Where to watch Melvin Van Peebles movies

Melvin Van Peebles was a lot of things – filmmaker, novelist, musician, playwright, painter, stock option trader, storyteller – but abov...


Melvin Van Peebles was a lot of things – filmmaker, novelist, musician, playwright, painter, stock option trader, storyteller – but above all, he was a showman, masterful self-promoter, and shameless huckster. When he died Tuesday at 89, he was one week away from the release of the new Criterion Collection box set “Melvin Van Peebles: The Essential Movies”(Available on Blu-ray September 28), and Van Peebles, who has always displayed a keen sense of humor about himself and the world around him, might have appreciated the timing. – his death also served as the last act of celebration for the man and his work.

“Essential Films” offers, as usual for Criterion, a treasure trove of additional material: audio commentaries, first short films, interviews, archival footage and more. But the feature films that are gathered there – his first four, produced in a remarkable burst of creativity between 1967 and 1973 – are the main attraction. As so many obituaries and tributes that have appeared this week give Van Peebles his (rightful) sound as a film maverick, independent film pioneer and godfather of film noir, the Criterion ensemble is a testament to his considerable skill, d ‘first and foremost as a filmmaker. These four works show his technical prowess, his social incisiveness and his sense of storytelling. But above all, they flaunt its amazing range.

He started out, as most filmmakers do, by reflecting his influences. “The story of a three-day passWas made in France, based on one of the novels he wrote there as an American Abroad in the mid-1960s, and the prints of the French New Wave are everywhere: in a playful way with editing, a visual sense of humor and (most importantly) a deep-seated sense of freshness, as he shoots his hero, resplendent in his sunglasses and felt hat, strolling the streets of Paris like a protagonist Godard.

But like most great filmmakers, these influences are just a starting gun, the haze from which Van Peebles’ own voice emerges – most importantly, in his exploration of the intricacies and complications of darkness. He writes down his GI (played by Harry Baird), as a model soldier, and dramatizes his inner conflict with a series of scenes in which the GI is attacked by his own reflection in the mirror (“You’re Captain’s Uncle Tom The identification number growls). The film’s most personal moments are the quietest, as his camera observes his protagonist as a man out of his element and out of his place, in a land where even other blacks he meets view him with suspicion.

Van Peebles would follow these sons in his next film. The critical success of “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” won it the most elusive of beasts, a deal with a mainstream studio, and the result was “Watermelon man», A delicate blend of high-level comedy and social satire. Black nightclub comedian Godfrey Cambridge stars, first in whiteface, as a racist, self-satisfied insurance salesman who wakes up one morning and finds himself, inexplicably, black from head to toe.

The stylistic change between the films is striking – this is a larger, sillier film, swapping the jazzy score of its early days with wacky musical cues, and its austere black-and-white photography for a Day-Glo look. oversaturated and suburban. And Herman Raucher’s script works within traditional comedic beats, installation and punchline – at first. But there’s a real bite and real anger underneath, as the experience of being black in America quickly (and unsurprisingly) radicalizes our central character, whose colleagues turn on him, whose neighbors harass him, and whose central character. the apparently liberal woman leaves him. The film ends with our hero embracing Black Power.

Columbia Pictures was not crazy about this ending; Van Peebles was not crazy about their interference. So he did “Sweet Sweetback song Baadasssss independently, at a time when this was rarely done, let alone by a color filmmaker. (A 4K restoration of the film will be shown next week at the New York Film Festival.) The tale was light, about a con artist on the run after attacking a pair of dirty cops who become some sort of folk hero.

But its themes were topical and unfortunately timeless: police brutality, institutional racism, media manipulation, sexual exploitation and stereotypes. The handcrafted and simple production (Van Peebles not only wrote and directed, but also acted, edited and co-produced) crackles with furious energy. Van Peebles deeply exploited the politics of post-Martin Luther King Jr. racial radicalism of the moment, dedicating the film to “all the siblings who had had enough of the man,” and when it was rated X – usually the commercial kiss of death – he wore this designation in advertising as a badge of honor, proclaiming that his film was “rated X by an all-white jury.”

The direct appeal worked and “Sweet Sweetback” grossed over $ 15 million (a dramatic return on its announced budget of $ 500,000). He’s also credited with helping start the so-called ‘blaxploitation’ cycle – and Van Peebles could easily have participated in this commercially lucrative era, producing more crime images and tales of revenge. Instead, it went in a totally opposite direction, following up on “Sweet Sweetback” with “Don’t play us dear”, A film adaptation of one of his French novels.

Van Peebles wrote it down as a musical and rehearsed it as a Broadway show – and it was performed there while he was editing the film version. So the film is a weird and rowdy fusion of performance document, musical and religious movie parable, filled with theatrical conventions (staging and proscenium lighting; big boisterous performances; confessional ballads and spirited shows. ) but also its iconic cinematic flourishes.

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 out of the ordinary as “Sweet Sweetback” – another example of a filmmaker who refused to act according to the rules, do what we expected, zigzag when he could. In many ways, the four works of Melvin Van Peebles gathered in the Criterion box have little in common: a French drama, a broad comedy, a shredded indie, a raucous musical. Yet every movie is undeniably his.

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