THE STORY OF A THREE-DAY PASS (La Permission) B
France (87 mi) 1968 d: Melvin Van Peeples
Melvin Van Peeples is something of a living history of independent films, nearly single-handedly revitalizing the American black film movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, where his self-financed classic SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSS SONG (1971) opened the door for stronger and more militant black characters in film, while also offering opportunities behind the camera for directing as well both in television and the movie industry. This earlier film would have to be described as a more whimsical Van Peeples, as he was still learning his craft. To hear Peeples tell it, he was unable to find work after a brief stint in the Air Force flying bomber planes, so he worked as a gripman on cable cars in San Francisco, eventually writing a book about the experience, The Big Heart, in 1957, making several short films afterwards that in the mid 60’s caught the eye of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, who invited him to make films in France. As there were no comparable opportunities in America, he joined several other American black artists that were also allowed greater freedom of expression in France through a racial tolerance that simply didn’t exist in the United States, like Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, where Peeples taught himself French, actually wrote stories for a social activist newspaper there as well along with a few plays and novels, one of which, La Permission in French, was adapted into his first feature film, receiving a $60,000 grant from the French Cinema Center. Shooting in 36 days for a cost of $200,000, the film reflects a bilingual sensibility, as several characters conveniently speak both. The story concerns Turner (Harry Baird), a friendly black American soldier stationed at an Air Force base in France, where all things considered, it’s surprising Peeples didn’t play the part, as Baird has an un-American sounding accent from Guyana The initial signs of self-deprecating humor are the conversations Turner has while looking in the mirror with his alter ego, who calls him a “good” Negro and an Uncle Tom, explaining how he was chosen for a recent promotion. When we meet his captain (Harold Brav), a highly intense white man constantly on the verge of a breakdown, where everything must be exactly in place or he suffers from apoplexy, he describes Turner as a man he doesn’t have to worry about, rewarding him with an unheard of three-day leave.
Overjoyed, Turner is off to Paris, where after visiting a carnival and a strip club he bashfully meets a similarly shy white French girl, Miriam, Nicole Berger, Charles Aznavour’s suicidal wife in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960), over drinks in a dance club, where smiles and holding hands are their means of communication, but he’s amazed that she agrees to take a trip to the ocean in Normandy, staying together at a beachfront hotel. Mind you, they’re afraid to even touch each other at first, as so much is swirling through their heads. The moment they’re alone, however, their respective fantasies kick in, where Turner is a robust Three Musketeer figure cutting a manly figure on a horse as she’s waiting for him by the fire in his chateau, while she’s running through the jungle chased by black natives, where she’s presented as a gift to their handsome chief (Turner). These humorous visions help cut the ice, using an overhead ceiling shot to reflect their awkwardness and distance. When she excuses herself to brush her teeth, he goes through another half dozen changes of clothes, each with a different intentionally sophisticated look, like something seen out of Esquire or Playboy magazine, turning the bed down, then changing it back the way it was, all taking place in split seconds inside his head. Their shy tenderness with each other is refreshing, where they obviously have respect, and things go pretty much they way they’d like, happy to be in each others arms. At dinner, still holding hands, they’re always seen with a bottle of wine, initially eating Chinese, where the waitress yells out the order, amusingly interrupted by an oversized guest placed at their same table who orders a week’s worth of food. When it’s a Spanish restaurant the next night, with a flamenco guitarist and dancer, everything appears friendly and nice, until Turner (in his head) hears a racial insult (that was never spoken), launching himself headfirst at the guitarist, burying his face with his fists, only to be pulled off the man and beaten to a pulp, seen limping down the street afterwards. It’s curious how Peeples chooses to show racial antagonism, as something he carries around largely in his head, where it’s an ingrained and programmed response, as this overreaction is largely a riff on how the word “black man” sounds in French, as to Turner it just sounds insulting.
When they’re alone, the couple couldn’t be happier together, but Peeples loves to show how attitudes change in the presence of others, altering how they are perceived, as not everyone approves of interracial couples, even in France, especially Turner’s over-demanding captain who reflects typical American bigotry. While the two are enjoying a perfect day at the beach, a few fellow soldiers on leave interrupt their apparent bliss, as they are appalled at what they see, bringing American racial prejudice front and center into their otherwise happy lives, where Turner is quickly stripped of his promotion and confined to barracks until a traveling church choir from Harlem visit the base and they need a friendly black tour guide. Peeples co-writes, with Mickey Baker, his own funky musical soundtrack, where the overt nature of the music offers a take on the character’s personality, a highly theatrical device used by Peeples, something more commonly seen in live theater. Easily the highpoint of the film is when they finally consummate their sexual attraction, where 60’s newsreel style images flood the screen in a flash of quick cuts, offering a glimpse of the era in a mini-movie, offering a bit of social realism in what is otherwise a lighthearted romp through the French countryside, including a pastoral hayride with a friendly farmer more in harmony with nature who’s all too happy to chat with them. While the film has a pronounced innocence and humor to it, mixed with a sprinkling of racist sentiments, it does play to stereotypes and can’t match the radical influence of SWEETBACK, which literally changed the look of cinema in America, allowing blacks to redefine themselves in a healthier image in a predominate white society. SWEETBACK’S biggest influence on Hollywood was that it made money, opening a cash flow to blacks for a change, paving the way for more diverse films and attitudes to come. This film earned Peeples a contract with Columbia Pictures and a trip back to America, where for a decade at least, blacks enjoyed their greatest success in the movie industry.