The story, we already know: A young man heads off to discover the world and make his way in it. That’s the template for stories of adventurers from Don Quixote to Candide, from Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield.
In the hands of Melvin Van Peebles, it’s another matter entirely.
The protagonist of Van Peebles’ latest film and his newest literary effort is a vagabond who following in many other’s itinerant footsteps. But this time, our hero is a black man in America. And he can relate to that like no one else can.
The 78-year-old director, screenwriter, actor, playwright, cultural flamethrower and all-American trickster returns fully to the scene (a scene he’s really never left) with “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus, Itchy-Footed Mutha,” a bawdy comic bildüngsroman of a black pilgrim’s progress through the modern world.
“It’s all there in the title,” Van Peebles said in a recent phone interview. “You could have called it ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ “This is the portrait of somebody who goes out to take on the world It’s about the things that befall him. It’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ it’s ‘Canterbury Tales.’ But I just sent someone out after a life in the ‘hood, and this is what happens to him. It’s more complicated like that.”
But Van Peebles' own life is a portrait of the septagenarian in constant motion. Van Peebles lives his own thoroughly itchy-footed life:
A book signing at a bookstore in New York City in August. A book signing at Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles. Then an appearance at the Bumbershoot music and arts festival in Seattle is set for over Labor Day weekend. Then back to L.A. for another event before heading back to Seattle for a master class in filmmaking.
Early next year he heads to Paris, where the opera of “Sweet Sweetback” opens on Feb. 15. In the meantime, another trip to L.A. is planned as he prepares to stage a West Coast production of “Unmitigated Truth,” Van Peebles self-described "three-man musical” that just closed off-Broadway.
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“Confessions” finds its life in the culture on two fronts, the graphic novel (developed by Van Peebles and Caktuz..?13, an award-wining illustrator, and published by Akashic Books) and the film arriving almost simultaneously in pop-culcha time. The film opened on Aug. 21; the novel debuted Sept. 1.
In fact, the graphic novel leapfrogs the usual chronological conventions. It contains stills from the film — a break from other such ventures; more often than not, the film of a graphic novel finds the novel as the antecedent (Frank Miller’s “Sin City” and “The Spirit” made their way to the screen after publication as graphic novels).
“I thought I’d take the idea of a graphic novel one step further. I took some of the images from the film and mixed them at the same time with the illustrations – a part of the images of the film visuals themselves.”
“It’s just what going on. I thought, ‘what a wonderful opportunity.’ Of course I could have done a linear novel but when I went in and thought about putting this into a graphic novel, I was monkey see, monkey do.”
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It’s not the first time Van Peebles has turned the established order on its collective head. In 1971, with a budget most feature films would use for catering, Van Peebles directed “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a coming-of-age tale of a black man in flight from corrupt authorities in 1970 Panther-era America.
“Sweetback,” a kind of “Les Miserables” in the ‘hood, was a brash, abrasive departure from Hollywood expectations. The highest-grossing indie film of 1971, it put the industry on notice that black men in the movies would no longer be such ready fodder for stereotypes, portrayed as either docile, shuffling apologists or stoic, one-dimensional mannequins.
“Sweetback,” which eventually grossed more than $4 million (despite a theatrical run in all of two theaters) paved the way for the blaxploitation genre. Films from “Dolemite” to “SuperFly,” “Black Caesar” to “Cleopatra Jones” can all trace their fearless, streetwise, willfully confrontational lineage to the film Van Peebles made on a shoestring. To hear Van Peebles tell it, even “Shaft,” made around the same time as “Sweetback,” was influenced by it.
“You know, they started making Shaft as a white movie?” Van Peebles told The Guardian (UK) in June 2005. “After ‘Sweetback,’ they stopped pre-production and turned it into a black one.'"
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You’d think that in the wake of “Sweetback’s” success, and the fact of numerous black-directed motion pictures and a proven track record of saleability since then, Van Peebles would have had a clearer path to the creation of the movie version of “Confessions.” That wasn’t the case.
“Nope," he said. "Not for me. I got no partners, so I’m distributing it myself. Everyone around is ready to laud me and tell me what a genius I am,” he said with perhaps a touch of bitterness. But just a touch. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If you want to be visionary you’ve got to pay visionary dues.”
For someone so opinionated, Van Peebles has consistently held his fire in comments on fellow artists and others in the public eye. Interviewers are often advised to draw their own conclusions on a given topic. Brer Soul must be one hell of a poker player. “I don’t really talk unless I can do something — and then I’m all over you. I do not feel that my position as a filmmaker allows me to pontificate about things.
“Because I’ve been very successful in my artistic genre, I don’t really think that gives me the right to pontificate ad nauseum about shit I don’t know,” he said. “I won’t run down or dumb down people who work very hard at their thoughts. Quite often, minorities are sometimes ambushed; ‘so and so said such and such.’ I must go back to my original position: nothing catches a fish but his mouth.”
Sometimes you just know there's a viewpoint, on target and thoroughly original, that he refuses to enlarge on. About President Obama, for example, one of the more opinionated artists in the nation volunteers what feels like boilerplate praise: “I would hope that the things he’s done and is doing are things that work. I like him, I like what he’s trying to do, I like him 100 percent. He’s got my vote.”
It’s this headstrong, playfully inventive sense of independence that’s vexing even to his champions. At a recent master class in Seattle, speaking to (and disagreeing with) a reporter about aspects of his technique, Van Peebles offered a clear sense of his creative approach: I did it my way. I'm doing it my way. Deal with it.
“I don't do films the black way,” he said, “I just do it my way. Hollywood is great, like your mama is great. But I do not make films that way because I'm self-taught. I make films that way --how I teach myself. You learn a language, it's the same thing. You got to learn on your own. You do it automatically. You do it because you want to speak that language.”
Image credits: Van Peebles top: Jean-Luc Guerin. Confessionsofa cover: Akashic Books. Van Peebles at microphone: Still from Aug. 28 interview with WNYC Radio. © 2009 WNYC. MER with Melvin Van Peebles, Seattle, Sept. 2009.