-toe black.

The stylistic shift between the films is striking—it’s a broad, sillier film, swapping the jazzy score of his debut with wacky musical cues, and its black-and-white photography for a supersaturated, suburban day-glo look. Is. And Hermann Raucher’s script works within a traditional, setup-punchline comic rhythm—at first. But underneath is the real sting and real anger, as the experience of being Black in America quickly (and surprisingly) radicalizes our central character, whose peers turn on him, whose neighbors harass him, and whose clearly The generous wife leaves him. The film ends with our protagonist embracing Black Power.

Columbia Pictures wasn’t wild about that ending; Van Peebles was not wild about his intervention. That’s why heSweet Sweetback Badmaash Song Independently, at a time when it was rarely performed, much less by a filmmaker of color. (The film’s 4K restoration will be shown at the New York Film Festival next week.) The story was modest, about a hustler on the run after attacking a dirty cop who turns out to be a folk hero.

But its themes were topical, and tragically timeless: police brutality, institutional racism, media manipulation, sexual abuse, and stereotypes. The lowdown, the homemade production (Van Peebles not only wrote and directed but also acted, edited and co-produced) bursts with a fiery energy. Van Peebles eagerly tapped into the politics of post-Martin Luther King Jr. racial radicalism, dedicating the film to “all the brothers and sisters who’ve had enough man,” and—when it was rated X—usually Commercial Kiss of Death – He wore that designation as a badge of honor in advertising, declaring his film was “rated X by an all-white jury”.

The direct appeal worked, and “Sweet Sweetback” grossed over $15 million (a grand return on its reported $500,000 budget). It’s credited with helping kick off the so-called “blaxploitation” cycle—and Van Peebles could easily have participated in that commercially lucrative era, cranking out further crime photos and revenge narratives. Instead, he went in the completely opposite direction, following “Sweet Sweetback” with “Sweet Sweetback”.don’t play us cheap,” a film adaptation of one of his French novels.

Van Peebles wrote it as a musical comedy and rehearsed it like a Broadway show – and it played there while editing the film version. So this film performance is a strange, rowdy fusion of documentaries, film music and religious parable, full of theatrical conventions (proscenium staging and lighting; big, boisterous performances; confessional ballads and high-spirited showstoppers), but their signature cinematic flourishes too. – flourish.

The film was barely released in 1973; He would not direct another until 1989. But in its own way, “Don’t Play Us Cheap” was as daring and generic as “Sweet Sweetback”—another example of a filmmaker who refused to play by the rules, to do what was expected, when he Zig if you could. In many ways, the four Melvin van Peebles works collected in Criterion Box have little in common: a French drama, a sweeping comedy, a ragged indie, a raucous musical. Yet every single movie is undeniably Their.

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