Melvin Van Peebles’s Bold Debut

The Daily — May 7, 2021
Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in Melvin Van Peebles’s The Story of a Three Day Pass (1968)

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles launched the blaxploitation genre with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but perhaps more significantly, he proved that a Black filmmaker could write, direct, edit, score, distribute, and market a movie on his own, “and most important,” as Spike Lee has said, “get paid. Without Sweetback who knows if there could have been a She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, or House Party.

Driven by that same just-do-it tenacity, Van Peebles’s debut feature, the story a Black American GI, Turner (Harry Baird), falling for a white French woman, Miriam (Nicole Berger), while on leave in Paris, is “a movie full of spontaneity and effervescent camerawork, both an intimate love story and an examination of the tensions and contradictions of a Black agent of empire,” writes Yasmina Price at Vulture. A new 4K restoration of The Story of a Three Day Pass (1968) opens today at Film Forum in New York before rolling out nationwide.

Van Peebles first set out to make a feature in 1957, but by his own admission, he had no idea what he was doing, and he wound up with a handful of shorts. He shopped them around Hollywood but found no takers. Amos Vogel screened one of them, Three Pickup Men for Herrick, at Cinema 16 in New York, and James Baldwin led the discussion that followed the screening. Vogel also showed Van Peebles’s work to Cinémathèque française founder Henri Langlois, who invited the aspiring filmmaker to Paris. In France, Van Peebles worked as a journalist and wrote plays and novels, turning one of them, La permission, into Three Day Pass when he learned that a French law granted writers a temporary director’s card.

Three Day Pass “reflects the stylistic variety and the freewheeling innovation of the French New Wave,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody last summer. “It’s among the great American films of the 1960s—including Juleen Compton’s Stranded and Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary—that display the global reach of that Paris-centered movement.” In his review for 4Columns, A. S. Hamrah notes the use of “jump cuts, freeze frames, interior monologues, long takes and pans, city wanderings shot from the windows of buildings across the street, café and nightclub scenes, car rides out of town.”

Nicole Berger had appeared in short films by Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer and starred alongside Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Just months after Three Day Pass was completed, she died in a car accident at the age of thirty-two. The jazzy soundtrack of Three Day Pass was cowritten by Van Peebles and Mickey Baker, half of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia (“Love Is Strange”), and Baker had appeared as a record producer in Godard’s Masculin féminin (1966).

When Turner enters a Parisian nightclub, “all eyes [are] on him as the white patrons fade into the background and he seems to float through the crowd,” writes Yasmina Price, who points out that the gliding effect is the result of a double dolly shot, that is, rolling the camera and an actor through a scene at the same speed. The technique was made famous in the silent era by Abel Gance and Spike Lee would incorporate it as a signature flair. Another stylistic link between Van Peebles and Lee is the frequent use of direct address to the camera, and in Three Day Pass, Van Peebles “finds a nice analog to the black suspicion of the white gaze,” wrote Brandon Harris at Hammer to Nail in 2008, adding that “we constantly inhabit Turner’s perspective as people talk to him.”

Turner and Miriam head off to Normandy for a weekend of lovemaking, “and their inner monologues are revealed in fantasy sequences during sex,” writes Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times. “You might say Van Peebles doesn’t mince images: Turner visualizes himself as a squire returning to his estate and his maid Miriam, while Miriam sees herself running through a jungle, seized by African tribesmen, one played by Turner.” As Price points out, “the naïve sincerity of their brief love story is undercut by these Freudian expositions.”

Turner will pay dearly for the fling, too. His fellow soldiers report the interracial affair to their superiors, and Turner is stripped of the promotion he was promised upon his return. “He sits alone in the barracks, his privileges gone, and his future bleak,” writes Chris Shields at Reverse Shot. “As he looks in the mirror, his reflection smiles back mockingly and gloats, ‘I told you so.’ Turner replies with two words, which, if you take a moment, you can probably guess. This moment of terse directness, in light of all the poetic beauty that has come before it, sums up Van Peebles’s film perfectly and gives a taste of the bold, unpredictable, subversive works to come.”

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