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January 21, 2008

Story of a Three-Day Pass

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Melvin Van Peebles - 1968
Xenon Pictures Region 1 DVD

I didn't see Story of a Three-Day Pass at the time it was first released. What I do remember was that it was regarded as something of a novelty. For many people, it was the first film we were aware of to have been directed by an African-American. It wasn't until almost ten years later that I would first see films by Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, as well as learn that there was once the existence of films and theaters that played what was known as the chitlin circuit. Seen forty years after its initial release, Melvin Van Peebles' Story is a wildly uneven first feature that is often as awkward as the lovers in the film.

As is suggested by the title, the film is about a soldier given leave from the base for three days. Based in France, he goes to Paris where he meets a youngish woman in a night club. She agrees to go spend the weekend with him in Normandy. Upon his return, the soldier is restricted to the base, officially for traveling outside a specified distance from the camp.

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Van Peebles breaks up the narrative with his main character, Turner, engaged in dialogues with himself as well as scenes of fantasy. Portions of the film are so choppy, with bits of dialogue repeated in different shots, that it is unclear whether the fragmentation was a deliberate aesthetic choice, or Van Peebles pieced together a feature length film with out-takes due to necessity. There are times when Story resembles a student film, which in a way it was, given what appear to be some extreme limitations in the budget.

There are also a couple of truly inspired moments of filmmaking. Early in the nightclub, Turner spots an attractive blonde. He begins to walk towards her, facing the camera, while the club patrons separate on each side of the screen, a parody of Moses walking between the waves of the Red Sea. Later, there is a shot of three men dancing, part of the sense of joy and uninhibited silliness in the night club. The camera takes advantage of the charismatic presence of Harry Baird, an actor too often underutilized during his lifetime. With the Nicole Berger as the woman, Story of a Three-Day Pass has a link between the French New Wave and what became part of the first wave of films by African-Americans to play in mainstream U.S. theaters.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 21, 2008 12:49 AM


Interesting review, Peter. I liked the way the film looked from the few shots of it in How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It). You can't say Sweetback is a great film, but there's something so wonderfully alive in it. Van Peebles wasn't a craftsman so much as an artist.

Posted by: Marilyn at March 4, 2009 10:55 AM

3 Day Pass in my opnion is Melvin's best film. In this film he shows his great style as a filmmaker. With Watermelon Man, he proved that he could make a sucsessful Hollywood film. And Sweetback was a great artistic expression that changed the face of black cinema. In short, Melvin Van Peebles is one of the unsung great American film directors.

Posted by: Admatic at April 21, 2009 12:24 AM