The signature shot and its creator

'The Story of a Three-Day Pass'

'The Story of a Three-Day Pass' (April 18, 2013)

You know the shot.

Spike Lee has made it his signature visual flourish: the moment when a character (sometimes two, though usually one, isolated in a state of transcendence) appears to be floating through a room or down a sidewalk, reckoning with his or her fate. Lost in an interior fog, eyes wide open. Part of the scene but, because of the aggressively stylized camera move, apart from it, moving as if on an unseen conveyor belt.

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, near the end of his short life, floating down the sidewalk, unblinking, unmoved. Except of course he is moving, in a dreamlike frame.

Every shot we know from the movies derives in some way from a viewpoint someone else imagined first.

Watching Melvin Van Peebles' 1967 debut feature "The Story of a Three-Day Pass," also known as "La Permission," there it is. It hits you like a ton of rolling bricks. The shot! That shot. The shot. In the film, Harry Baird plays Van Peebles' protagonist, Turner, the U.S. Army soldier stationed in France. He has been given a promotion because, as his alter ego in the bathroom mirror tells him, the captain trusts "a good Negro, obedient, cheerful — and frightened." Too frightened, he says, in a needling way, "to go out with a white girl."

Turner visits a jazz club in Paris, and as he enters the club, things change. His guard is never let down, not in this white man's army, but here he becomes someone else, someone fully playing a role, in sunglasses, more image than man. And he is no longer walking. He is gliding as if on a dolly track along with the camera.

This is the shot Spike Lee and a lot of other filmmakers saw and either loved, or hated, or resisted, or admired. There's a great old tune by Duke Ellington in his Cotton Club Orchestra days called "The Dicty Glide." The Ellington tune's name fits that shot like a glove.

Made in France in 1967, released a year later in the United States, "The Story of a Three-Day Pass" returns to Chicago for a one-time Friday screening at Northwestern University's Block Cinema. Van Peebles will be there, as will NU associate professor Thomas Bradshaw. It's a free screening co-sponsored by the Chicago International Music & Movies Festival. Closer to CIMMfest's home bases in the Logan Square neighborhood, there's a lot of Van Peebles happening this weekend, celebrating his films as well as his music.

A versatile filmmaker, writer and composer, Van Peebles is better known for the two films that followed "The Story of a Three-Day Pass." "Watermelon Man" (1970) and "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). Without those two, no blaxploitation genre. And, maybe, no Spike Lee. And certainly a very different Quentin Tarantino.

In "Three-Day Pass" Van Peebles is trying a little of everything: nervous jump cuts popularized by the French New Wave and by, among others, Richard Lester. The relationship between Baird's character and the Parisian shopgirl played by Nicole Berger isn't played for easy charm. Their laughter often comes with a forced, hollow ring of discomfort. In her mind's eye, the shopgirl imagines racially charged "jungle" imagery of savages taking her away. In Turner's, he becomes a French courtier on horseback.

The dicty-glide shot introducing Turner into the club provides a safe haven. It looks cool, almost comically so. But it's also a confining image, one that says: This man, or rather the times in which he lives, has a ways to go before he can walk in on his own two feet and hold his ground and feel at home.

For more information on the "Melvin Van Peebles Baadasssss Awards Show," featuring Van Peebles live accompanied by wid Laxative, 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., go to cimmfest.org. Also see the Tribune's On the Town interview with Van Peebles in today's paper.

"The Story of a Three-Day Pass," 7 p.m. Friday, Block Cinema, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University; blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/view/cinema.

mjphillips@tribune.com |Twitter @phillipstribune

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