FilmWatch Weekly: Melvin Van Peebles, Angelina Jolie, and D.C. Punks!

What's the most revolutionary "new" movie in town? A Melvin Van Peebles filmed-in-France flick from 1968.

Here’s a rundown of some titles new to Portland’s screens, big and small:

Film of the Week: The Story of a Three-Day Pass.

The most revolutionary “new” movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course. The debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who would make the even more influential Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song two years later, is a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.

Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three-Day Pass

It would be an exaggeration to say this movie couldn’t have been made in the U.S., but it certainly helps that it was made in France, after Van Peebles was rejected in his initial efforts to penetrate Hollywood. On an American base near Paris, Corporal Turner (Harry Baird) receives a promotion and a weekend pass from his blustering white commanding officer. Van Peebles immediately conjures du Boisian “double consciousness” by having Turner’s reflection in a mirror accuse him of receiving these favors only because he is an obsequious Uncle Tom. Surreal elements like this permeate the movie, which clearly took inspiration from French cinema of the decade as much as from Paris itself, where Turner heads for his 72 hours of freedom.

After a variety of amusing incidents roaming the city, many of which reflect Turner’s surprise at the lack of race-based restrictions on his movements and activities, he ends up meeting a white woman named Miriam (Nicole Berger, who had appeared in films by Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, and who was tragically killed in a car accident prior to this film’s release). The scene of their initial encounter is chock-full, maybe even overstuffed, with stylistic New Wave shenanigans, sometimes clumsily executed but well-suited to communicating the dislocation and energy of Turner’s experiences.

Long story short, Turner and Miriam hit it off and decide to head to the coast for his remaining liberty. Unlike Hollywood films of the time (this is but a year after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Story of a Three-Day Pass allows its interracial couple to express spontaneous affection, to frolic freely and without anxiety or shame, and, yes, to sleep together. All’s well until, of course, America catches up with him. In one instance, he reacts violently when a Frenchman refers to him as “nègre,” which generally translates as Negro (ergo relatively anodyne at the time), but which Turner interprets as a much more reprehensible N-word. In another, Turner’s homeland literally catches up, when a group of white soldiers come across him and Miriam cavorting on the beach.

I first saw this movie more than 25 years ago, on a muddy VHS release from a company called Xenon Pictures, which was instrumental in getting a number of early Black-centered films into the home video market. Now, having been blessed with a 4K digital restoration that restores its crisp black-and-white cinematography, it’s yet another reminder that American independent cinema didn’t start with Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch, and that Van Peebles was much more than a mere provocateur. (Available to stream through the Hollywood Theatre)

Short Takes:

The Columnist: This Dutch dark comedy (is there any other kind?) goes after the low-hanging, if deserving, fruit of internet trolls. A newspaper columnist with the excellent name of Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) finds herself unable to stop reading the comments on the posts of her work. Unlike her workplace nemesis-turned-boyfriend, the equally excellently named Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen), Femke takes the anonymous, misogynistic rants personally—so personally, in fact, that she starts hunting down the ranters and murdering them. Meanwhile, her teenage daughter is fighting a battle for free speech at her school. Irony, right? (Available to stream through the Kiggins Theatre)

Katja Herbers in The Columnist

The Killing of Two Lovers: It looks like the title of writer-director Robert Machoian’s intense drama will come true in its opening scene, as David (Clayne Crawford) stands over the bed where his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) sleeps, pointing a revolver and steeling himself for the deed, only to be interrupted and unnerved by the flush of a toilet down the hall. It turns out that the married David and Nikki have recently separated and agreed to see other people, but that David is having a very hard time with this arrangement. He wants to be a good husband and a good father to their four children—a teenage daughter and three young sons. But his rage and jealousy threaten to get the better of him, especially when the presence of a new man (Chris Coy) in Nikki’s life becomes more and more evident. There definitely are moments when this feels like the overly familiar story of a frustrated white dude who simply can’t contain his emasculated rage. There’s a clanging, discordant soundtrack meant to emphasize David’s harrowed state and unpredictability, and a brow-furrowed performance by Crawford that effectively veers between vengefulness and resignation. Machoian’s direction similarly alternates between the claustrophobic confines of the cab of David’s truck and the wide-open spaces of the rural setting—although even the latter feel hemmed-in thanks to the slightly pretentious use of a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There’s nothing terribly unfamiliar here, but there’s also enough talent on display to make one eager to see what these folks do next. (Playing at Cinema 21)

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Sepideh Moafi and Clayne Crawford in The Killing of Two Lovers

Those Who Wish Me Dead: If this had come out in 1947 and starred Gloria Grahame, Robert Ryan, and Peter Lorre, it would be remembered today as a solid, if improbable, B-movie thriller set against the backdrop of a hellacious wildfire. Today, we reflexively require more of something we call realism from pictures like this one, which makes Taylor Sheridan’s third feature as director (he’s also helmed numerous episodes of the TV series Yellowstone) feel like a throwback, for better or worse. Instead of the aforementioned trio, we get Angelina Jolie as the Montana smokejumper haunted by recent trauma, and Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the Mutt-and-Jeff hitmen she’s forced to contend with. The MacGuffin the villains are after is some sort of scrawled evidence that the teenaged son (Finn Little) of a murdered forensic accountant has in his possession, but in essence: bad guys are after boy, Angelina protects boy from bad guys, forest fire rages around them. There’s also a local sheriff’s deputy and his badass, very pregnant wife who get corralled into the mayhem. In fact, the deputy’s wife (Medina Senghore) gets the biggest cheers (or would, at least, in a crowded theater) when she comes barreling out of the darkness on a horse wielding a shotgun. Sorry, spoiler alert, I guess. (Streaming through HBO Max, also playing at some area theaters, including Cinemagic, the Bagdad Theater, and Living Room Theaters.)

The Teen Idles in an archival shot from Punk the Capital

Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement: In a way, it makes perfect sense that Washington, D.C. would become a center of punk rock activity in the 1970s. After all, it’s hard to imagine a better place to rail against conformity, materialism, and hypocrisy. On the other hand, a city of government workers doesn’t necessarily provide much of an enthusiastic audience. Nevertheless, bands such as Bad Brains and Minor Threat emerged as hardcore stalwarts, armed with a moral outrage and political intent that provided a sharp contrast to the Sex Pistols-inspired, heroin-infected New York scene. This documentary unearths a wealth of fascinating archival footage, including performances by early acts like The Slickee Boys and Teen Idles, and features entertaining interviews with Bad Brains’ HR, Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, and the always voluble Henry Rollins. (Streaming through the Hollywood Theatre)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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