Lessons from Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Story of a Three Day Pass”

This “Lessons From” column aims to spotlight low-budget films that filmmakers might find educational for the creation or development of their own projects.

The French New Wave cinema had developed in the late 1950s as a reaction against standardized filmmaking techniques which were largely expensive and exclusionary. These films, and their filmmakers, were credited with reinvigorating a medium that had established a “correct” way to make a film.

Inspiration from this movement would extend outside of France, including into the United States. These filmmakers, who would come to define American cinema in the 1970s, would implement the methods that they had learned from overseas. One of these filmmakers was Melvin Van Peebles, an African American filmmaker from Chicago. Van Peebles, often referred to as the “Godfather of modern Black cinema,” would direct a number of films over his lifetime, including 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which would be credited as one of the earliest examples of the blaxploitation genre. This film, the third feature that he would direct, is his most well-known, but his very first film, 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass, would showcase the style and themes that would define his later work.

Prior to Three Day Pass, Van Peebles had directed a couple of short films, and moved to Hollywood, hoping to secure work as a film director. However, no one was prepared to give Van Peebles a chance, and he eventually moved to Europe (first to the Netherlands, then France). While in France, Van Peebles would work as a journalist, playwright, and composer, among other creative jobs. Eventually, he would begin work as a French-language novelist, publishing five novels. The fifth of these projects, titled “La permission,” would provide the basis for Three Day Pass. Van Peebles, who still wanted to direct films, had learned about a rule with the French Film Director’s Guild, wherein any novelist looking to adapt one of their projects could secure a membership with the Guild. After gaining entry, Van Peebles received $60,000 of funding through a government subsidy, and set out to adapt La permission, which would eventually be re-titled The Story of a Three Day Pass.

This film opens with Turner, an African American GI, stationed in France. Early in the film, Turner’s commanding officer promotes him to a new position as an assistant orderly. The officer tells Turner that he is also going to give him a “three day pass” before starting his new position, thereby granting Turner a three day vacation to explore Paris. While in Paris, Turner goes out to a nightclub where he meets Miriam, a white French woman. Smitten with her, he asks her to join him the next day on a trip to a beach town, where the two fall in love. Along the way, however, Turner and Miriam are discovered by three white American soldiers, who report the relationship to Turner’s captain.

Three Day Pass’ style is evident from the beginning, when the audience is introduced to the protagonist. Looking into the bathroom mirror, Turner is met by a hyper-critical double of himself, who criticizes his acquiescence to his captain, referring to him as an “Uncle Tom.” The conversation is not staged in a traditional way, but rather a split-screen shot, where Harry Baird, who portrays Turner, appears twice in the same frame, side by side. This inventive quality propels right into the next scene, where the Captain (also critically) addresses Turner, giving him his three day pass.

In this scene, Harry Baird is never shown. Instead, Van Peebles chooses to shoot the scene from Turner’s point-of-view, meaning that the Captain directly addresses the camera, and as a result, the audience. Within this scene, the French New Wave inspiration is evident, as Van Peebles implements jump cuts between different moments of the Captain’s address. His patronizing nature is heightened by these cuts, indicating that the critiques extend into the moments between the moments that are kept in the edit. As opposed to the traditional version of this scene, where Turner would appear, and the director would cut to his reactions off of the Captain’s words, Van Peebles puts the audience directly into Turner’s shoes, to experience the condescension and prejudice just as he would.

Shortly after this conversation, Turner travels to Paris. After exploring the city, and finding his romanticism of Paris met with uncertainty from the locals, Turner makes his way to a nightclub. Upon entry, Turner seems to float across the club to the bar, utilizing a double dolly shot that Spike Lee would make his trademark years later. Once he is settled at the bar, Turner notices a beautiful Parisian woman. Turner, watching her, embodies a cool, casual demeanor, as he smokes and drinks (heightened by Van Peebles’ use of slow motion). After the two make eye contact, Turner imagines a scenario where the crowd parts and he coolly walks over to her, finding an immediate embrace. Eventually, the bartender snaps Turner out of his daydream, and he decides to actually walk over. The crowd does not part, and when he asks for her hand, Turner is rejected.

However, while at the nightclub, Turner meets another French woman named Miriam. Their romance is accentuated by the editing’s rhythm, or rather, anti-rhythm, as Van Peebles makes deliberate choices to cut jarringly between Turner and Miriam’s conversations in different parts of the nightclub. The edits are knowingly awkward, and as a result, more fun. Because the romance arises out of a real relationship, rather than the perfectly imagined romance with the first woman, the tension and chemistry feels more uncertain, yet more realistic.

In an article with Indiewire, Van Peebles’ son, Mario Van Peebles, described his father’s filmmaking, saying, “He’s always had his own vibe and he took cinematic chances. He had guts and wouldn’t have cared what anyone else thought about him or his choices. He tossed the rule book into the trash heap and did it his way.”

Melvin Van Peebles, himself, would say that his direction was so inventive because he was not aware of the things that he was “not allowed” to do. Many of these form-breaking techniques were undoubtedly things he would have witnessed in French cinema of the era, having even lived in France at the time that he made Three Day Pass. However, the film is not imitative to its detriment, as Van Peebles would match the techniques with his own background and experiences. Having served three and a half years in the military, Turner’s experiences were undoubtedly informed by Van Peebles’. Particularly, the film’s look at racial prejudice in the United States, the military, and France, were all directly inspired by Van Peebles’ experiences. He would continue to explore these themes in the films that he made following Three Day Pass.

He would also continue the formal “rule-breaking” techniques that he began here in his later work, from his use of the camera, to his inventive musical cues and editing rhythm. With Three Day Pass, each scene is defined by its use of form-breaking techniques, and much of the film’s fun comes from Van Peebles’ aggressive use of these techniques, often utilizing many unique choices at the same time, so that a scene that uses jump cuts also becomes a scene that utilizes slow motion, a double dolly shot, and unconventional editing choices. The result is a film that is so audacious that one can not help but admire just how frequently its filmmaker commits to telling his story in an unconventional way.

At its heart though, the film is a romance, but it is one that is infused with Van Peebles’ chaotic stylistic flourishes as well as his life experience, which provide a basis for the sometimes satirical, sometimes serious, look at racial politics in both the United States and France. Because he was “not aware” of the rules that he was not allowed to break, Melvin Van Peebles made a film that was inventive, politically aware, and above all else, fun.

Harrison Dykema

harrisondykema@gmail.com

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