Jim Hemphill’s personal video recommendations: “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films”, Love and Basketball and Masquerade

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in Love and basketball

When screenwriter, director, producer, actor, novelist, stock option trader, playwright, musician, newspaper columnist and gallery owner Melvin Van Peebles died last week at the age of 89, he left behind the one of the most varied and entertaining works of all American arts and letters (and French, thanks to its Parisian detour in the 1960s). He is best known for his groundbreaking 1971 feature film Sweet Sweetback song Baadasssss, but this classic, as important as it is as a point of reference and inspiration for generations of independent filmmakers, only touches the genius and daring of Van Peebles. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection has published an outstanding introduction to Van Peebles’ career, the Melvin Van Peebles: The Essential Movies Blu-ray collection. The box contains Soft, of course, but also the exquisite and influential debut of Van Peebles in 1967 The story of a three-day pass, the fearless satire of 1970 Watermelon man (a director’s foray into the making of major Hollywood studios) and the 1972 musical Don’t play us dear. There are also numerous richly informative and enlightening interviews with Van Peebles, his collaborators and academics, as well as vintage media coverage of his releases and the formidable 2005 documentary by Joe Angio. How to eat your watermelon in White Company (and enjoy it). Best bonus of all is the first Blu-ray from the spectacularly entertaining 2003 film by Melvin’s son, Mario. Baadasssss!, a hilarious and moving tale of the making of Soft in which Mario plays his father; it’s not just a great biopic, but one of the best indie euphoria and heartbreak movies I’ve ever seen. Taken together, all of these films and extras present Melvin Van Peebles as a totally unique artist whose mode of expression was not film, music, writing or performance art but all of the above; his whole life, taken in its entirety and comprising both his work and his personal dramas, has been an 89-year-old masterpiece.

Criterion has also released new Blu-ray and DVD editions of Gina Prince-Bythewood. Love and basketball (2000), one of the most confident and satisfying directorial debuts of his time and a masterclass in both narrative construction and execution of compelling sports sequences. The story of two childhood friends (both fantastic Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps) who dream of becoming professional athletes as they fall in love with each other, Love and basketball is an extraordinary balance between not only realism and artifice – Prince-Bythewood manages to make its two protagonists quite comparable but iconic at the same time – but between the love story and the sports film, the drama family ensemble and intimate and lonely character study, and indie Edge and mainstream romantic blossoming. The whole movie is about characters struggling to prioritize, but Prince-Bythewood shows none of their confusion or uncertainty; her writing and directing is extremely confident, fully integrating the multitude of aspects she faces so that basketball games express and deepen character and dramatic scenes inform and invigorate athletic action. Prince-Bythewood referred to Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron When Harry meets Sally like an influence, and like this movie Love and basketball is impeccable in its pace and deeply observant in its ideas – few films can claim to be so sophisticated at forging the complicated and winding path of romance between two close friends with independent lives. Clever, funny, and utterly original, this is the kind of large-scale personal movie (Prince-Bythewood was working at the perfect intersection between independent freedom and studio resources when she teamed up with New Line and producer Spike. Lee to make the film) which has become more and more rare, and therefore more and more valuable. The Criterion Edition takes the excellent commentary tracks from New Line’s original DVD release and adds some great new extras, including documentaries on the production and editing of the film.

My last recommendation this week is Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray from the 1988 erotic thriller Masquerade, a film equally impressive in its structural role as a high thread as Love and basketball, although with very different intentions and very different purposes. The film was written by Dick Wolf two years before he became the king of procedural television with Law and order, and it is a wonder of winding delights; the story of a working class guy (Rob Lowe) involved in an affair with a married woman (Kim Cattrall) as he falls in love (or is he?) it’s an unpredictable and hypnotic film noir that would have made the creators of Double indemnity and Out of the past proud. Like that of Lawrence Kasdan Body heat, he revitalizes and reinvents the film noir of the 1980s, infusing tradition with an eroticism subtly linked to materialistic excesses and to the desires of the characters. Wolf’s script deserves serious study given its infallible instinct for knowing how much to reveal to audiences and when, as well as its skillful balance of theme, character, and plot; The film is a tight hour and a half, but its economy of dialogue and gesture allows Wolf to pack enough pleasures for a much longer film. The script is well served by director Bob Swaim, who stages the complicated double and triple crosses with clarity and elegance, finding one expressive visual metaphor after another to convey the inner impulses of his characters; it also features prominent works by Swaim collaborators, in particular cinematographer David Watkin and composer John Barry. Watkin and Barry both worked on Sydney Pollack’s Outside of Africa a few years before Masquerade, and their romantic and radical sensibility offers a nice counterpoint to the mercenary attitudes to Masquerade‘s center. The Kino Blu-ray features an audio commentary from Swaim in which he provides insight into his approach as well as entertaining production anecdotes, providing valuable context for a film ready to be rediscovered.

Jim Hemphill is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and film historian. Its website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.


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