We really have to appreciate the fact that IndieCollect went to the trouble of restoring this overlooked experimental feature from the late 1960s. There is something glorious about using new technology to bring back the sounds and sensations of a previous era. You will be startled by how pristine the imagery is and feel completely immersed in the Paris of the counterculture era. We are so lucky to have documentations of this time period and you can still glean a lot of information out of them. The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) is certainly dated, but that’s a big part of its appeal. It doesn’t get much more 1960s than this.
It is clear that Melvin Van Peebles intended to touch on a variety of topical issues by telling this story. He touches on racism, dissatisfaction with French middle class values and the difficulties that come with loving a person who is determined to remain closed off. He sets it in France and centres on Turner (Harry Baird), an African-American soldier who struggles with feelings of self doubt and a desire for self determination. He is given three days of leave and chooses to spend that time with Miriam (Nicole Berger), a white Frenchwoman who expresses romantic interest in him. Their burgeoning relationship is threatened by her lack of understanding when it comes to the racism that causes Turner to feel so uncomfortable in his own skin.
This was one of Van Peebles’s early works and it does feel like it was made by a person who was eager to prove himself. He almost has too much to say and it would be impossible to miss the moments where he is trying to make a point. To be fair to him, it’s hard to subtly make the point that racism is bad and people love having the freedom to do whatever they want. He chooses to make these points forcefully and without concern for whether he comes across as heavy handed. This means that one is left with a film that lacks complexity and a couple of messages that seem unremarkable.
There are some drawbacks that come with Van Peebles’s overeagerness but there is also something thrilling about his willingness to experiment. He was making a film in a time when the French New Wave was setting the world on fire and revolutionising the language of cinema. The techniques employed by Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were gaining traction in America and even making their way into mainstream productions. You could see films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) trying to evoke the austere, technically precise beauty of Breathless (1960) and Hiroshima, mon amor (1959). The Thomas Crown Affair used flashy editing techniques in an effort to spice up an unremarkable story and enhance the devastating impact of Faye Dunaway’s withering looks. Unsurprisingly, it made a pile of cash but did very little to challenge the expectations of audience members.
Van Peebles didn’t want to make a piece of glossy trash and he uses double exposure and double dolly shots to plunge you into the atmosphere of this time period and location. There are long, drawn out scenes that seem to exist to acknowledge the quiet tension between Miriam’s wilful unknowability and Turner’s desperation. When they first dance together, Van Peebles chooses to alternate between shots of the two of them crammed into tight, uncomfortable spaces and moments where they dance in an uninhibited manner while the camera pans back and forwards between them. This is not remarkable in itself but Van Peebles cuts between these different shots at an alarming rate. He doesn’t wait for the audience to pick up on what mood the characters are in and often places brief snippets of dialogue over shots of the characters dancing.
You get a fragmented image of their first night together and you are put in the headspace of a person who has stayed out late and is trying to piece together what happened last night. Your memories don’t often walk you through your experiences in chronological order and Van Peebles accurately hits on the disquieting feeling of having a positive memory soured in your mind as you further reflect on it. The music slowly drowns out as the memory of their dance comes to a close and shots of Miriam’s nervous, delicate features take precedent over shots of her wiggling derriere. It’s a surprising progression and it gives the disjointed structure a real purpose.
There are many cases where Van Peebles makes inspired choices and they end up paying big dividends. However, I won’t deny that there are times when it feels like he was too untethered and couldn’t fully get his arms around some of the ideas and techniques he was playing around with. I don’t mind the concept of Turner’s fractured personality being represented through scenes where the two sides of his personality argue with one another. In execution, it feels like Van Peebles is laying it on too thick. Baird was no great actor and it is painful to watch him robotically delivering his dialogue in those scenes. It is also difficult to accept the idea that the average soldier would deliver the overwritten soliloquies that Van Peebles has put together. His staging of these scenes only makes matters worse, as he forces Baird to stand before a mirror and literally communicate with himself. You can see what he was going for here but it comes across as clunky.
It is a shame that Van Peebles didn’t come out with a slightly more refined, polished piece of work. With a few more great scenes, this could have been one of those hidden gems that was more than just a curiosity piece. As it is, it still feels like one of those fascinating experiments that occasionally yields positive results. Sometimes that’s enough to make a film worthy of your time. There are so many war dramas that display only a fraction of the creativity and spirit that are in this lovingly restored relic of the 1960s.